At Remodelers Advantage, we work with hundreds of remodelers to help them improve the performance of their businesses. We share the tools that we, from our years of experience, know will make a difference in productivity, profitability, and overall work satisfaction. Some of our clients grab hold of this advice and change their systems, priorities, and behaviors and sprint forward, seeing positive results. Others, hearing the same advice, just aren’t able to make the changes that could, potentially, change their lives. They may try for a few months, but many, after six months or so, still haven't taken the necessary steps.

So why are some people able to make important changes to their business practices while others are not? A new book from the authors of two of my other favorite business books, Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, may contain the answer.

In the most recent book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, co-authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler identify a key reason why many of us fail in our attempts to change: We rely on willpower alone.

Patterson et al. write, “When people believe that their ability to make good choices stems from nothing more than their willpower — and that willpower is a quality they’re either born with or they’re not — they eventually stop trying altogether. The willpower trap keeps them in a depressing cycle that begins with heroic commitment to change, which is followed by eroding motivation, and terminated inevitably by relapse into old habits. Then, when the build-up pain of their bad habits becomes intolerable, they muster up another heroic but doomed attempt at change.”

The authors believe that our ability to make the right choices is influenced by these sources: the personal desire to make change happen; the skills and information needed; the influence of friends, co-workers, and family; the influence of incentives; and the space around you.

If we can learn to “see” those sources of influence, we can manipulate them to help us reach our goals. “[W]hen it comes to changing ourselves, it’s best to use strategies from each of the six sources of influence — especially those that are currently working against us. If we don’t, we’ll be outnumbered and out of luck.”

Take the first step: Think about the crucial moment when you made a bad decision. Try to determine which of the above-mentioned sources was influencing you at that moment. Pinpoint your problem areas and then use the simple but breakthrough tactics provided.

Skills & Incentives

Let’s take a quick look at the tactics in two main categories.

Personal ability (skills): The authors believe that one source of influence is our personal knowledge or skill, and that failure to change our behavior can be due to the lack of a particular skill. They suggest that the first step to overcoming this negative influencer is to do a “skill scan” to determine what knowledge you may be lacking that would help you change. You may be surprised at the education or training you need.

Second, use deliberate practice to establish your new skills. Instead of just talking about the issue, make a conscious effort to actually use those skills. The more the new skills are used, the easier it will be when a crucial moment — a moment that may distract you from your goal — occurs.

Structural motivation (incentives): The authors also suggest that using the right kind of incentives can have a significant impact on changing behavior, and they suggest a strategy of inverting the economics — developing an incentive that would charge for bad behavior instead of rewarding for good behavior.

They use a study from Daniel Kahneman, a behavioral economist, to demonstrate that humans “have a bizarre quirk hard-wired into us. That is, we are far more motivated to avoid loss than we are motivated to receive an equivalent gain.” So the authors suggest that an incentive to get yourself to change is to put something you care about at risk. For example, if money is important to you, put up $2,000 as an incentive to make a change. If your goal is to complete estimates within four days of the client meeting, then each time you miss this goal, $500 will be given to the political party that you oppose.

Another tactic to improve structural motivation would be to reward small wins — focusing on the actions you are taking rather than the results that you achieve. “Results are often out of your control (at least in the moment), so link your incentives to something you can control,” the authors recommend.

By breaking down the various elements that can push us away from a goal or pull us closer to it, the authors show us that willpower alone will rarely be enough, but by using practical tactics from all the sources of influence, we can succeed in changing our behavior, changing the results we see, and changing our lives.

—Victoria Downing is president of Remodelers Advantage. 301.490.5620. Click here to read more from Victoria Downing.

This is a longer version of an article that appeared in the October 2011 issue of REMODELING.