Category Archives: Change Anything

Change Anything QA

Helping an Unmotivated Teenager

Dear Steve,

I have a thirteen-year-old son who thinks everything in life sucks. He tends to think everything will be better somewhere else. He asks for things and when we get them for him, he decides he doesn’t want it anymore and wants something else. For example, we bought him a guitar so he could learn how to play. He gave up saying, “It’s too hard, I suck at it.” If he can’t do it naturally the first time, he gives up. I’m not sure where he gets that mentality from; he’s seen many people in our family struggle at things, keep going, and finally succeed. Any insight on how to help him?

Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated,

I, too, have a thirteen-year-old and he also finds “suckiness” in an increasing number of things. I suspect it has something to do with junior high and the general feeling of awkwardness that young people experience during that period of their life. And while it would be really convenient to attribute this attitude to his age, I don’t think that is entirely accurate.

My thirteen-year-old is also my third thirteen-year-old and so my experience tells me that you can’t take the “life sucks” attitude out of the boy or girl completely. However, there are some things you can do as a parent. Let me offer three ideas to help you avoid pulling out your hair as you think about and approach your son.

Unfix the fixed mind set. Find a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and study it. She’s a professor at Standford University who has studied the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. In essence, a fixed mindset is one that believes that people (themselves in particular) are either naturally good or bad at an activity. For example, one of my colleagues is the son of two math professors. So naturally everyone, including him, thought he’d be good at math. He succeeded early in his school career and both parents are involved in the field. His mindset became fixed in the belief that he no longer needed to put in time and effort to practice or do homework because he was inherently gifted in math. That is exactly the point where his grades began to slip. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one that assumes that if you take the time to practice, study, or otherwise apply yourself, you can learn to become better. He stopped putting in the effort to learn because he assumed it would come naturally.

Along with the many wonderful ideas you’ll get directly from Dweck, you might want to sprinkle in some vicarious experiences. It may be useful to expose your child to the background stories of those who’ve succeeded in their areas of potential interest so they can get a better sense of the amount of effort required to achieve different levels of competence.

When I was a boy, I loved Tony Hawk. He rolled his way into my life when I was about fourteen. As a skater, I thought it was awesome that he turned pro two years earlier (he is two years older than I am). I was even more impressed when I learned how much time he spent on his board to become that good. I had assumed he was just naturally gifted. When I learned how hard he had worked at skating, it changed my perspective on my drive and determination.

See if you can find short articles or YouTube videos that feature successful people in whom your child might be interested. Share them with him and ask questions like, “How good is he/she?” and more importantly, “How long did it take him/her to get that good?” and, “What’s their daily routine?” Get your child to experience the process required to succeed.

Change the frame. This second idea is related to the first. Sounds like your son views many of his efforts that fall short of complete competence as failure: “I suck at guitar! I wasn’t able play this song, so I’m no good!” In addition to being untrue, this attitude also feeds into the fixed mindset described in the first idea.

We’ve found it useful to start framing their beginning experiences in this way: turn bad days, jam sessions, performances, etc. into good data. People often give up because they take a setback of any kind to mean they are no good. Instead, we encourage people to examine the setback for information they can use to improve. And let me be clear, this is not about discounting frustrations. It’s okay to acknowledge these as legitimate feelings. Just make sure you help your child see how the root of these emotions are based in their experience—which can be changed and improved.

It can also be useful to help your child reframe challenges as opportunities. For example, when you notice he is struggling with learning a song on the guitar, try something like, “How many stanzas do you think you could learn in twenty minutes?” When it comes time to hear the progress, praise the work and effort, and ask him about what helped and/or hindered (back to the idea of turning bad days into good data).

Try it out. Now for all this to work, you ought to find ways for your child to “try it out” before having to fully commit to something of interest. And, it’s got to be something in which your child shows interest. Once it seems that you found a good fit, it will be useful for you to help him identify some quick wins that will keep this interest and allow you to practice some of the ideas above.

Hope this helps you steer clear of the “suck,” or at least helps to reduce the amount of “suck-i-tude” you have to endure.

P.S. Don’t say suck.

Best of Luck,

Change Anything QA

How to Avoid Getting Angry

Dear Emily,

How do you stop your emotions from shifting into “fight” mode and verbal violence? I understand the principles of Making It Safe, but often, I only become aware that I am in “violence” well into the conversation—when my own emotions are already heated and boiling over. The wisest choice at that point seems to be to get out of the space and conversation where I can get my emotions under control, but, by then, the damage is usually done. While I have greatly improved over the years and am far more aware of my own bullying nature (intellectual or otherwise), I still struggle to change.

Upset & Unaware

Dear Upset & Unaware,

Oh yes, I have been there. I have been in that conversation where I said something and as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Why am I saying this? And with this tone?” I could literally feel the expression on my face, and it was not one of curiosity or calm but rather of condemnation. So yes, I have been where you are—having raced down a path to anger, judgment, and verbal violence. Inevitably, in those moments, I think to myself, “Wait. I teach something about this. Oh, yes. It’s called Learn to Look. Learn to Look for when a conversation turns crucial because the sooner you get back into dialogue, the lower the cost.”

But sometimes learning to look seems to come too late. I don’t want to simply learn to look for the signs that a conversation is going off the rails so that I can course-correct quickly. I want to avoid going off the rails at all. So the question for me is not: “How can I recognize earlier when I have been triggered?” but, “How can I not get triggered at all?”

So that seems pretty crazy, right? Not get triggered? Ever? Impossible. In real life, stuff happens. Irritations abound. Rough edges push up against all sides of our lives. The triggers are there and will always be there. Yet the question remains, “How can I avoid being triggered?”

I have two practical ideas to offer you, but, before I get to them, I want to add a frame to the discussion and a challenge for everyone reading this.

The Frame

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is the idea I am fascinated by—that we need not wait until our response has begun and then somehow catch ourselves because we are responding in a way that is overly forceful, or angry, or violent. If we learn to see that space, to expand it, to live in it, then we can respond in ways of our choosing, rather than simply reacting. The question is then, what can we do to enlarge and inhabit that space more often?

There is no one right answer to this question. I have two ideas that I believe are helpful. However, just as we teach in Change Anything, no one can tell you what your Vital Behavior will be for a change you need to make. Everyone’s Vital Behaviors will be different and diverse.

A lot of people read this newsletter (over 350,000), and there will be a lot of different answers regarding how we can enlarge and inhabit the space between stimulus and response. So I challenge you to share your own answer with us in the comments below. What do you do to enlarge and inhabit this space? I am looking forward to seeing the wisdom of this particular crowd.

And, without further ado, two ideas to help.

1. Morally engage—all the time. In his new book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, psychologist Albert Bandura makes the point that we are not bad people but that we behave badly (Want to win a signed copy of this book? Read to the end to learn how to enter). And when we act in ways or treat people in ways that are counter to our moral compass, we use a variety of strategies to disengage from that morality and thereby reduce our inner conflict. Said another way, our poor actions are not a result of moral defect but of moral slumber. If we want to behave better, we need to wake ourselves up.

Here is one example of how you might do that: Write a note to yourself that awakens you to your values and then review it regularly. Write down what it means to you to be a good person or why you care about other people. Put it on a card that your carry in your wallet or a Post-It note on your computer monitor. Put it in your phone. Set an alarm to read it regularly. Wake yourself up again and again to who you are and who you want to be.

The note in my office that is directly beneath my monitor screen and that I read several times a day is, “Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.” This is meaningful to me because I am a problem-solver. A fast problem-solver. Far too often, when I am in problem-solving mode, people become barriers between me and the solution. But while it is true that in moments of moral disengagement, I can become so focused on a problem and solution that I forget people, it is also true that I have a deep, abiding respect for humans and humanity. I love people and I want to be the person who connects with other people. It is not about changing who I am, but simply reminding myself of who I am.

2. Eat for energy. Bet you weren’t expecting that one! I just finished reading Jim Loehr’s, The Power of Full Engagement. Among the many takeaways for me was that the energy we bring to an interaction impacts the outcome. Dr. Loehr’s goal is to help people learn to manage their energy in a way that improves interactions, impact, and outcomes.

I recently received some very valuable 360 feedback. As I analyzed and mapped this feedback, I realized that some of my interactions don’t always go so well. Turns out, the interactions where I am abrupt, short-tempered, or irritated occur between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Really. It’s uncanny, but not surprising. I eat breakfast and lunch early and by 4:00 p.m. I’m usually running on low blood sugar. Compounding my low energy is the fact that I have usually been sitting for hours on end by this point. So when someone comes in for a crucial conversation, it is not surprising that I don’t always handle it well.

The solution is, in part, to eat in ways that provide sustained, useful energy for me throughout the day. Basically, eat often and eat light. I started having an apple or a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts about 3:00 p.m.—before I start feeling tired or irritable. And then I get up and walk around and take some deep breaths. I have noticed that when I do this consistently, my interactions are far more effective and far more kind.

So, there you have it—a frame, challenge, and two ideas. I am looking forward to seeing what other ideas are out there!

Best of luck,

Win a signed copy of Albert Bandura’s book. Share your idea in the comments below and then also email us your answer at under the subject line: “I’d like a signed copy.” We will award books to those with the four best answers.

Change Anything QA

Changing Behavior in the Classroom

Dear Steve,

I teach a class of eight- to nine-year-olds in church. They are high in energy and enthusiasm, but low in self-restraint. How do I encourage and teach and inspire them while keeping order? I’ve thought about helping them establish class rules of conduct, but am short on ideas for rewards or consequences.

Bouncing Off The Walls

Dear Bouncing,

It seems like you’re experiencing that age of wonder, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and wild, unbridled enthusiasm (i.e., wall bouncing). It seems that eight to nine is a magic number because just a couple of weeks ago, I was working with a group of eight to nine executives who suffered from the same problem. I think I have a couple of ideas that will work with high energy kids . . . and executives.

It’s not uncommon to want to move immediately to rewards and consequences when faced with this type of challenge—it’s both easy and fast. However, it’s often not as effective as you would hope. You also spend a lot of time wrapped up in discipline rather than teaching and inspiring. My suggestions will require a little more patience, but should yield better results over the long-term. Here are three big ideas to add to what you’re currently doing:

  • Focus on practice.
  • Build some wiggle room into your rewards.
  • Create audibles.

Focus on practice. Focusing on practice in this case means practicing to focus. Kids come from a variety of different home environments, each with their own set of norms and expectations. Some children will come to your class more calm and with a higher capacity to focus. Others—not so much. The difficulty is that those with a higher capacity to focus will soon conform to the norm set by those that don’t. Many children simply don’t know how to focus, so you will need to help them develop those skills. Take time in your class to deliberately practice paying attention.

Start with shorter time periods and work your way up to longer ones. Let them know that you’re going to practice and allow room for them to fail as they practice. They will need help and coaching throughout the process, and probably won’t get it right the first time they try. Make sure to use a large timer in the process so they can get a sense of how long they need to focus. If necessary, give them something to focus on, and keep track of their progress so that they can see their improvement.

With this approach, you’ll want to introduce challenges to make it fun. Things like, “Our record is two minutes. Let’s see if we can do two minutes and ten seconds.” Or, “Let’s start off with the quiet game. The first person to make a noise makes the timer start over for the whole group.” If you make it a game, they’ll find it’s more fun to practice. Then, you’ll get the group involved in encouraging one another in the process.

Build some wiggle room into your rewards. Let’s be honest. We’re talking about eight- to- nine-year-olds—they are inherently wiggly. And when pent-up for any extended period of time, they will eventually explode in a fit of flailing arms and legs (and that’s the mild version). So a smart approach is to create opportunities to let it all out. This can actually be a great reward for good behavior. I became familiar with a church class run by a neighbor of mine who had music she used to allow the kids to “go wild” to for the duration of the song. Another teacher would choose a child that had demonstrated good focus during the class to lead his or her classmates in a series of wiggle exercises of his or her choosing. There is a movement (pun intended) being championed by Nike and others to get kids active in the classroom for short bursts to break up some of the longer teaching segments. I think similar to them, you’ll find that these types of breaks will be a great reward for the kids, and help them focus by providing an outlet for their need to move.

Create audibles. Along with the previous two ideas, you’ll want to have a strategy to deal with the times that the class falls back into old behavior patterns. And it’s not a matter of “if,” it really is a matter of “when.” The Boy Scouts of America have a great way of dealing with kids when they get too rambunctious. To bring attention back, the leader holds up his or her right hand with three fingers extended straight up. When scouts see this, they are supposed to stop talking and respond by making the same sign. Everybody recognizes this sign and knows what to do when they see it.

With younger kids, I’d recommend something similar, but adding an audible command. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head.” You can use all kinds of variations on this such as clap your hands, stomp your foot, pull your ear lobe, make the high-five sign, etc. So mix it up and be creative—the kids will love seeing the new things you come up with.

Something like this will allow you to see who’s responding and who still needs help. If you find some are not responding as quickly, you may want to add some additional information to your audible. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head. Okay, it looks like we’re still waiting for so-and-so, and what’s-their-bucket.” It usually takes a couple of rounds of commands before you’ll get the entire class, but with practice, they will get better at it.

Hopefully, implementing these ideas will help bring the bouncing under control . . . or at least reduce it to a manageable dribble. Remember, consistency is the key in these situations. Good luck and carry on with the impactful teaching assignment you’ve undertaken. I’m sure there are many grateful parents associated with those kids.


Change Anything QA

How to Save a Stagnant Career

Dear David,

What should I do if I believe I have reached my “peak” in my company and professional growth is stagnant? I posed this question to HR and managers only to receive dull feedback, which makes me feel they have no ideas or suggestions. I suggested I earn another bachelor’s degree in a field we need, but the tuition assistance program only permits me to take classes directly related to my current position. I have my letter of resignation ready to go and am simply waiting for the job market to improve, but I hate to start over again and prefer to avoid it if possible. What should I do?

Needing Growth

Dear Needing Growth,

Thanks for your question. Many people are in your position—often without even knowing it. Their careers have stagnated and their jobs may even be at risk. This is a tough situation, but there are actions anyone can take to regain control of a stalled career.

We studied this question while writing our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. We went into organizations and asked people: “If you were facing a really tough problem at work, and had time to get input from someone in your work group, who would you go to for the best, most trustworthy advice? You can name up to three people.” We found there was a lot of consensus on who these people were. We got what statisticians call a “power curve.” Half the people weren’t named by any of their peers; however, about ten percent were named by nearly half of their peers and were recognized by everyone as the “go to” people. Not surprisingly, managers also named them as the most promotable.

When we look closely at these highly valued individuals—across a wide range of organizations—we learn they share the same three characteristics:

1.  Know Your Stuff. These promotable people are top performers at their current jobs, and put in regular effort to stay on top. If they are software developers then they are among the most skilled at writing code. If they are salespeople then they are among the most skilled at closing sales. They work hard to keep current and hone their craft.

2. Focus on the Right Stuff. Top performers seek out the problems that have the greatest strategic importance to their team, their manager, and their organization—and find ways to contribute in these areas. How do they get to these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding their teams’, managers’, and organizations’ priorities, and the challenges these priorities entail. Second, they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to addressing these challenges. They work on themselves, their skill set, and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a Reputation for Being Helpful. Top performers are networkers. But their networks aren’t just a collection of business cards and friends. These promotable people use their expertise and time to develop a reputation for being helpful. They become widely known and respected by others because they help others solve their problems.

With this as a backdrop, consider what you can do to position yourself for career growth inside your organization, or potentially in a different organization. Begin with an honest, steely-eyed assessment of where you stand on the three characteristics of highly valued employees. Do you have a reputation for knowing your stuff, focusing on the right stuff, and being helpful?

Second, work to improve your reputation in these areas. Begin by asking some questions that are a bit different from “what are my career opportunities here?” Instead, get some informal time with the leaders and peers you respect most, and ask them about the most important priorities they see, the most critical challenges they face, and the best way you can help them achieve their goals. There is nothing wrong with asking about career opportunities, but those questions haven’t yielded the results you want. So, try asking questions that will help you build your reputation.

As you discover key priorities and challenges, you may learn you need to skill up, but it’s doubtful you need another bachelor’s degree. It’s more likely a few classes, a certification, or a volunteer assignment will get you the skills and experience you need. For example, if you are trying to get into a project management or supervisory role, can you find a well-known nonprofit organization in the community that would have a specific short-term project you could assist them with in the evenings or on the weekends? You could then add these classes, training certifications, and experiences to your resume and include the people you worked for as references.

These suggestions require that you don’t allow yourself to be limited to what your organization is willing to sponsor. Instead, you may need to invest your own resources and time outside of work in the short-term to achieve your long-term goals. I also want to emphasize the importance of maintaining strong relationships with HR and your management team. You don’t want to have the reputation of a dissatisfied employee—a complainer. That would undercut the very reputation you are trying to build.

I wish you the very best in your career development.


Change Anything QA

Help—My Child is Addicted to Electronics!

Dear Crucial Skills,

My fourteen-year-old son seems to be addicted to electronics. If we let him, he will spend ten hours a day on his tablet, computer, or XBOX. I want him to choose to do other things, and to do something worthwhile over the summer. Is there a better approach than “cold turkey”?

Parent of an e-addict

Dear Parent,

I like the way you framed your objective: “I want him to choose to do other things.” That’s a completely different influence problem from “I want him to stop.” As a father of six children, I have often been tempted to go for the quick fix of the latter rather than the steady influence of the former.
The latter could be accomplished by simply spilling iced tea on the problematic devices, then feigning remorse as they short out in a puff of smoke. The former will require not only more thought, but more patience and character on your part.

1. Is the problem the problem? Before you decide that electronic games are the problem, do your best to determine whether games are a way of medicating against or isolating from some other problem—like bullying, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or other social or emotional problems.

2. “Addiction” isn’t a metaphor. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry . . . . This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.” Some evidences that a behavior has become “addictive” include: “inability to consistently abstain, feelings of craving, and diminished recognition of negative consequences of one’s behaviors.” You don’t need to ingest a substance to develop addiction. Behaviors alone can similarly contribute to brain reward circuitry impairment. My personal belief is that many of us (including myself) have unhealthy relationships with technology that create negative emotional and relationship consequences. So let me applaud you for your sensitivity to the potential developmental damage technology can do to your son.

3. Interview, don’t lecture. Don’t begin the conversation with your son using conclusions and wisdom (e.g. “I think you’ve got a problem” or “Reading is better for your brain”). Instead, come in with curiosity and a desire to connect. Trust is permission to influence—and he controls the granting or withholding of trust. Show an interest in his interests. Spend time with him. Affirm him. And when sufficient safety exists, broach the topic. “Hugh,” you might say, “on a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with the way you spend your time? How confident are you that it is taking you where you want to be and creating the life you want right now?” He might be defensive when you first ask this. He may suspect it is a manipulative tactic to open the way for your judgment or lecture. If so, reassure him it isn’t. Be honest that you have feelings on the topic, but push your agenda aside, and sincerely open yourself to his feelings. If he answers, “Well, okay, I guess. Maybe a six,” you now have some common ground to discuss. “Wow. Really? I would have thought you’d say a ten. What makes you less than perfectly satisfied with how you’re spending time?” Your only hope of helping him make different choices is to honor his feelings and autonomy from the first conversation. Interview, don’t lecture. This does not mean you can’t express opinions at times, but keep your airtime in careful balance with his interests.

4. Wake him, don’t make him. In order to sustain bad habits we must maintain ignorance of their consequences. If you want to help him “choose” differently, you’ll have to help him experience the downside of his habit as viscerally as he now experiences the upside. What he knows today is that grabbing a controller and logging into a game is associated with feelings of engagement, enjoyment, social connection (if he plays online games), mastery, and perhaps safe solitude. If he is to choose something different he will need to feel that other choices will create better consequences. This is tricky. But it’s also a fundamental problem you need to solve. The first step is to help him engage in experiences that will awaken him to either the negative consequences of his current choices, or the positive consequences of other choices. For example, you could ask him to conduct an experiment to help him become more mindful of his experience.

Emotion tracking. See if he would be willing to keep a simple journal of how he feels before and after playing games for long periods. Be prepared in advance that some of his journal entries will confirm the positive emotions he feels while playing. Have him similarly experiment with other activities (some enjoyable family activity, an outing with friends, etc.) and report how he feels during and after. Talk openly with each other about this data as a way of helping him make more conscious choices.

Abstinence Test. Share the definition of addiction. Invite him to experiment in discovering his own way to discern healthy gaming and unhealthy gaming by attempting a brief abstention experiment and recording his feelings during it. Discuss openly how it felt and what that means to him.

What could be better? Invite him to think of activities that might create more enjoyment and health that could be far more fun for him than gaming. Encourage and support him in experimenting with a single attempt at an activity, then discuss his experience.

5. There’s a difference between forcing him to change and refusing to enable. Realize that you are an accomplice in his choices. You are subsidizing his choices by maintaining home duties for him, providing the equipment, providing the comfortable environment, etc. You need to accept responsibility for how you are providing a structural influence that makes gaming easy by providing devices. You don’t have to do this. In fact, you shouldn’t. You should have boundaries with everything you offer. Just because you provide a bed doesn’t mean you have to consent to him lying in it twenty-four hours a day. Providing food doesn’t mean you have to serve up Twinkies every time he wants them. You get to say, “Here’s what I’m willing to offer—and no more.” Now, since your objective is to influence his choices, not control his behavior, I’d suggest you strike a balance by differentiating between boundaries and advice. You might say, for example, “I think it would be wise to limit your use to an hour or so per day. That’s something you’ll have to decide. However, I am willing to provide the opportunity for you to play up to three hours per day—and five on weekends—provided your grades are good and your homework is finished.” I offer this as an illustration, not as a sound position to take.

I admire your desire to think about long-term influence rather than short-term compliance. My worst moments as a parent have been when I was more interested in behavior than growth. I believe that if you reflect on some of what I shared, and keep an eye on what you really want, you’ll find a way to help him grow in the way only a loving and discerning parent can.



Change Anything QA

Helping Your Child with Addiction

Dear Crucial Skills,

Our twenty-year-old son has unfortunately been using prescription drugs for some time now. He came to me and my wife for help, and we immediately placed him in a well respected center for a twenty-one-day medical detoxification and rehab program. He went willingly and seemed to learn quite a bit about the entire rehab process, and what was required of him in the near future. Although he got clean, we suspect he is still not equipped with the skills to stay that way. We would like to apply the model in Change Anything to help him stay clean and live a happy, productive life. Here are our questions: Do we apply the model in a certain sequence or all at once? Are there sources of influence that need to come before or after another source? Should he help construct activities within each source or should we create them before we present anything to him? What are some known best practices when applying the model to this problem?

Anxious to Start

Dear Anxious,

As parents, family members, and friends, how we long to help those we love. I have found over the years that knowing how to help, and even defining what love means in these situations can be difficult. So I applaud you for your help and love to date, and for your questions about how to help and love in the future. Needless to say, situations like the one you are facing are complex and with the few details I have and more that I’ll assume, I may miss the mark on some parts, but I hope that as I address your questions a few principles or tactics will be useful.

Before I get to some answers, I’ll provide context for readers who are not as familiar with the Change Anything approach as you are. When someone wants to change his or her behavior (and thus the results he or she is getting), often this person fails because he or she is blind and outnumbered. That means that there are more influences encouraging bad behavior than there are influences that encourage good behavior. The fact that you helped your son find professional help is noteworthy. And your suspicion that he is not well-equipped to deal with challenges now that he is home is spot on. Let me explain. Like everyone who goes to a program, he was a subject. At good programs, all Six Sources of Influence™ are applied to helping the clients do the effective behaviors. Again, for those unfamiliar with the Six Sources of Influence, a little side track here. At the rehab center:

Source 1: Personal Motivation—Your son gets in touch with the reasons why doing drugs is dangerous and why being clean will bring happiness and success.

Source 2: Personal Ability—Your son learns new skills like saying no, overcoming urges, and so on.

Sources 3 and 4: Social Motivation and Ability—Your son is not surrounded by accomplices, partiers, or pushers, but by cheerleaders, caregivers, and coaches.

Source 5: Structural Motivation—Your son gets rewards for small wins: gold stars and other incentives.

Source 6: Structural Ability—The environment is controlled to make the good behaviors easy and the bad behaviors impossible.

The big point I’d like to emphasize here is this: many programs are effective when the client is the subject. They influence the subject in powerful ways, but they don’t always equip the clients to be their own agents when they go home. Clients often remain blind to the skills and strategies that helped them succeed while in rehab. So when they get home, they can’t see the influences that will cause relapse. They haven’t been equipped to be their own scientist or agent. How do you help him see and use enough influence so that he can control his own behavior at home?

So now to your questions:

Do we apply the model in a certain sequence or all at once?
Yes and no. The first step in the model is to diagnose. Why is your son behaving like he is? What caused his problem? What and who is helping or hindering? What are the times or conditions when your son is most tempted to take drugs? These are “crucial moments” and will help you identify and determine a plan to achieve the desired results. Focus on the vital behaviors and the sources of influence he needs to add and eliminate to make positive change much more probable. So, first diagnose his current behavior and that will lead to a specific, customized plan.

Are there sources of influence that need to come before or after another source?
Your son will need different sources of influence to change his behavior than someone else’s son or daughter would. Customization is important. What specific influences are helping, hurting, or missing altogether? Identify them first and then design strategies to turn those influences in his favor. By doing so, you’ll marshal enough influence that your son can change for good. Marshaling enough influence simultaneously—not sequentially—is key.

Should he help construct activities within each source or should we create them before we present anything to him?
Your son should lead this process, so he knows that he is the capable captain of his own ship, not just a passenger along for a ride on a larger vessel. You can be the guide on the side. There are two goals here. One is to create a plan so that he stays clean. The second is to have a process that motivates and enables him to be his own agent.

What are some known best practices when applying the model to this problem?
This question requires more space than I have. I will say that we tried very hard to identify best practices in Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. The chapter entitled “Addiction: How to Take Back Your Life” is our best shot.

I’ll end where I started. Bless your hearts for helping and loving your son to this point. I hope that the suggestions I’ve offered will assist you in aiding him to be his own agent and, on his own, do the behaviors that will help him live a happy and productive life.

Best Wishes,


Change Anything QA

Overcoming a Lifelong Battle Against Addiction

Dear Crucial Skills,

How does one escape the addictions of pornography, drugs, alcohol, etc? I’ve been told that even if I’m able to finally get to the point of remission, I’ll always be an addict and never completely escape. It’s a hopeless message, but I sense truth in this and fear I’ll have to fight it the rest of my life.

Do you have any advice that can help me in my lifelong battle against addiction?


Dear Struggling,

I have great news for you. While in some cases there might (and I stress MIGHT) be some element of truth to the statement, “I’ll always be an addict”—that statement doesn’t mean what you think it means.

The implication of “always an addict” in your note is “I’ll have to fight the rest of my life.” That’s the part I can immediately reassure you is absolutely not true, but hang on for a moment and let me get to that point in its time.

First, I want to be clear that my coauthors and I are not addiction experts. We study human behavior, so we have opinions about the state of research on issues like addiction recovery. That is not our specialty nor do I have training in addiction recovery. With that said, I will share some opinions on your question.

• Will you always be at risk of returning to your addiction? There’s a good chance you won’t. Many people with addictions recover in a way that never affects them again. One of the most dramatic evidences of this point is a major study funded by the U.S. Government in 1971 as tens of thousands of heroin-addicted soldiers were returning from Vietnam. Military officials were terrified that a healthcare crisis would ensue as their systems would have been overloaded with those suffering the effects of addiction. But the crisis never happened. Well over 80 percent of those returning, who were classified as seriously addicted, discontinued drug use after coming home—forever.

• How long does it take? I’ll answer this briefly but will refer you to the chapter on addiction recovery in our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success for a fuller description. Our work shows that habits change when all six of the sources of influence that shape our habits change. Period.

Now, that process can take a while, but understanding those sources of influence helps you recognize that there are discrete actions you can take to move the process along and to understand what work remains. This also explains why so many of the returning soldiers changed so quickly. All of these sources of influence were organized in a way that promoted addiction when they lived in Vietnam. When they returned, for many of them, all six sources changed. So they did, too.

• If you’re one of the 20 percent rather than the 80 percent, does that mean a lifetime of struggle? Absolutely not. Even those who continue to feel vulnerable to relapse will tell you that year by year, maintaining the life patterns that keep them “sober” (I use that term generically) become not just easier, but pleasurable.

Here’s the good news I promised you. Please read these sentences over and over and over: The way you feel today about your addictive behaviors can feel entirely different just a few months from now. You can literally come to hate what you currently love. You can—and will—come to find loathsome those things that seem irresistible today.

Let me elaborate on this last, and most important, point. Our emotions often lie to us. When we experience an emotion (let’s say I’m feeling angry at my daughter) it comes with two embedded lies—it feels true, and it feels permanent. It feels true in the sense that I have a profound conviction that I am totally right and she is totally wrong. My emotion is my evidence that I am right. All of us have had the experience of feeling that way, then getting a little more information and perspective, and having the emotion pivot 180 degrees. We feel remorse, or empathy, or love—whereas seconds earlier we couldn’t have imagined feeling different. Similarly, the emotions feel permanent. We believe the way we feel about something is how we will always feel.

For example, I cannot imagine not craving a cigarette. Or being stimulated by pornography. Or getting out of control at the sight of chocolate. Or losing my temper when criticized. Yet, when you talk with those who have realigned the sources of influence in their life, they’ll often use words like “disgusted” when they think about those behaviors today.

But don’t trust these other people. Test this proposition against your own experience. Have you ever felt even momentarily different about an addictive habit you struggle with? Have you had moments when you felt no temptation at all? In fact, you felt revulsion for the act? If so, you know already that change is possible. The challenge is working through the process of change until those temporary feelings become the norm.

If you want to see a powerful example of this shift, watch this video. It’s a fascinating experiment done by the Thai Ministry of Public Health. A young child approaches people who are smoking in public with a cigarette in her hand to ask them for a light. The smokers are horrified at the thought of this child picking up this habit. Every one of those approached began lecturing the child, citing compelling reasons the child shouldn’t smoke. After listening patiently for a moment, the child would hand them a card with a phone number for smoking cessation services, and ask, “Then why do you smoke?” Researchers observed the smokers after the child walked away. Almost every one of them dropped their cigarette. All retained the card with the phone number. Calls to the help line increased 40 percent on the day of the experiment.

Now, this doesn’t demonstrate permanent change, but it shows that feelings can change. That’s the point. In this case, it was temporary. But people who were feeling compelled to smoke moments earlier were suddenly disgusted at the thought and stopped.

You need not fear a lifetime of struggle. You may need to be conscious of maintaining the six sources of influence throughout your life, but you’ll want to do it. You’ll derive pleasure from the new life. Your feelings will change.

Just keep up the good work. The way you feel today is not the way you will feel a year from now.