Tuesday, August 31, 2010

True But Useless

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Find The Bright Spots

In 1990, Jerry Sternin was working for Save The Children, the international organization that helps children in need. He'd been asked to open a new office in Vietnam. The government had invited Save The Children into the country to fight malnutrition. But when Sternin arrived, the welcome was rather chilly. The foreign minister let him know that not everyone in the government appreciated his presence. The minister told Sternin, "You have six months to make a difference.'

Sternin was traveling with his wife and 10-year-old son. None of them spoke Vietnamese. "We were like orphans at the airport when we arrived in Vietnam," he recalled. "We had no idea what we were going to do." Sternin had minimal staff and meager resources.

Sternin had read as much as he could about the malnutrition problem. The conventional wisdom was that malnutrition was the result of an intertwined set of problems: Sanitation was poor. Poverty was nearly universal. Clean water was not readily available. The rural people tented to be ignorant about nutrition.

In Sternin's judgement, all of this analysis was "TBU" - true but useless. "Millions of kids can't wait for those issues to be addresed," he said. If addressing malnutrition required ending poverty and purifying water and building sanitation systems, then it would never happen. Especially in six months, with almost no money to spend.

Sternin had a better idea. He traveled to rural villages and met with groups of local mothers. The mothers divided into teams and went out to weigh and measure every child in their village. They then poured over the results together.

Sternin asked them, "Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?" The women scanning the data, nodded and said, "Co, co, co." (Yes, yes, yes.)

Sternin said, "You mean it's possible today in this village for a very poor family to have a well-nourished child?"

"Co, co, co."

"Then let's go see what they're doing."

- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (pp. 27-28)

Sternin found that children who were eating four meals a day with calories spread out (rather than the two meals typical in the area) and eating meals supplemented with shrimps, crabs, and sweet-potato greens (not considered "child food" by most families) were the hardiest. He then implemented communal meal preparation "workshops", led by neighborhood mothers, to dispense the information.

The book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, proposes a three-part framework to create behavioral change:

*"Direct The Rider" - Provide clear direction so that the rational mind ("the rider") will not suffer from "paralysis of analysis", or be immobilized by an inability to choose from a mountain of possible solutions.
For most trainees, having a very explicit plan of action makes change easier. People prefer to be told what to do (weights, sets, reps, exercises, training frequency, calories, menu items, supplements, etc).

*"Motivate The Elephant" - Recruit the emotions ("the elephant") to your cause, so that you aren't constantly fighting a battle you can't win. Photos, food logs and training records, videos, etc. can all help create and sustain emotional commitment to getting stronger and into shape  - and staying that way.

*"Shape The Path" - Alter your surroundings to make success more likely. Buying the smaller size (even though the "value meal" gives you more calories per dollar), having a home gym or a membership to a 24 hour gym nearby, and using smaller dinner plates are all examples of small, seemingly inconsequential things that may add up to big time change over the longer haul.

How often do we get bogged down by the "TBU" (true but useless) conditions that limit our training and ultimately our potential? What can YOU do to make the changes you've been wanting but haven't gotten around to yet?

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