While teaching a lesson, a stake president wrote a long list on a whiteboard that included the following words: burglary, drunk driving, habitual cursing, child abandonment, pornography addiction, drug addiction, adultery and unwed teenage pregnancy.

When the board was filled he asked, “What do these have in common?” After many guesses, the stake president said, “What all these sins have in common is that they were committed by saints in our stake over the last year.”

We could expand this list beyond sins and include crushing problems like excessive debt, failed relationships, lack of retirement savings and obesity. Unfortunately, Latter-day Saints do not have immunity from the sins of the world. We are subject to all of the weaknesses of human nature. Membership in the Church does not give us a pass on sins and trials.

The deep irony of our mortality is most of the serious sins and persistent problems we suffer from could be solved by simply changing our behavior. When we have a problem caused by our own behavior, we know we should change, we want to change, but we can’t get ourselves to do it.

We often incorrectly assume we need to strengthen our willpower in order to make desired changes. We resolve to do what we know we should do and stop doing what we know we shouldn’t. Some of us take up mantras such as, “I am stronger than that chocolate donut!” or “I will not let my anger control me.” We succeed for a couple days, maybe a week, and then we slip and violate our personal commitment. We are then overcome with feelings of disappointment, sometimes guilt and shame, and we start negative self-talk.

We call this tragic pattern of trying and failing to will ourselves to make personal change the “willpower trap.” This approach to difficult personal change problems guarantees failure. We don’t fail to change because of weak resolve or undercharged desire. Our failure comes from relying on an inadequate, flawed assumption about how human beings change their own behavior. Willpower alone doesn’t work.

Lehi, a prophet from the Book of Mormon, taught us:

“And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things… both things to act and things to be acted upon.”

We are acted upon by several influences. This is a fundamental condition of mortality, accompanied by a fundamental principle of personal change-we can only control our behavior by taking control of the things that control us.

Change Anything350For more than thirty years, my colleagues at VitalSmarts and I have consulted and trained leaders in how to influence behavior change to achieve the results they care most about. In conducting research for our latest best-seller, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, we studied 5,000 people working to make major personal changes from losing weight to kicking an addiction to improving important relationships.

We learned that there are six sources of influence that govern our behavior. Most people fail to change their behavior because they rely solely on their willpower and perhaps one other source of influence. However, those who succeeded at making big changes aligned all six sources of influence with their desired change. Our research shows these “changers” were ten times more likely to succeed than those relying on willpower alone.

The six sources of influence can be depicted by a simple graphic.


The six-source model focuses on our motivation and ability within personal, social and structural influences. Here are a few suggestions to create a change strategy targeted at each of the six sources of influence:


  1. Personal Motivation: Love What You Hate. Change the way you think about what you currently consider to be unpleasant behaviors. Until you genuinely enjoy the new behaviors, find motivation in the people and things around you.
  2. Personal Ability: Do What You Can’t. Learn the skills you need to make and keep new habits. For example, when facing temptation our research shows people who learn a couple of simple skills are 50% better at resisting their urges.
  3. Social Motivation & Ability: Turn Accomplices into Friends. Don’t underestimate the power of your peers. For example, Harvard sociologist Nicholas Christakis discovered that obesity is partly infectious. Having obese friends increases your chances of following suit by a whopping 75%.
  4. Structural Motivation: Invert the Economy. Did you know obesity costs the average person an extra $1,429 per year in increased healthcare costs? Reward yourself with the money you will save by changing your behavior. And when possible, stick to small rewards.
  5. Structural Ability: Control Your Space. Make physical changes to your environment that enable new behaviors. For example, Brian Wansink from Cornell University found that people eat 92% of whatever is on their plate-regardless of how big it is. The difference between 12-inch and 9-inch plates totals 33% more calories! 

Let us remember Philippians 4:13 which reads, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” After we study the issue out in our mind, create a change plan and approach the Lord faithfully in prayer, He will help provide the strength to escape the “willpower trap” and harness the sources of influence needed to achieve our goals.


Ron McMillan is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer, and Change Anything.

For more than 25 years, he has served as an expert in behavior change, interpersonal communication, and corporate training. A gifted speaker, McMillan has presented to executives at Lockheed Martin, AT&T, Nike, Saturn, Hewlett-Packard, Ford, Sprint, Disney, Harley-Davidson, Providence Healthcare, and Intel. He is also a regular speaker at Brigham Young University’s Campus Education Week.

A pioneer in the training industry, McMillan is the former co-founder of the Covey Leadership Center where he helped develop numerous training programs including Principle Centered Leadership and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

McMillan is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has helped more than 300 of the Fortune 500 realize significant results using a proven method for driving rapid, sustainable, and measurable change in behaviors. www.vitalsmarts.com