Once-and-for-All Change

10:23AM Jul 06, 2011
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By Ron McMillan

Skill and strategy are more important than fortitude.

In farm transitions, change is inevitable. Yet so many of us fail when trying to make significant changes in life because we’re stuck in the willpower trap. This is the false and tragic assumption that the key to overcoming hurtful behavior and developing new habits is having the strength—the willpower—to change. When we slip up despite our best efforts to change, we assume we are weak, deficient or just didn’t want to change badly enough.

This way of thinking is the start of a vicious cycle. After one failed attempt, we eventually get up the gumption to try again, only to slip a second time. After a few cycles, we give up on our dreams and, worse, we give up on ourselves.

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Research on change. At the Change Anything Labs in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, my co-authors and I studied the problem of personal change. We combined 50 years of the best social science research with our own study of 5,000 people attempting to overcome personal challenges, such as getting out of debt, losing weight or beating an addiction.

We learned a lot from successful individuals about how to change, and we also learned about what not to do from those who failed.

Through our research, we’ve created a science of personal success and identified three critical change strategies: identify crucial moments; create vital behaviors; and control your environment. People who use the new science of personal success are 10 times more likely to succeed than those who simply rely on willpower.

Meet Sue. Let’s apply these strategies to Sue, who has been unsuccessful in her efforts to quit smoking. When Sue drives around the farm and has a craving, she looks at the pack of cigarettes on her dashboard and chants aloud, "I think I can quit!" This is the willpower approach. A more effective option is to create a multifaceted behavior change plan using the new science of personal success.

As Sue develops her behavior change plan, she considers her crucial moments. She realizes she is most likely to smoke as she drives her truck from place to place. Her other crucial moment is when she and her foreman review the day’s work; they typically share a smoke while talking.

Having identified her most crucial moments, Sue comes up with her vital behaviors. She decides she will never allow cigarettes in her truck. By controlling her environment, she can resist the temptation. She will also keep a bag of salted sunflower seeds in her console.

Sue will talk to her foreman, share her plan and ask him for his support. He can help by never offering or asking her for a smoke and refraining from smoking around her.

By changing her environment in the truck and converting her accomplice into a friend, Sue has dramatically improved her chances of success. This strategy does not rely on willpower for success.

Ron McMillan is the New York Times best-selling co-author of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, a speaker and a consultant. Contact him at [email protected] or visit www.changeanythingbook.com.

Three Change Strategies for Personal Success

Identify Crucial Moments: Individuals who identify and prepare for the few moments when they are most at risk of behaving poorly are more likely to change behavior.

Create Vital Behaviors: Those who establish rules in advance are more likely to overcome temptation and change their behavior when a crucial moment hits.

Control Your Environment: If you want to control your life, you have to take control of your surroundings. Make doing the good things easy and accessible, and make the bad things hard and inaccessible.