Change Anything QA

Blind and Outnumbered by Life

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  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

A 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.

Best wishes,


Change Anything QA

What Happened: How to Eliminate Sarcasm

This letter was received in response to a question Kerry Patterson answered in the June 22, 2011 Crucial Skills Newsletter titled, “How to Eliminate Sarcasm.”

Dear Kerry,

Your response to my question was very useful in helping me find the next steps I needed to take.

I shared your article with my wife and family and explained to them that I wanted to change. They recognized the behavior straight away and agreed these were exactly the type of responses they could expect from me—sometimes humorous but often hurtful sarcasm.

I invited them to continue calling me on that behavior each and every time they saw it. They entered their role with unexpected enthusiasm, and I ate from a humble pie dish as I started to learn new habits.

Having gotten buy-in from my most severe critics, I took the next step. I explained to my work colleagues that I exhibited this behavior, but I wanted to change and needed their help to do so. After some initial doubt as to my sincerity, they too entered into the spirit and have been open in their feedback.

Your advice in bringing everyone into the picture was instrumental in helping me along this path. I occasionally lapse into sarcastic behavior, but I have a group of folks around me more than willing to continue to help me. I sometimes forget, but others do not and I get that direct, non-punishing feedback I asked them to provide.


Editor’s Note: If you would like to share similar feedback about how the authors’ advice has helped you, please e-mail us at

Change Anything QA

How to Finally Get Out of Debt


David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.


Change AnythingQ Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently realized we aren’t out of debt because we really don’t want to pay all the money to make it happen! We have been on a debt payoff plan for years but never follow through because it’s so painful to pay our bills when it seems like we are just giving money away. It’s just too hard to catch up when we don’t even know what the balance is for because it has accumulated over several years. As a result, we lose steam after a few months, spend money on a nice night out or an evening entertaining friends, and get off track.

Can you share some tips to help us address our personal motivation and learn to “Love What We Hate”? Do you have any tips for motivating ourselves to get out of debt by turning it into a game we can win and enjoy playing?

Wanting Off the Hamster Wheel

A Dear Hamster,

What a frustrating and sad situation. Not only are you struggling financially, you are beating yourself up for your setbacks and failures. You’re blaming your character when you should blame your plan.

In our book Change Anything we describe your situation as “The Willpower Trap.” It happens when you over-rely on your willpower instead of employing all six sources of influence. Your willpower lets you down, you blame yourself, and you become discouraged and even less successful.

The way out of this trap is to involve all six sources of influence, not just those related to personal motivation. You specifically ask for ways to address your personal motivation—and I’ll get there—but that’s not where I’d like to start. Instead, I’ll begin with structural ability.

Structural Ability. If “a nice night out or an evening entertaining friends” is enough to throw you over the edge, then you’re living too close to the edge. I recommend you take a few steps back by lowering your fixed expenses. I know these are difficult steps to take, but they will do wonders to lower the pressure you’re feeling today.

Find ways to reduce regular monthly payments

  • Reduce your rent or mortgage. Consider renting out a room in your house, moving to a smaller apartment, or moving in with a friend or relative.
  • Reduce your transportation costs. Consider selling a car or trading in your current car for a less expensive car. Downsizing a car will save more than your car payments. It will reduce insurance, gas, and repairs.
  • Cancel non-critical services. Reduce monthly payments by cancelling non-critical services like cable TV, cell phone data plans, and magazine or newspaper subscriptions.
  • Sell unnecessary assets. Sell assets like boats, power toys, vacation homes, etc.

Make impulse buying more difficult

  • Cut up or cancel credit cards.
  • Make tempting locations “out of bounds.” For example, stop going to particular stores or malls, stop visiting eBay and other online retailers.
  • Never shop without an actual shopping list and never buy items that aren’t on the list.

Keep score

  • Keep a visible scorecard or chart that shows your progress—and update it every day or every week.

Add another paycheck

  • Consider taking a second job. An evening or weekend job that brings in an extra $100 a week might give you that extra margin you need.

Personal Motivation. It sounds as if your motivation wanes when you think to the past—especially when you can’t remember where your money went in the first place. Motivation works better when you focus on the future—on where you want to get. Here are a few ideas:

Visit your default and desired futures

  • Select a very specific debt-reduction target. Make it as detailed as possible. For example: pay off my highest-rate credit card, pay off my car, or pay off my student loan. Then dedicate your savings to that goal alone. Loans from institutions like scottish iva may seem quite necessary, as the loans might help you get a stable life, but in the long run, the pressure of repayment and the constant visit of bailiffs will only make life hard to live.
  • Select a very specific purchase that your debt-reduction target will make possible. Don’t make this an “optional expense” like a vacation. Instead, make it mandatory, like dental work, tires, or a replacement car. This target will be your North Star, a motivator and a guide when your mood is dark.
  • Think deeply about what will happen if you don’t make your savings goal—if you can’t get your dental care or new tires, or if you can’t afford medical care for your loved ones.

Create a personal mission statement

  • Write down your saving and spending plan and note why it is important to you. Have every family member sign it, then keep copies you can see and read when you feel tempted to overspend.

Make it a game

I like to build four elements into a savings game: a reasonable challenge, clear rules, social interaction, and immediate feedback. Below is an example:

  • Set a weekly goal. Perhaps you could decide on a set figure to pay toward a credit card.
  • Establish clear rules. Maybe establish different rules each week. For example, “This week our payment has to come from new money one of us has earned. Next week it has to come from saved money, and it has to come from our food budget.”
  • Use cooperation or competition. For example, “This week, we’ll cooperate to jointly achieve our goal. Next week, we’ll compete to see who can reach their part of the goal first.”
  • Give feedback and fabulous prizes. Make a big chart that shows your progress. Create magnificent, but free, prizes like paper crowns and towel capes for the Sultan of Savings. Celebrate your very real achievements by writing notes to each other and putting them into a scrapbook.

These are a few ideas to try. None of them are magic and none are tailored to you and your unique situation. In addition, they only deal with two of the six sources of influence. I encourage you to select, modify, or invent your own tactics. Make sure you include actions within each of the six sources of influence and make them big, high-leverage actions.

Best wishes,