The 4 Step Plan to Eliminating Bad Habits

Last Updated May 6, 2011 12:27 PM EDT

Does someone on your team or in your family struggle with a long-standing habit that makes that person less productive, less able to change effectively, and a distraction or worse to your organization or family? The problem could be obesity, smoking, inappropriate work relationships, or internet addiction. It might include procrastination, social unease, toxic gossip, poor written work, or one of many difficult behaviors.

Do you have a lot at stake in changing this behavior? Does this behavior keep you awake at night?

As someone who reads many business books, I am careful of using too many superlatives about a single book. After all, many authors address similar material and offer helpful advice from various points of view. If you single out one book above many others, you potentially limit the reader's options.

But Change Anything, The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, leaders of the organizational development and corporate training firm VitalSmarts, just might become an enduring classic in how to turn problem behaviors into productivity and happiness. Grab it. Based on a study of 5,000 everyday people and more than 25 years of corporate training and human performance research at the Change Anything labs in Utah, Change Anything sparks fresh insights for overcoming important problems every time you read its pages.

As with the Covey classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the authors decode the tensions between personal frustration and professional productivity in a way that's universal. (These authors also wrote the bestselling Crucial Conversations and Influencer at McGraw-Hill where I was publisher, but I don't have any shared interests with them).

Patterson et. al. point out that changing long-standing habits is hard. Failure is the rule, not the exception: a whopping 85 percent of us have had bosses who have tried, but failed, to get us to change in order to improve our performance. In studying people who not only succeed in changing these pernicious habits, but maintain their success for years, the authors found "changers" stumble as much as they succeed, and adapt a change plan that is homegrown and unique to them. To "stumble forward," you need to learn four key elements of change science.

One case study follows Melanie R., an MBA the authors describe as one of the smartest and most productive members of her team, but who was passed over for a key job assignment for a second time. She felt under-appreciated and under-rewarded and wanted to identify a path to change that would get her career unstuck.

Here are what they say are the four elements and how "Melanie" used them:

1. Identify crucial moments: Single out an experience or moment that is particularly motivating, your wake up call. For Melanie, it was being passed over a second time for a promotion.

2. Find your vital behaviors: These are the actions that will help you get the behavior change you want. The authors say top performers typically take these actions:
  • seek the training to master the technical side of the job,
  • contribute consistently to tasks that are essential to the organization's success,
  • are generous, helping other team members solve problems.
Melanie began focusing on these vital behaviors, by taking night courses in tax law, and adding to billable hours on the company's most important clients.

3. Engage the six "sources of influence." First among these is, "loving what you used to hate", using techniques to ignore distractions and triggers that defeat the vital behaviors. Melanie used a number of techniques. They include visualization (Melanie placed a picture of her dream vacation home she could afford with a promotion by her computer), using a personal motivation statement (Melanie carried on the screen of her mobile phone this message, "I'd like to see myself as a talented contributor. I'd like to increase my income so I can buy a house...."), forcing yourself into vicarious experiences of failure (Melanie spent time with her co-workers who had leveled out early in their careers and enjoyed few promotions), and making a game out of small steps (Melanie kept score of her billable hours and posted them in her living room).

Other sources of influence: deliberate practice (don't just practice, practice for excellence), turning accomplices into friends (for Melanie, this meant getting the support of her life partner for her demanding new schedule), and "inverting the economy" (Melanie placed her cash into a kitty to be allocated by her partner--when she made her goal for the week, twenty dollars went to a new bicycle; when she missed her goal for the week, twenty dollars went into a jar labeled with the name of the political party she opposed). Melanie also "built fences" to cut off temptation (she sold her season tickets to her local NBA basketball team she loved because it distracted her from what she needed to be doing).

4. Turn bad days into good data. Don't look at failures as an opportunity to fall off the wagon; instead learn from your failures and adjust.

The authors argue that fundamental, lasting change is possible for anyone. They back up their accessible guide to the science of change with inspirational advice:
  • Act small, act now--somehow, someway, get started;
  • Record it--start writing down your "vital behaviors"
  • Imagine--"what would this world be like if there were a million more people who knew how to apply good science to human change? Lots of important problems would be solved. When you aim at vital behaviors and get all six sources of influence working in your favor, you change. When you motivate and enable others to enace their vital behaviors, they change."
  • Change the world
What are you waiting for?
Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo by Ariaski.
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.

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