The fault lies not in us but in all those other forces…

As anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or stop procrastinating knows- our best intentions often go astray.  That’s why we often take two steps forward and one (or more) steps back.  Yesterday, I heard a PBS RadioLab segment entitled “Help!” What do you do when your own worst enemy is you?” which noted that a key to the problem is our desired outcome relates to our future state whereas the temptation is in the present.  “Now” usually has more power over us than “later”.  They interviewed people who had overcome their undesireable habits (like smoking) by bringing the future into the present, creating short term punishments.  One woman who had been active in helping bring about Civil Rights for blacks in her youth, kicked her lifelong smoking addiction by swearing to donate  $5000 to the Ku Klux Klan if she ever smoked again. She said the thought of having to give money to that group was such a powerful deterrent that she was able to quit cold turkey.  In Russia, there’s a doctor who offers to subcutaneously insert a capsule into people desperate to overcome their drinking problem.  Should they take a drink, the capsule releases a drug that makes them feel deathly ill.  In order to make sure they know what they’re in for, the doctor administers a tiny dose so they get to see just what the consequences will be if they drink.   The patient determines how long the capsule remains active (from months to years) to how long the symptoms will last (from hours to weeks). Talk about scaring yourself sober.

Earlier in the week, I had attended a TEDxBayArea talk by Joseph Grenny, co-author of the newly released Change Anything.  The book deals with the same issue:  how to overcome our own resistance to change- even when it’s a change we choose to make.  The basic premise is that it’s not lack of willpower but, rather, a confluence of personal, social and structural forces that “outnumber” us- keeping us doing what we’ve been doing.   Based on the research behind the book, Grenny described 3 factors that were common to people who successfully created the desired change.  First- bringing the the costs/rewards into the now.  That’s basically what the smoker in the RadioLab segment did.  The second was treating yourself like a third party.  The Russian solution to stop drinking was, in a way, making yourself a third party since the capsule would activate on its own in the case of drinking.  The third factor was the ability of people who succeeded at changing to turn “bad days into good data”.  No example of that in the radio segment.

Why am I interested in all this?  Personally- I have a few behaviors I’d like to change (like procrastinating on writing my book).  The second is to be better able to support people struggling to overcome their risk-aversion or fear of failure in order to free their personal creative genius.

If you are struggling to change a behavior- how can you bring the rewards or punishments forward?  What would it mean to treat yourself like a 3rd party?  Who might be able to help you?