Al Switzler: Change Anything! Use Skillpower Over Willpower at TEDxFremont (Transcript)

Full transcript of VitalSmarts cofounder, Al Switzler’s TEDx Talk: Change Anything! Use Skillpower Over Willpower at TEDxFremont conference.

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Al Switzler – Cofounder, VitalSmarts

My colleagues and I have been studying behavior change for over 30 years. We’ve been looking for those crucial behaviors that help individuals improve the quality of their relationships and the results in their life at work and at home.

Now sometime when you do research, it’s not just the answers that are hardest. It’s the questions, the problem, that’s hard to see. But no this one.

When it comes to personal habits, it’s really easy to see the problem. There are hundreds of millions of people who are sicker and sadder than they want to be or need to be because they can’t control their own behavior. What’s standing between them and their health and happiness, between them and their dreams and aspirations, is their own behavior. And they don’t want it that way. Nobody wants it that way.

But they have this huge change problem. They’re part of a huge change problem. They know they should change, they want to change, but they don’t change. My mother was part of that. Because this research is not just scientific. This research is personal, I think for all of us.

My mother died five years ago of lung cancer. She started smoking in the orphanage when she was 14. She was pregnant with me when she was 16. She married when I was nine. And my dad, my step-dad, her husband died four years later when she was pregnant with her fourth child.

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During all this time, the stresses, being a single mother, she struggled with smoking. She tried to quit, she would quit, and she’d start again. Just time after time. And the tragedy of this is not her death. The tragedy of this was that she wanted to quit, she knew she should quit, and she didn’t quit. And I suffered decades of that helpless, hopeless giving up.

But I want to share with you a study that we’ve done that I think helps give us all more hope.

We did a research study where we had 5,000 people that had change attempts. Of those change attempts, 4,400 of them were failures. That’s alright because you can learn a lot about success by studying failure. 600 of them had taken on a persistent resistant problem of personal change, they had hard metrics to show that they had achieved success, and they’d have sustained it for three or more years. I want to share with you what we’ve learned: at least two major differences.

Clearly the ones who succeeded had agency, the capacity to control their own behavior. And those who didn’t, didn’t.

I want to talk to you about one of the differences, because one of the differences is how they view and use willpower. The people who fail fall into the willpower trap. And the willpower trap is the faulty assumption that if I failed, it’s because I just wasn’t fully committed. I didn’t care enough, I had no willpower. Or that willpower enough can get me through.

Now I want to use a little metaphor with a rope pulling to make this point. If we use enough heroic effort, if we have enough willpower, we can make change. But the forces pulling against us will cause that to be temporary. These forces, we’ve named six sources of influences, one, two, three, four, five, and six. One and two are personal motivational ability, “Do I want to? Can I do it?”

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Sources three and four are the peer pressure, the social pressure that’s all around us. And sources five and six are the structural motivation, like incentives and rewards, or the environment itself.

See, the problem is not that we’re weak, the problem is we are blind and outnumbered. The problem is that we don’t have a willpower problem, we have a math problem. If we can control the sources that control us, we are more likely to control our own behavior. And I’d like to give a live demonstration of that.

Let’s say that I wanted to lose some weight. Let’s say that I won a lottery, I get to go on a TV show, I get to go to “the ranch”. Or let’s say I use some of my money and I sign up at the farm. Or I make myself subject to a large program. Where now I’m subject, and pretty much, they’re all the same, right? They’re going to say, you need to eat better, eat less and exercise more. What will we predict if we kind of analyze what’s going to happen at the ranch?

So, when I go to the ranch, do you think that they are going to have enough influence to make sure I’m successful? Well, let’s ask that a little bit. All right?