Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Influence

Blind and Outnumbered by Life

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

Mine is a story of conflicting priorities and unmade decisions. My bad habits at home support my bad habits at work, and these habits are all supported by behavior, social influences, and environmental infrastructure that need to change. When I try to pick one thing to work on, I find several others that undermine my efforts.

For example, we’re trying to remodel our kitchen but we ran out of money so we can’t hire someone to finish it. We eat out too often because our kitchen is torn apart and our house is always cluttered, but we don’t have time to exercise or clean because we’re too busy with work and school activities. We have very few friends because we don’t want to invite people to our house and we’re too busy juggling everything else. How do I know where to start when it seems that everything I’d like to change is interdependent or influenced by all the other things I’d like to change?

Where to Start

A Dear Where to Start,

I understand your concern. It reminds me of that old saying that tells us, “life comes at you fast.” Each little concern or unfinished bit of life can have a ripple effect, not only on our own life, but also on the lives of loved ones and friends. When we stop long enough to assess our circumstances, we conclude—as you did—that “mine is a story of conflicting priorities and unmade decisions.”

I’d like to talk to you like I’m your best friend. This means I care about you and I want to help you solve these issues. I’m going to be as honest as I can but I know I can’t make these changes for you. If I were your best friend, I’d be able to ask questions that would help us understand the real issues. Without being able to ask those questions I may miss the mark a bit, and I hope you and the tens of thousands of onlookers (no pressure) will cut me some slack.

I’ll start with a word you used in the first sentence of your question: “story.” We’ve been teaching people to master their clever stories for years. A clever story is what we tell ourselves to justify our own behaviors. So, as your best friend, I’m asking what stories you’re telling yourself that make it difficult for you to be as effective as you want to be? Here are some possible stories I see.

Problem: Your kitchen is in the middle of an unfinished remodel.
Story: You eat out too often because of the remodel.
Option: There are many ways to cook at home with only a fridge and a microwave. You and your family need to make the decision to eat at home.

Problem: You think your house is messy.
Story: You are too busy or tired to clean.
Option: For years, I tried to teach my children about the magic of five minutes. At the end of the day, after you’ve readied yourself for bed, take five minutes to straighten the bathroom, bedroom, and closet. Before you go to work, clean up the little mess you made getting ready. After any meal, clean up the mess and wash the dishes. In your case, you may want to set the foundation by having a magic half-day or full-day. Take a Saturday, remind everyone of the benefits of having a clean house, and then clean up. Creating a plan for regular cleaning takes away a lot of other problems.

Problem: You don’t have enough friends.
Story: You don’t invite people to your house because of the remodel and because you’re too busy juggling work and school activities.
Option: Invite others to do things outside of the house. There are many inexpensive activities you can do outside such as hikes, picnics, and so forth. You are certainly correct that a key step to making friends is initiating invitations, but you needn’t stop inviting people because of your house or your schedule.

Now remember, this advice is coming from your distant best friend. I may be missing the mark. I may cause you to counter every suggestion with a “yeah, but.” However, remember that clever stories are called clever because they are tricky. They are hard to see, they can morph quickly and they can call in more of their clever clan in nanoseconds. When we fall short of the results we want, or when we start feeling down and hopeless, we need to assess what we honestly have and what we really want.

You might need a friend to help you do this. What you don’t want at times of assessment and planning are accomplices. Remember, a friend is someone who helps us; an accomplice is someone who helps us get and/or stay in trouble. Accomplices help us spin clever stories; friends help us see our stories and find options out of them.

It’s clear from your question that you have an understanding of the six sources of influence. I agree that you have many sources of influence affecting your behaviors, and thus the results you are getting in your life. You do have—as we all have—some bad behaviors and unmade decisions, but you don’t have to stay there. I advise you to find the vital behaviors that will help you get what you really want and need. For example, your vital behaviors might include:
1. Cleaning the house every Saturday morning.
2. Practicing the magic five minutes at bedtime, before work, and after each meal.
3. Inviting a friend for an affordable outing each Friday night.

After you identify your vital behaviors, ask yourself, “How can I marshal enough influence to make sure I do these behaviors?” Then, ask the following questions to identify tactics in each of the six sources:

Source 1: Love What You Hate — Can you articulate the positive benefits you would get from changing your behavior?
Source 2: Do What You Can’t — Can you improve your organizing and cleaning skills? Can you learn about inexpensive activities to do with friends?
Sources 3 and 4: Turn Accomplices into Friends — Can you get buy-in from the people you live with? Can you ask a friend to hold you accountable to your clever stories or to help you analyze and adjust when your plan isn’t working?
Source 5: Invert the Economy — Can you identify an affordable reward that would be meaningful to you if you stick to your plan for a month? Can you set up a scorecard and report your performance to a coach or mentor?
Source 6: Control Your Space — Can you put up cues and reminders? In short, what can you do to change your surroundings and get the numbers in your favor?

Notice that I have said nothing about finishing the kitchen. Of course, it would be wonderful to complete this project, but it need not stand in the way of achieving many of the goals that are important to you. Often, we hold back in achieving our goals because we tell ourselves a clever story that justifies all the reasons we simply can’t succeed. I believe your kitchen remodel has become your Achilles heel to accomplishing other achievable goals like cleanliness and friendship. It’s time to change your story and start isolating one behavior challenge from the next.

As a friend, I’ve tried to give you a starting point. Begin by looking at the stories that affect your decisions. From that process, options will emerge. Then identify the vital behaviors that will get you to your desired goals, and marshal enough influence that you will be motivated and enabled to do the behaviors. Start small and then aim bigger. In that way, we are more likely to overwhelm our problems rather than simply be overwhelmed.

Best wishes,


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10 thoughts on “Blind and Outnumbered by Life”

  1. Peggy Berry

    I so agree!

  2. Ronnetta Lee

    Dear Al:
    Not sure how you did it but this morning you gave me what I needed to hear. I could have been at coffee with you or just talking but your post touched me and I had to write.
    Thank you for your suggestions and firm comments. I have felt that your website is a godsend ever since I took the crucial conversations class, I tell everyone it saved my job and thus my life.
    Oh well got it off my chest.
    Have a great day.

  3. Dave

    I love this article, because it encourages me to focus on what I can do, and that reminds me of a former professor.
    Years ago, those of us who worked for him in the lab used to laugh at him behind his back because he always seemed so spaced out, and we called his office the black hole, because anything we left there disappeared. But one day he popped into the lab and asked me a question. I launched into an answer with a long-winded explanation of why I couldn’t do it. He interrupted me with, “Let’s focus on what we can do,” with his emphasis on the can.
    That response has stayed with me the rest of my life, partly because this man walked his talk. You see, shortly after that, he became an astronaut and took two flights on the space shuttle. When he retired from astronaut duty, he became Dean of Engineering at my alma mater. The last I’ve heard of him, he was undersecretary of defense in Washington, DC.
    His name? Ron Sega. I will always remember Dr. Sega as the can-do man. Let’s focus on what we can do.

  4. Brenda

    I manage clutter by 2 guidelines:

    1. Clean as you go. Don’t create piles. Put it away or throw it away as soon as you’re finished with it.

    2. Do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not. The last seven words in this guideline are the most important. I find that I’m saying this to myself frequently.

  5. Robert Sells

    My mother taught me a long time ago that a true friend will not care about how your house looks, especially if you are in the middle of a remodel. A true friend visits you not your house. If they can’t come over to see you because of the way your house looks, then they are not a true friend.
    A true friend may even give helpful hints or even lend a hand in the remodel or even help straightening up the house. That’s what friends are for.

  6. Dog owner

    All I hear are excuses. If there is a will, there is a way. When my husband went for his check up, his sugar level was border line. Instead of crying about it and saying poor me, he went to a nutritionist and found out how to change his diet to lower his sugar level. He has lost over 32 pounds and I joined him and lost over 25. When people ask me how I am doing it, I tell them cut out the carbs which include bread, pasta and sugar. Also I do not drink alcohol. Every person comes back and says I can’t do that. If you want something bad enough, you will do it. I also work on our house remodeling it. I have torn rooms apart. Yes I am a woman, work full time. Some nights I was working till 11:00 on the house to get it done. If you want it bad enough, you will find a way.

  7. Bridget Downey

    Your column itself is a great example of what overwhelmed people CAN do. It is free, quick and easy to read, and comes just frequently enough that it’s fun to read without being a daily chore. Maybe we can’t all afford to attend your wonderful workshops or become experts in this field, but we sure can improve our lives and others by taking just one hint from each of your columns and working on it ’till the next one comes along. Thanks for these wonderful gifts.

  8. Karen Carleton

    We just need to apply these principles to change ourselves.

  9. Joyce Martinson

    WOW ~ I could be “Where to Start” except mine was to be a kitchen remodel until my basement walls started leaking ~ now it is a basement remodel that has been going on for 5.5 months!!! Just now getting willing to let people into my house, as well as the energy to do something about it ~ The “Influencer Training” your company offers helped a bit along with the “Vital Behaviors” ~ thank you!!! to Al Switzler as well as “Where to start”/…

  10. Anne

    My second husband taught me a valuable lesson when I used to “kitchen-sink” about what I could not do, which could evolve into a laundry list such as this. He told me to “chunk it out” into smaller, more achievable, tasks. This is what you did with the five minute solution. Baby steps eventually become a big picture of improvement. Even if you tidy up the kitchen remodel (I have stayed at friend’s homes with bathroom remodels dating to the late 90’s) it is the sharing of time with people, not the “stuff” that matters. Perspective is everything! I know it might be easy for me to say but eventually my hope for this person is that they join into life with gusto and what really is important to them and what will truly make them happy. Great article!

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