As the new year approaches, we often consider how our lives could be different. Unfortunately, as many of us have experienced, those well-intentioned ideas rarely serve to change anything, especially our sense of being able to follow through on our resolutions! As Patterson, et. al., discuss in Change Anything: the New Science of Personal Success, change doesn’t happen by accident. Just as we structured our lives to succeed during medical school with a quiet place to study, friends who understood our time demands, and probably lots of coffee, we should consider what will help us have success in other changes we want to make.
Patterson’s group gave two groups of children $40 to exchange for candy or toys or to save for something special. Each group was exposed to a different set of circumstances as they made their decision. The first group, exposed to influences such as people who encouraged them to buy the candy and toys, spent 68% of their earnings. The second group spent only 15%. The researchers found that both motivation and ability played a role in the children’s spending patterns, and they defined six sources of influence that can make or break our attempts to change:
Personal motivation: Clearly formulate your motivation for seeking your goal—how will your life be different once you achieve this? Each time you have an impulse to give up on your plan, reconnect with your motivation. Place visual cues of your goal in locations where you will see them.
Personal ability: Changing old ways of doing things always requires learning new skills. If you want to become more organized, perhaps a class on using your new electronic calendar system might be useful. If your goal is to save for a vacation, a discussion with your investment counselor may help identify an appropriate savings vehicle.
Social motivation: As Patterson says, “Bad habits are almost always a social disease.” Get your friends, colleagues and family on your side. Tell them what you intend to do and why and ask for their support and encouragement as you move toward your goal.
Social ability: Changing something that has been a habit is easier when we get help—a trainer, coach, or mentor can be invaluable as you establish a new way of doing things.
Structural motivation: Create a set of shortterm goals with tangible rewards as you achieve them and penalties if you fall short. Perhaps you treat yourself to a movie once you’ve read the journals that have been sitting on your desk, or you have to donate $100 to a charity that supports a cause you abhor if you don’t.
Structural ability: Adjust your environment to make it easier for you to succeed. If you want to exercise regularly, join a gym that’s on your way home from work or put exercise equipment in front of the TV or in an area you pass by often.
Change is not easy—for anyone. Many people throw up their hands as they fail and lament, “I guess I just don’t have much willpower.” But as Patterson’s group clearly proves, willpower is not all it’s cracked up to be. By structuring the six sources of influence to support your change efforts, you might find yourself successful in changing almost anything.