How to Change Behavior: Skill vs. Will

In teaching, we often distinguish between skill and will. If a student isn’t achieving, we try to diagnose whether it’s a matter of skill, will, or both. If a student doesn’t know how or hasn’t had enough access to instruction or practice, it’s more than likely a matter of skill. On the other hand, when the student knows how but is choosing not to use that skill for some reason, it’s a matter of will.

Skill challenges are relatively easy to solve; experienced educators can leverage lots of tools to increase knowledge and practice. Will challenges are a different beast. They might result from anything from a lack of motivation to a lack of self-awareness, or be the result of powerful habits that get in the way of taking action even when a student knows how.

Learning is Learning

Outside of teaching, the same diagnostics of skill and will are valuable. Consider the practice of healthy eating. People who struggle with healthy eating habits may have a skill problem. They might not know what foods are healthy, how to make healthy and appetizing meals that fuel their daily lives, or how to match their energy intake with their energy expenditure. They may need help understanding macronutrients, building a menu, or learning to cook or evaluate prepared foods.

Alternatively, they may have a will problem. They may fully understand what healthy looks like and how to execute on it, and they may even desire the good feelings and health that come with healthy eating. Instead, the nature of their struggle may lie in the habits that get in the way of doing what they know is important. For example, they may plan a healthy menu, but then find themselves eating poorly when they are bored (or happy or sad), when a friend brings dessert, and so on.

Work Habits Die Hard

At work, habits can be both extremely powerful and also invisible. We rarely meet people who want to do a bad job at work. We frequently meet people, however, who feel like they are destined for mediocrity because they can’t seem to break the habit of frantically putting out fires all day with little time left to do “their actual jobs.”

The result is that they don’t do the job they believe they can, even if they know what they should be doing to be more effective. Over and over again, they strengthen their resolve, commit to doing things differently, and then get pulled into the fray the moment they walk through the office door. By the end of the day, they feel like the day happened to them rather than the other way around. They feel demoralized and, eventually, give up.

Later, they feel the same agonizing feeling of ineffectiveness again and choose to take a different action. Usually, that action is some kind of learning or training. They sign up for a course or coaching, read a book, or go to a conference. They learn new and interesting things and try to put them into practice. But again, their efforts don’t get the results they’re looking for. Why? They tried to solve a will problem with a skill problem.

Perhaps because people often think that will problems are a matter of fortitude or mental toughness, they have trouble diagnosing such problems in themselves. If any of this sounds familiar for you or someone on your team, take note. You’re facing a will problem.

Address the “Will” Problem: Build New Habits

Break It Down

First things first: identify the habits that are in your way. Habits typically have three parts: the trigger, the reaction, and the consequence. If you’re not sure what these habits might be, look for chain reactions in your day. Here are two common examples:

  • Example A: You receive a new mail notification and instead of ignoring it, you immediately open the message. That results in reading that message, plus others in your inbox, which then results in your mind spinning through what you could or should be doing instead of what you were doing. You either then take action on the new urgent thing, or you take no action because you’re overwhelmed by so many possible actions. Later, you didn’t accomplish anything you needed to, and you blame the “fires” that constantly show up in your inbox.
  • Example B: You feel bored by the conversation in a meeting, so you try to multitask by taking care of some other task while concurrently listening to the conversation. You fade in and out of the task you’re doing and the conversation, which results in a slowed or inaccurate completion of your task and feeling that you didn’t quite follow the conversation. Rather than confess that you’re not clear on what happened because you were distracted, you move on with an incomplete understanding. Nothing is completed efficiently and you feel exhausted. You blame “all the things on your plate.”

These are not habits that serve anyone, but they are formed all the time and repeated so much that they become very hard to break.

Practice Counter-Habits

The not-so-secret secret to breaking them once you’ve found them is to replace them with other habits. Don’t try to leverage mental fortitude to just stop. It won’t work. Instead, build a counter-habit. Here’s what I mean:

  • Example A: Turn off your email notifications and put time on your calendar for email 1-2 times per day. When you have the urge to check email, do something else. Use a fidget device. Draw a picture. Look out the window. Or, my personal favorite, use a mantra (e.g., “Be present” or “On task!”) to refocus.
  • Example B: Create more immersive meetings. Most meetings are wasteful because people speak much more slowly than people comprehend language and there are no other ways to engage your senses. In short, meetings where people simply talk are very boring and telling ourselves otherwise doesn’t help us. Leverage agendas, slides, activities, and interaction to make meetings more useful. If you can’t, make them shorter or stand-up style. And if you cannot control any of those variables, use the refocus examples from Example A above.

Build New Habits into All Change Efforts

Now that you know what it looks like to diagnose the nature of what’s blocking change and how to breakthrough those blockages by identifying unhelpful habits and countering them with new ones, let’s apply this to change efforts.

All change efforts require people to do something—and often many things—differently. The process of making this shift should incorporate all of the behavioral change elements we’ve talked about so far, including first assessing whether you and your team have the requisite knowledge and skills. Start with yourself. If you need to do some learning, develop a focused plan and take action on it so you can lead with integrity.

Next, assess your team’s capacity and address knowledge and practice needs. Don’t skip the step of making sure you understand what they already know and can do, because leaders lose their teams when they fail to acknowledge their skills and contributions with one-size-fits-all training.

Now evaluate will. Take the time to understand what people are doing now that needs to change, and break those changes into habits. What are the habits that can persist, and what must change going forward? Can they be broken into serialized changes that are implemented one after the other? What more productive habits could replace each one? Is this the same for all team members, of unique to each individual? With this understanding, your role as a change leader (whatever your title may be) is to help people understand the habit substitutions and work with them to create accountability for making those shifts. Set milestones and celebrate progress together.

But What About…

This may all sound good for discrete habits, but what about big things like culture change or an organization-wide pivot? Aren’t those much more complex and interdependent examples? Sure. It is more complex to adjust many habits than to adjust one. Even the biggest and most complex efforts, however, can always be broken down into components that look exactly the same as the examples above.

Culture doesn’t emerge from a grand reveal that is meticulously engineered at the top and pushed down through the rest of the organization just as healthy eating doesn’t emerge one day. Both are the consequence of consistent effort sustained over time, and both result from the aggregation of a combination of effective habits.

Whatever you want to accomplish, you can only do so through behavioral change. And all behavioral change is one step at time, repeated over and over again.