Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Soon after I read Change Anything, I created my change plan and was so happy when I was making progress pretty quickly. Then I went on vacation and lost track of my plan. It’s been discouraging to come home and feel like I have to start back at zero again. I have another vacation coming up this month. Do you have any suggestions for how to stick with my plan when I’m not in a “normal” mode?
You’ve put your finger on the number-one reason the wheels come off of most people’s change attempts. Something changes—and their plan doesn’t. You get sick. You change jobs. You move. You go on vacation.
The sad truth is that this is an entirely solvable problem, but since people don’t solve it before it happens, these circumstantial changes suck the unwitting changer back into the “Willpower Trap.” For example, you commit to improving your mind through regular reading. You knock down a couple of books and feel great about yourself. Then you go on vacation and lose the habit. When you get back, you’re so behind on work that you fail to pick up the previous change plan—and within days you feel like a mental slug. Now you’re not only not making progress, you’re deriding yourself for not having the gumption to stick with your previous plan. And since it’s a gumption problem you’re back to thinking the root cause is your withering will, rather than your insufficient plan.
Here are four tips to make sure this doesn’t happen to you:
Plan for change. I just moved into a new house with a fancy new heating and air conditioning system. When Todd, the HVAC expert, trained me on my new thermostats, he took special care to point out the vacation button. It’s a nifty feature that lets me explain to my air conditioner how long I’ll be away and what I want it to do differently when I’m gone. I can also tell it exactly when I return home so that it cools the house down just the way I want it an hour before I walk in the door. Successful changers have just this kind of button built into their plan. They think about all of the crucial moments they’ll face that could be their undoing, and they create a plan for exactly those moments. For example, if you’re working on a fitness goal, you might want to plan in advance for what you will do in case of illness. Or bad weather. Or extensive business travel. These “changes” are often predictable, so think in advance about how you need to adapt.
Right-size your results. The first thing you may want to adjust for these crucial moments is your aspiration. If, for example, you’re trying to read a book a week as part of your self-improvement plan, you may need to revise that goal when you are on vacation and allow yourself to read fewer books. This isn’t always the case, of course. For example, I actually exercise more consistently when I am traveling for business because I have fewer distractions when I’m not at home. However, if your crucial moments will make it harder for you to make progress toward the results you want, be realistic about that, and adjust your goals during these moments. It’s better to aim for 50 percent of the results and hit your goal than it is to aim for 100 percent and discourage yourself into giving up.
Create special vital behaviors. Sometimes, you need special responses to the special circumstances in the form of a new vital behavior. For example, a friend who is trying to lose some weight noticed that he had deviated from the “Starve a cold, feed a fever” adage. Instead he would “Feed a cold. Feed a fever. Feed a paper cut.” This wasn’t working. So he created a special vital behavior for sick days: Plan every meal and snack the day before. He says this helps him be mindful about his eating when he is idle rather than his default pattern of grazing whenever he feels like it.
Rethink the six sources. New circumstances often take you away from sources of influence you rely on or put you under the spell of new sources of influence. For example, if you’re going on vacation, you may not have access to a gym, an alarm clock, a running buddy, a computer, or other resources that help you stay on track. Or, you may be subject to powerful temptations like people who encourage you to misbehave, or even structural inducements—like twenty-four hour buffets on a cruise ship. Before you drop yourself into the middle of this influence maelstrom, do your best to anticipate what the new influence landscape will look like and develop your six source plan to offset it. For example, you may decide to choose your meal plan before you enter the dining room. Or, you could find someone on the ship with whom to exercise on the first day of the cruise.
The essence of Change Anything is that we need to learn to not just be “subjects” of the influences around us. We need to be the “scientists”—engaged, intentional learners who accept the fact that the six sources of influence WILL influence you—and all you can do is understand how and take steps to make them work in your favor. When stuff happens, you can bet the sources of influence have changed. The wisest thing to do is be attentive to the effect of these changes and proactively address them in your own best interests.
I hope these ideas help you turn bad days into good data. Setbacks are inevitable on the path to change, but surrender is entirely optional. If things aren’t working, the problem is not you, it’s the plan. Learn what you need to learn from your last vacation and the next one will go much more smoothly.