In this article we will explore two exercises we call the Skills Scan and Instant Ability and how applying them can create tremendous freedom and power by escaping the “willpower trap” and exploring change from a different perspective.
- Understand that as a health and fitness professional your primary objective is to help your clients develop better HABITS that will lead to the results they are seeking.
- Recognize the “willpower trap” and how it negatively impacts client results.
- Understand the Fogg Behavior Model and its ramifications on our basic coaching approach.
- Learn how to successfully guide clients through the Skills Scan and Instant Ability exercises.
What’s Wrong with Me?
One of the most common refrains heard in any health and fitness setting is,
“I just wish I had more discipline (or willpower or self-control, etc)! What’s wrong with me?”
Whether this frustration is about a client’s “inability” to stick to a new training program, or a professional trainer being consistently late in responding to client emails, lack of consistent progress is usually blamed on a lack of willpower; but in many cases this is not true.(McGonigal, 2012).
Thankfully, modern neuroscience is helping us understand that willpower is a limited resource like anything else in the body! While it would be amazing to be able to sprint for 26.2 miles, our physiologic reserves will not allow it – we run out of sprinting capacity after a brief period of time. Willpower should be thought of in much the same way: we can use it up and then must wait for it to replenish (Duhigg, 2012).
As a health and fitness professional this means that we have to approach change efforts with more knowledge and subtlety than ever before. One fantastic mental tool we use personally and with our clients is a Skills Scan. Explained simply, I often tell clients,
“You may not lack willpower, you may lack skill-power!”
What We Do
I believe that as health and fitness professionals we need to become “experts” in assisting behavior change as our first priority. The truth is that we often spend far more time than any other professional with our clients over the course of a year; which gives us both a tremendous opportunity coupled with a great deal of responsibility.
Yes, we teach people to exercise safely and intelligently, to get and stay out of pain, to eat in a healthy, fulfilling way and to perform better at everything in life. However, the key to making all of this happen is understanding how to help our clients change behavior and habits.
Archimedes is famous for saying, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."
In essence, that’s what we do too. Your clients should think of you as a leverage coach. We are there to help them find the right levers to move their world in a better direction.
Human Behavior 101
It may surprise you to learn that our understanding of behavior really hasn’t advanced much over the last 150 years. Science, particularly neuroscience, is slowly unlocking some of the secrets of why we do what we do but, ultimately, everything that we know is a combination of research and real-world experience.
One of our favorite models of behavior is taken from BJ Fogg, PhD of Stanford University. He explains behavior this way:
B(Behavior) = M(Motivation)A(Ability)T(Triggers)
In essence, he says that everything that we do is the result of our current level of motivation, coupled with our ability, tied to a trigger event (Fogg, behaviormodel.org). While this may sound overly simplistic, it’s actually brilliant and offers a huge amount of insight into why we are able to build some habits and fail at others.
For our purposes in this article, one of the most important insights to come from this model is that the MAT are all happening at the same time and they are intimately related. If you have a client who is HIGHLY MOTIVATED to lose weight – that’s great. Unfortunately, for that high motivation to become a positive weight loss behavior there are two other pieces of the equation: Triggers and Ability.
What has come of our Fogg’s research is that even for highly motivated individuals, if they lack the ABILITY to take the necessary actions, the new behavior or habit doesn’t happen or doesn’t stick (Fogg, behaviormodel.org).
Let’s look at a real world example…
Imagine that you have the virtually “ideal” client. You’ve been training her for over a year and you’ve both seen consistent improvement in her physique goals, strength, endurance, etc. She has been consistently following the dietary plan you set in place and everything is going well.
She comes into the gym and says, “Hey, our big vacation is coming up and I want to make sure that I don’t lose any momentum. What should I do while I’m away?” You tell her that you will write her a “vacation program” that she can perform in the resort gym, thinking that everything will be fine. Remember, this is a GREAT CLIENT who is already demonstrating great habits.
However, when she gets to the vacation spot, she relaxes for a day and then grabs her workout and heads to the resort gym. As soon as she walks in she knows that she’s in trouble because she doesn’t recognize any of the equipment as it’s very different from her home gym. Plus, the program that you wrote for her is based on free weights and the only resistance equipment in the resort gym are machines. Suddenly, your perfect client who was highly MOTIVATED to continue training suddenly lacks ABILITY to perform the workout and the intended BEHAVIOR doesn’t happen. She feels guilty about it the whole two weeks away and blames herself for not having enough willpower. Sound familiar?
A Potential Solution
In Fogg’s model, he has a tight focus on a singular idea:
Increased Simplicity = Increased Ability
One of his most famous examples of this concept is if you are having trouble flossing your teeth you can begin a new habit by focusing on flossing ONLY one tooth! While that may sound ridiculous to some, it works almost like magic for many people because flossing one tooth is SIMPLER than flossing all of them. By taking a “difficult” task, like flossing, that someone is currently lacking the ABILITY to perform and making it easier, their ABILITY to be successful automatically increases which often triggers both greater motivation and the new behavior (Fogg, behaviormodel.org).
As health and fitness professionals, this concept should make perfect sense. You already regress exercises and movement skills for your clients to help them eventually make progress, right?
Client can’t squat? Maybe you spend some time focusing on ankle mobility or spinal stability.
Baseball player is in a batting slump? Maybe you evaluate his vision or refer him out if necessary.
With that said, we need to realize that the same concept of regression to easier skills applies in behavior too!
How It Works
The following two exercises are to be used sequentially with your client:
- Skills Scan
- Instant Ability
The Skills Scan begins with the basic premise that in accomplishing any specific goal, not all skills are of equal value (Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillan, & Swizler, 2013). When we work with clients we are always trying to identify high-leverage skills that they may be lacking that are negatively impacting their MOTIVATION and ABILITY. When you first perform these exercises with your clients, you will be shocked by what you learn in many cases about near-essential skills they are lacking. The basic exercise should take you approximately 15 minutes to work through with your client.
After the Skills Scan comes the Instant Ability worksheet, which is used to SIMPLIFY the essential skill identified in the previous exercise. The goal here is to SIMPLIFY it so much that it is virtually impossible to fail (INCREASED ABILITY).
- You need to first do these exercises ON YOURSELF! Most health and fitness professionals that we work with are in a constant state of personal evolution and find these exercises incredibly helpful. Plus, you want to have an idea of how it feels to work through them personally before you try it with a client.
- Next, choose one of your MORE motivated clients struggling to change something in his or her diet, exercise, sleep, etc., without success. Let them know that you want to go through an exercise with them during their next session that will help jumpstart their change process.
- Print out copies of both exercises (from the links above) and have them available when they arrive.
- We recommend that you take 1-2 minutes to explain the basic concepts of the Skills Scan exercise, then simply set a timer and let your client work. Once they’ve completed the exercise, you now have a LOT of information to work with.
- At this point, get on with your training session and send them home with the Instant Ability exercises and ask them to complete it before your next session.
- Be sure to review BOTH exercises with them at the next session and make sure that their new actions are PHYSICALLY SCHEDULED on their calendar.
Watch the video below for a deeper look into this process:
Over 25 years of coaching clients, one of the most powerful gifts we’ve ever been able to provide is the realization for many that they are not broken or dysfunctional in the willpower department, but rather lack critical skills that they need to be successful. Give this process a try and enjoy the results!
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit. Random House.
Fogg, BJ. www.behaviormodel.org
Grenny, J., Patterson, K., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., Swizler, A. (2013). Influencer: The new science of leading change. McGraw-Hill Education.
Mcgonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. Penguin Books.
Previously Published on PTontheNet