Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Year's resolution: Down with willpower!

A lot of you out there are going to make resolutions for New Year's Eve. And let me guess: a lot of them are going to involve Calvinistic promises to eat less, exercise more, be nicer to Mom, or work harder at your business. And you are going to fail at all of them.

Here is why I am so sure about that. These resolutions all involve willpower. And you may not realize it, but willpower is often the worst thing you could try to develop in your life. In fact, I would like you to start looking at willpower for what it really is: the enemy of success.

For my first example, let's take something I see every week as a therapist: conquering your fears. If you are afraid of driving on the freeway, you might think that the best thing to do is screw up your courage, get behind the wheel, and point your car resolutely toward the on-ramp. You know, like all those platitudes about "doing the thing you fear."

Wrong-o. What you are actually doing is sensitizing yourself to your fears, and probably making no progress at all - or worse, setting yourself back. Clinically, the most effective way to conquer fears is to change how you think about them, and then take tiny baby steps that desensitize you. Ironically, while having fears is very scary, getting well from them is often painless if it is done correctly.

For example, I once used to be afraid to fly. (Never mind that I am a former engineering supervisor at Boeing Aircraft.) And I had "exposure" out the kazoo, logging over a quarter million air miles during my management career, all the way up to 19-hour flights to Asia. But then one day I had a two-hour telephone counseling session from a pilot-turned-therapist who runs, focusing on how I viewed the experience of flying. I literally hung up the phone from that session and said to myself "Now I'm ready for this." And ever since, for 50,000 air miles and counting, flying has been like stepping on a bus.

Now, let's take dieting. Something I've done often. What happens every time is that I cut back my calorie intake, get on the treadmill three times a week, and lose exactly 10 pounds. And then get stuck. And stay there, seemingly forever. After which I get fed up and go back to my normal eating habits. So this New Year's, I am not "going on a diet." Instead, I am going to talk to a nutritionist and learn how to eat better for the rest of my life.

Moving to more sensitive territory, let's talk about your career. Do you think that working harder is the cure for your job woes? That is how your boss thinks, of course. I've got a much better idea: pick the most fun thing you could possibly be doing and become absolutely incredible at it. When I finally left corporate life to spend every day doing what I love, many years ago, it wasn't just the best emotional move I ever made - it was the best financial one as well.

Finally, since this is a communications skills blog, let's close with my favorite subject: getting along with people. Resolving to be nicer to others never works - you either slip back into your old habits, or you open your mouth and nothing comes out. Most people feel like deer frozen in the headlights in their most difficult situations, until they are taught to say the right things. Then it becomes incredibly easy to be nice to people, resolve conflict, and negotiate what you want.

So, if your business struggles with infighting, difficult customers, employee motivation, high turnover, or any other communications problem, I've got a dandy New Year's resolution for you: go to and see what we can do for you in 2010. And then watch what happens when you replace willpower with a much more potent force: skill power.

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