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Want better relationships, more money, greater happiness? Change your behavior

Joseph Grenny has a theory you can improve any aspect of your life — your career path, your family relationships, your personal health, how much money you’ve socked away — through a process of honest examination, followed by changed behavior.

Mind you, those aspects of life are each very different, so with each you’d have to change different things about the way you operate. But they’re all moveable and improvable. And the changes can be surprisingly small.

“It really does come back to behavior, said Grenny, co-founder of the training company VitalSmarts and co-author of the New York Times' best-seller “Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success.

“Examine your habits and, if you change them a modest amount, you’d improve the outcomes.”

Nowhere is that more true than in personal relationships, where individual behaviors predict the strengths and weaknesses of the bonds. For instance, how people handle the discussions and other aspects of their relationship that are emotionally risky has the biggest impact on that relationship’s strength and duration. Little improvements have dramatic results, he said.

It’s a skill Grenny will share this Friday at Provo’s Community Date Night event (see below), where he plans to teach his approach to helping couples and their children overcome the bad behaviors that plague them, while developing happier habits that can transform family life.

“When it comes to personal health, we all know it’s about habits: exercise, stress, eating habits. Most people know the habits they need to change, but they don’t know how” in spite of “very, very practical advice from the social sciences for about 60 years,” he said.

Puzzled by how

Most people don’t know effective ways to put all that advice into motion, he noted.

The same holds true for spending habits, parenting habits and others. It’s a reflection of the same principles.

“One of the best things to do is pick an area that is meaningful for you to improve,” said Grenny.

An article in Harvard Women’s Health Watch noted some of the challenges of change, looking at health issues. The lessons are also applicable to other kinds of change. “Considerable research has been aimed at identifying factors that contribute to successful lifestyle change as well as more effective tools for clinicians — especially in the context of a brief office visit — to counsel their patients on adopting healthier habits. One problem may be that we’re motivated too often by a sense of guilt, fear or regret. Experts who study behavior change agree that long-lasting change is most likely when it’s self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking.”

The article noted that goals are more reachable when they’re specific: walking 20 minutes a day, instead of "exercising more." It cautions against setting too many goals at a time, which reduces the likelihood of reaching even one.

Change does not have to occur in a “problem” area, either. You can have a good marriage and apply behavior change to make it better. That would be an aspirational application of change, the goal to move from good to great. Just picking an area to work on has the power to demonstrate how effectively change can make a difference, which can motivate other changes that can transform other aspects of life, Grenny said.

“You go to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.”

Date night

There’s a reason that date night — whether you’re a couple testing the waters to see if there’s a lasting relationship in the future or a married couple that stays strong by making time for regular dates — is a great place to look at not just your own behavior, but how it intersects with that of other people.

“Behavior is always a team sport,” said Grenny. “Other people play a role in my behavior, influencing, provoking. It’s always a social process. Even if you’re thinking about career advancement, others play a powerful supporting role” in decisions and process.

One of the behaviors he and his wife, Celia, adopted from the moment they exchanged their "I dos," Grenny said, was date night. Twenty-six years later, they still regularly carve out special together time to enhance their marriage. That's also the purpose of the myriad date night activities that are embraced in communities as diverse as Chicago and Chattanooga, Palm Springs and Houston.

A couple of years ago, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia published a date night report that said couples who interact with the focus they exhibited in the beginning of their relationship are more likely to enjoy a high-quality relationship and lower divorce rates.

Benefits cited in the report, "The Date Night Opportunity," include better communication, sexual satisfaction and commitment. Interaction, it said, is more beneficial than passive activity like watching a movie. Activities that are not routine do the most for the relationship. So, speaking of change, change it up a bit.

Start somewhere

Robert Brooks, assistant clinical professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and past director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, writes about the power of changing one's own behavior as a tool to change young lives. On, his advice includes not expecting the other person to make the first change. One’s own willingness to alter behavior can spark change in someone else. He also suggests figuring what hasn’t worked so that you can take a different tack. Doing so often leads to new solutions that may be more effective, he wrote.

Life is about the little decisions, which add up to and influence the bigger ones. Take eating habits and what you wish your kids would do. If you put cookies in a clear plastic bag in the refrigerator, Grenny said, they are three times more likely to be eaten than if you put them in a dark bag. It makes a difference, too, whether they’re on the top shelf or the bottom.

Do you put a candy dish on your counter or a bowl of fruit, he asked.

Some of the decisions are cultural or traditional, as in, “My mother or father did it this way.”

It’s astonishing how many choices in a home affect children’s study habits and how well they do in school, whether they get interested in books or like to spend time with the family. That’s the empowering thing, Grenny said. You can target the change you want and alter behavior. There’s a lot that can be done besides traditional nagging or making someone feel guilty.

Life is filled with what experts call consequential decisions, but they’re often made with little understanding of what the consequences might be. Grenny uses the example of a teenage boy who says he’d like to have the unfinished basement for his bedroom.

“I’m not saying whether he should or shouldn’t, but the decision to make his room a staircase — an entire floor — away will have profound consequences on the strength of the relationship and opportunities to cooperate and interact,” said Grenny.

“Many parents make decisions naively: It would be fun for him to have his own room, so go ahead.”

Examining the decision a bit more closely might alter it — or the outcome it brings.

Couples have especially good opportunities to modify behaviors and affect change. There’s power when couples share a vocabulary and a common way of thinking about problems, then tackle them together.

Grenny says people have six "sources of influence," including values, skills, social circles, reward systems and environments. Often, they work against you, but that can change.

Date night in Provo

Wish your kids spent less time playing video games, your spouse would stick to the budget and you could lose weight? Joseph Grenny, best-selling author, will teach how to embrace better behaviors at the Provo Community Date Night.

The event takes place Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Provo City Library, 440 N. University Ave. Cost is $7 a person and each couple will receive a copy of the New York Times best-seller, "Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success."

Click here to register and learn more.

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