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

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

Al Switzler

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

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Change anything! Use skillpower over willpower by Al Switzler at TEDxFremont



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.

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?”

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?

So, your source one: personal motivation. Am I motivated when I go to the ranch? Yes, you want to. Do I really want to? Yes, you really want to! Well, then come pull on my side.

And your source two, personal ability. Will I learn new skills and knowledge when I’m there? You bet! And what am I going to do?  Skill power!

Skill power. All right, come pull on my side.

Now before I get to social pressure, let me make a little distinction for you that’s useful. We find that there is a difference between friends and accomplices. Friends are someone who helps you; accomplices are someone who helps you get in trouble. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

But will there be friends at the ranch? So, your social motivation. Friend, right? What will you do for me? I will cheer you on and encourage you. And what will you do? I will support you, I will encourage you to move forward, keep focused and keep on track.

Thank you so much. Come pull on my side.

And your social ability. I am, call me coach. Call you coach! What are you going to do for me? Give you the skills, give you feedback, and keep you motivated. Come pull on my side.

And your source five. You’re the rewards and incentives. Chi-ching! Oooohh… And does that stuff work? You’d be amazed of the power of colored ribbons and gold stars. Come pull on my side.

Now, your source six, your structural ability, right? How does that work? Control your space. You’re going to help me control my space. What will you do? Make your good behavior easy, and your bad behavior hard.

OK, let me test you. Where’s the ice-cream? There is no ice-cream. We have carrots. OK, come pull on my side.

When I go to the ranch, you look at their success rate and there’s not accomplices in there, there’s not extra calories, not food. They’ve made all the things easy, so I’m motivated and able to do the right behaviors.

But that’s not the lesson. There is a lesson to learn here. Because I’ve subjected myself to this, I maybe haven’t become an agent. So when I go home and I have to go home, what would you predict?

So when I go home, am I still motivated? Absolutely! You want to! Come on willpower, pull on my side.

Do I have skills and knowledge still? Not so fast, it’s hard to stay current. Well, then pull on that side.

Now when I go home I’m going to meet some friends and accomplices. ‘I’m your friend, let’s go celebrate, let’s go to the home town buffet’. Whowhow!

‘I’ve baked you a cake! Come on, let’s get a beer too!’

Now pull on that side.

So what about these incentive and rewards? ‘No, those are for kids!’

Naah, you keep pulling on this side.

And where is the ice-cream? ‘It’s right here in the freezer, finish the whole carton!’

Oh dear!

So here I am, me and willpower pulling…what do you think is going to happen? I’m making light of this a little bit. But recidivism and relapse, and being subject instead of agent, that’s a big part of the problem. We can get into the willpower trap, we can become out-numbered. We need to take control of the things that control us so we can control our behavior.

Thank you very much.

So, the second difference we saw between those who succeeded and those who didn’t is that, the ones who succeeded were more scientific. They just weren’t the subject, they were the subject and the scientist. We learned that they did a couple of things. The number one is they never got it right the first time. When they created a plan, they did it in a more scientific trial and error basis. They were able to analyze and adjust.

The second thing is that it was homegrown. They didn’t just take someone advice or perfect plan and put it into their plan. What they did is that they customized it, they personalized it. They said, how can I make this so that it applies to me and my goals, and my strengths, and my weaknesses, to my environment? When they did that, they were more likely to succeed.

Now we found that there are four steps to that, I want to share those quickly each of those. I want to do the first two together: Identify your crucial moments and create your vital behaviors. Now, this is good news.

On almost all of our bad behaviors, including addictions, we don’t have 24/7 temptations. There are certain times, places, and people that put us most at risk. That’s particularly true with weight loss, and weight gain. We’re not tempted all the time; I’ve got breakfast down pretty well, and I’ve got lunch; and I don’t snack during the day. But let me tell you when I’m most tempted. After eight o’clock at night, when I start writing, and reading, and thinking, I find that I’m way more creative and productive at about a half peanut-butter sandwich a page.

Second is that for years I’d only do one sugar drink a day. About 80 ounces. And the third one is that when I really liked something, I would load it up. I would go to seconds, maybe thirds.

So, my crucial moments are when I’m most tempted to not follow my plan, to engage in my bad behavior. But if crucial moments tell when we are at risk, vital behaviors tell us what to do, when we are at risk. And my vital behaviors are no sugar drinks. When I’m trying to lose weight, get fit, no sugar drinks, no unhealthy snacks. Only one small serving per day. That doesn’t work for everybody, but that’s for me.

Now vital behavior is what we do. Not all behaviors are the same. The vital behaviors are the ones connected to the result and carry a lot of other behaviors with it.

So, first step that everybody does: they set a goal. Find your crucial moments, personalize it, and find the behaviors you need to do at that moment. And then, this is what really separates, because the people who really succeed engage all six sources of influence.

Now I want to share these six sources of influences. You can see our six sources model there. Motivation and ability is the backbone. Do I want to do it, and can I do it? Will I find it worthwhile, if I do it at three levels — Personal, me alone. Social, all the people around me. And structural, all the elements, the things, without the people.

I want to share the stories of Sharman, AJ, and Tim. These are changers, who all marshaled overwhelming influence for their overwhelming problems. All of them had six sources of influences, and I’m only going to share one in each of these categories. Can you really get personal motivation? Can you pass the commitment test? Let me tell you about Sharman. Sharman weighed about 280 pounds. She was embarrassed. She would struggle and struggle, and almost get helpless. But then she said: “No, I’m going to find the reasons why I really want to change.” And she wrote it on a 3×5 card, and she didn’t commit to stick to her diet, stick to her plan. What she said was: “Before I break my plan, I’m going to thoughtfully and slowly read my card.” This is Sharman’s 3×5 card: ‘I’d like to feel healthier. I’d like to like the way I look in the mirror. I’d like to have more physical stamina. I’d like to model healthy living for my grandchildren. I’d like my husband to be proud of how I look.’

And when we interviewed her, and she was reading her card, you could hear the quivering in her voice. She said: “I’d like my life choices to be pleasing to the Lord.” This isn’t your card, this is Sharman’s card. When she was at lunch, and they were celebrating someone’s birthday, and she said: I’m going to have that cheesecake or not, she would take her card out privately, and thoughtfully, and carefully read it. And very often it caused her to make the right choice.

Here is AJ. AJ lives in Texas and she is a nurse. The question is: do you have the emotional, personal, mental, or physical skills you need to make those vital behaviors easier? Her enlightened moment was when she was on the first floor in the hospital. She got a call to come resuscitate someone on the eighth floor, in one of those “code blue”. She can’t use the elevator so she’s going up the stairs. And on the third floor she has to sit because she is a smoker. She’s 5’3” and weighs 213lb. And she sits there, as she says: “Gasping for breath, and burning with shame!” She said: “I need to quit smoking; and I need to lose weight.” And when she started saying: “What is getting in the way of my crucial moment?” She had a plan to quit smoking, but the skill she had to learn was to have the though conversation with her dad. She said: “I’m a Daddy’s girl. But when I go and visit with Dad, I’m in his house, I’m with the smoke, he offers me a cigarette, she said I succumbed every time, I had to talk to him, it was one of the toughest skills that I learned.”

AJ had to turn accomplices into friends. This is good news. It’s not that hard to turn many accomplices into friends and add one or two more new friends. And it provides the social motivation and support you need to do the behaviors that count. AJ is like many people when they’re trying to quit smoking, previously, there are places where people go for a smoking breaks, so they go to lunch with the same people. And she had to go to them and say: “Will you help me? I’m not going to go out on break. Will you not invite me, will you not make fun of me when I don’t? Can we find other ways to meet and interact so that you can help me quit smoking?”

She also had to invert the economy. She had to get the rewards that were helping her. In our society, if you really look at it, for example, a lot of things that are fat and bad for you are cheap. And the things that are good for you cost more money. You’ve got to find ways to help the incentives be useful to you.

AJ said: “I am so cheap. Every time I lost some weight enough to get a different size of clothing, I would box all my old clothes and give it to goodwill!” And then when I had to reach for this or reach for that or make the decision, she would say: “Not me! Because I’m not going to buy large fat clothes!” She made the bad behavior expensive, and the good behavior cheaper.

Here is Tim. Tim kind of jokes: “Losing weight is easy. In the last 20 years, I’ve lost 400 lb and gained 440.” It wasn’t such a joke when he had heart problems. And he said: “For the first time in my life, I had to get serious, I had to create a complete plan. I had to marshall enough of these influences.” He said: “It’s harder to see our environment sometimes.” But he said: “I need to take control of my space, make the good things easy, and the bad things hard.”

The first thing he did is what many people need to do. The first step of a diet is to diet your house! Get rid of the ice-cream and the chips. Make it so that if you want to make that choice you have to get into your car and drive. And during those moments we found that this works for all addictions. If you can refocus your behaviors, if you cannot succumb to the urge for three or four minutes, and you can get back to wanting to do your own behavior.

So that’s the message. That’s the lesson we learn from people who can control their own behaviors and the ones that can’t. Engage all six sources of influence. I can only control my behaviors, if I can control the things that control me.

Let me talk to you about turning a bad day into good data.

Here’s AJ. She said ‘I was a poster child for the yo-yo diet’. Here is before and after she lost 107 pounds; she said: “No plan is a plan unless you know how you’re going to deal with setbacks. And not have a plan to be resilient.”

Sharman said: “I made a plan to call my sister. And when I fell off the wagon, I’d call my sister and she’d say: “Why did you do it? What was the new crucial moment? Why were you tempted? Were your influences not enough?” And she said, ‘I’d analyze it and adjust’. And when she did that, she could become resilient.

You’ve heard that statement, “I wish I knew then what I know now?”

I wish I knew then what I know now so I could have helped my mother. Because when my mother took one cigarette after 3 years of not smoking. One day, she would turn into a bad decade. Because she didn’t have the skills to turn a bad day into a good data.

So that’s the message I want to leave. We can control our own behaviors, we can get a lot better: if we escape the willpower trap, if we marshall enough influence to make overwhelming problems less overwhelming. If we do that, we can increase our agency. We can come to know that if we work at it, we can change anything.

Thank you very much.


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