Friday, July 15, 2011

Book review: Change Anything

Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success
Note: I bought this book myself. This review is completely unsolicited and uncompensated.  There is a code (hope) in the review for a free trial premium membership to the site. I will not be compensated if you use this code, I am just sharing it because my readers might find it useful. There are some Amazon affiliate links here in case you feel like supporting the blog.

I love my account. I wait anxiously each month for my new credits. My latest purchase was Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. This book focuses on debunking the "willpower trap," the idea that if we are truly motivated and are strong enough, we can change through sheer force of will.

I've tried it and I bet you have too. How's that working out for you?

To illustrate the willpower trap, the authors ask us to imagine running out of gas in the typical American car, a large SUV. What if you were only a block away from a gas station, and decided to push the car uphill? Would you be likely to succeed if there were five large people standing in front of the car, pushing against you? That's the situation we're in when we try to make change through willpower alone, the authors say. Every one of their "six sources of influence" that you haven't recruited to your side is pushing against you. You will be much more likely to succeed if you can get them working for you.

Think of the much-vaunted obesity epidemic. (I know, "Do we have to?" Trust me, I'm making a point here.) According to U.S. government statistics:
As recently as 1980, just 15 percent of adults were heavy enough to be defined as obese. By 2008, however, the rate had hit 34 percent.
Do you think we all just got lazier and less personally responsible? Maybe some of us, but think of all the environmental factors that have changed since then.  The increasing size of grocery stores to accomodate twenty flavors of Doritos instead of one. The increasing size of packages.  The most common serving size for soda in 1980 was a 12-ounce can, now it's a 20-ounce bottle. If you think that strong people are immune to all of these influences, you may be right, but the authors cite some pretty convincing studies to disprove that view. They find that most of us are influenced by other people and their environment, but don't realize the important role that these factors play.  Only people who are aware of the power of external influences and work to change them are going to be truly successful in the long term.

The authors don't suggest that we wait until the environment is perfect to try to make personal changes. They explain ways to make changes in your own personal spaces to support your change efforts. They also talk about how to turn "accomplices," people who encourage you to abandon your goals, into "friends," coaches and fans who will support you.

So what was I thinking when I was listening to the audiobook? "It's too embarrassing to talk to my friends and family about my weight loss efforts. I will just have to tough it out."

Yes, I have some work to do.  Upon further reflection I realized that this was pretty silly.

The authors know that the prospect of putting together a six-source plan is daunting, so they suggest that you at least start somewhere.  Most of us have instinctively realized the influence of some of these sources.  For example, we have the idea that we're not going to succeed in weight loss efforts with a pantry stuffed full of Oreos and Fritos and may have "built fences" to keep those foods out of our homes.  I started with a couple of the suggestions from the "others" section. I had a conversation with my husband. We tend to be either "accomplices" or "coaches" to each other, alternating between encouraging the other to misbehave or suggesting changes the other should make.  Neither of these roles is helping our weight loss efforts. Coaching tends to make us resentful and rebellious, and obviously being accomplices to each other encourages all kinds of bad behavior.  We decided to try to be teammates instead. The authors suggested making a game out of behavior changes, so we created a scorecard of some of the better habits we want to implement.  I can share that scorecard in a future blog post, after we've had time to try it out and perfect it.

As a companion to the book, there is a Change Anything website to help readers implement their own change plans.  I went to that after listening to the book, which had a code to give me access to the site. I started working on my change plan, though I must confess that I haven't gotten very far yet.  After I signed up, I got an email with a code for a premium trial membership that I could share with people who might like to try the site for themselves. All you will need is your email address and the code "hope" to get started at They don't ask for a credit card account. I have focused here on weight loss, but here is the full list of  plans. You can also create a custom plan if you don't find the one you want here:

I especially liked the end of the book, when the authors talked about how acknowledging and working with the six sources of influence could make the world a better place.  The expectation, especially here in the U.S. where we think of ourselves as "rugged individuals," is that people who are not weak-willed should be able to make any kind of change they want with no help at all.  Fat people are just lazy. People who are addicted to drugs are just criminals. People who are in debt are just irresponsible.  People whose relationships fail are immoral.  Advertisements only exert an influence on the weak-minded and stupid. (The huge advertising industry must be counting on there being a lot of chumps out there.) 

For example: If we really wanted to reverse the obesity epidemic in this country, we wouldn't just yell at people to stop being fat. We might look at the way our streets are designed to encourage more people to walk, bike, or use public transportation. Right now, it's not possible (or at least safe) in many places. We might look at the way food is distributed and wonder why so much food is being aggressively targeted at the people who are suffering from overfeeding while so many people in the world go hungry (think of all the real-life parallels to The Hunger Games). We might look at why our health care system ignores lifestyle changes for chronic disease and instead focuses so heavily on drugs and surgery. We might wonder why the diet industry does such a bad job at solving the problem it was supposedly designed to address while it rakes in billions in cash. We might change the incentive system for companies to discourage cutting the workforce to the bone and expecting everyone to put in extra hours.  We might make it a priority to have safe recreation spaces available in all neighborhoods. We might find ways for people to support each other in their efforts without shelling out big monthly fees for commercial diet plans.

Yeah, that all sounds complicated and expensive. Besides, there is no way for corporations to profit from that plan. Let's just put more headless fat bodies on CNN.  

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"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07