Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Mine is a story of conflicting priorities and unmade decisions. My bad habits at home support my bad habits at work, and these habits are all supported by behavior, social influences, and environmental infrastructure that need to change. When I try to pick one thing to work on, I find several others that undermine my efforts.
For example, we’re trying to remodel our kitchen but we ran out of money so we can’t hire someone to finish it. We eat out too often because our kitchen is torn apart and our house is always cluttered, but we don’t have time to exercise or clean because we’re too busy with work and school activities. We have very few friends because we don’t want to invite people to our house and we’re too busy juggling everything else. How do I know where to start when it seems that everything I’d like to change is interdependent or influenced by all the other things I’d like to change?
Where to Start
Dear Where to Start,
I understand your concern. It reminds me of that old saying that tells us, “life comes at you fast.” Each little concern or unfinished bit of life can have a ripple effect, not only on our own life, but also on the lives of loved ones and friends. When we stop long enough to assess our circumstances, we conclude—as you did—that “mine is a story of conflicting priorities and unmade decisions.”
I’d like to talk to you like I’m your best friend. This means I care about you and I want to help you solve these issues. I’m going to be as honest as I can but I know I can’t make these changes for you. If I were your best friend, I’d be able to ask questions that would help us understand the real issues. Without being able to ask those questions I may miss the mark a bit, and I hope you and the tens of thousands of onlookers (no pressure) will cut me some slack.
I’ll start with a word you used in the first sentence of your question: “story.” We’ve been teaching people to master their clever stories for years. A clever story is what we tell ourselves to justify our own behaviors. So, as your best friend, I’m asking what stories you’re telling yourself that make it difficult for you to be as effective as you want to be? Here are some possible stories I see.
Problem: Your kitchen is in the middle of an unfinished remodel.
Story: You eat out too often because of the remodel.
Option: There are many ways to cook at home with only a fridge and a microwave. You and your family need to make the decision to eat at home.
Problem: You think your house is messy.
Story: You are too busy or tired to clean.
Option: For years, I tried to teach my children about the magic of five minutes. At the end of the day, after you’ve readied yourself for bed, take five minutes to straighten the bathroom, bedroom, and closet. Before you go to work, clean up the little mess you made getting ready. After any meal, clean up the mess and wash the dishes. In your case, you may want to set the foundation by having a magic half-day or full-day. Take a Saturday, remind everyone of the benefits of having a clean house, and then clean up. Creating a plan for regular cleaning takes away a lot of other problems.
Problem: You don’t have enough friends.
Story: You don’t invite people to your house because of the remodel and because you’re too busy juggling work and school activities.
Option: Invite others to do things outside of the house. There are many inexpensive activities you can do outside such as hikes, picnics, and so forth. You are certainly correct that a key step to making friends is initiating invitations, but you needn’t stop inviting people because of your house or your schedule.
Now remember, this advice is coming from your distant best friend. I may be missing the mark. I may cause you to counter every suggestion with a “yeah, but.” However, remember that clever stories are called clever because they are tricky. They are hard to see, they can morph quickly and they can call in more of their clever clan in nanoseconds. When we fall short of the results we want, or when we start feeling down and hopeless, we need to assess what we honestly have and what we really want.
You might need a friend to help you do this. What you don’t want at times of assessment and planning are accomplices. Remember, a friend is someone who helps us; an accomplice is someone who helps us get and/or stay in trouble. Accomplices help us spin clever stories; friends help us see our stories and find options out of them.
It’s clear from your question that you have an understanding of the six sources of influence. I agree that you have many sources of influence affecting your behaviors, and thus the results you are getting in your life. You do have—as we all have—some bad behaviors and unmade decisions, but you don’t have to stay there. I advise you to find the vital behaviors that will help you get what you really want and need. For example, your vital behaviors might include:
1. Cleaning the house every Saturday morning.
2. Practicing the magic five minutes at bedtime, before work, and after each meal.
3. Inviting a friend for an affordable outing each Friday night.
After you identify your vital behaviors, ask yourself, “How can I marshal enough influence to make sure I do these behaviors?” Then, ask the following questions to identify tactics in each of the six sources:
Source 1: Love What You Hate — Can you articulate the positive benefits you would get from changing your behavior?
Source 2: Do What You Can’t — Can you improve your organizing and cleaning skills? Can you learn about inexpensive activities to do with friends?
Sources 3 and 4: Turn Accomplices into Friends — Can you get buy-in from the people you live with? Can you ask a friend to hold you accountable to your clever stories or to help you analyze and adjust when your plan isn’t working?
Source 5: Invert the Economy — Can you identify an affordable reward that would be meaningful to you if you stick to your plan for a month? Can you set up a scorecard and report your performance to a coach or mentor?
Source 6: Control Your Space — Can you put up cues and reminders? In short, what can you do to change your surroundings and get the numbers in your favor?
Notice that I have said nothing about finishing the kitchen. Of course, it would be wonderful to complete this project, but it need not stand in the way of achieving many of the goals that are important to you. Often, we hold back in achieving our goals because we tell ourselves a clever story that justifies all the reasons we simply can’t succeed. I believe your kitchen remodel has become your Achilles heel to accomplishing other achievable goals like cleanliness and friendship. It’s time to change your story and start isolating one behavior challenge from the next.
As a friend, I’ve tried to give you a starting point. Begin by looking at the stories that affect your decisions. From that process, options will emerge. Then identify the vital behaviors that will get you to your desired goals, and marshal enough influence that you will be motivated and enabled to do the behaviors. Start small and then aim bigger. In that way, we are more likely to overwhelm our problems rather than simply be overwhelmed.