Why Willpower Wasn’t Enough

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A few months ago, I gave a speech on personal change based on the research in my latest bestseller Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. At the end of my presentation, a fellow approached me and said, “You could use this on yourself, couldn’t you?” He then poked me in my rather large stomach and laughed.

In short, “Physician, heal thyself.”

So, I decided it was time to put the principles in Change Anything to work on myself. Sixty pounds lighter, I can now say with great personal resolve that if you understand the principles behind personal influence, you can change anything. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Escape the willpower trap

The most common mistake we make when trying to change our unhealthy habits is to assume that if we just apply enough willpower, we can change.

My co-authors and I studied 5,000 people working to overcome personal challenges and found that willpower alone rarely helps us overcome bad habits. It turns out there are actually six sources of influence that shape our choices. According to our research, those who apply all six sources of influence in combination are ten times more likely to change.

Create six sources of influence

I began my transition from relying on willpower to harnessing the sources of influence by creating a personal motivation statement. This statement reminded me why I wanted to get healthy. When I was tempted to eat unhealthy foods or slack off in my exercise regime, I thought about my grandchildren and how I wanted to be healthy so I could spend time with them for years to come.

Second, I had to learn the skills I lacked. It turned out I knew far less about nutrition and exercise than I thought. So I became a student of food preparation and exercise methods.

Third, I moved to the social domain. I transformed accomplices into friends by asking those who tempted me with snacks or desserts to cease and desist. I even asked them to encourage me when I made healthy choices.

Fourth, I worked with a personal trainer who taught me how to both exercise and prepare healthy foods.

Next, I inverted the existing economy. I placed money in an envelope, gave it to a friend, and told him to mail the money to an organization I despised every time I missed a weekly goal. That helped keep me on track!

And finally, I took control of the space around me. Brian Wansink from Cornell University, found that people eat 92% of whatever is on their plate—regardless of how big it is. The difference between 12-inch and 9-inch plates totals 33% more calories! I decided to put my kitchen on a diet by trading out my large plates and bowls for smaller ones.

Be the scientist and the subject

Nobody has designed a change program that perfectly suits your needs, temperament and circumstances. Instead of embracing an off-the-shelf program, start by studying you and your weak moments. Successful changers turn bad days into good data by learning from their setbacks and adjusting accordingly so their plan evolves in a deliberate direction on the path to success.

I finally experienced success when I quit relying on my willpower alone to change me and instead created a tailored, multifaceted plan with strategies in each of the six sources of influence.

Photo by Kyle May