Every evening, Marshall Goldsmith pays an associate to call and ask a series of questions about his behaviour that day. As a high-profile executive coach, he knows how difficult it is for top leaders to cleanse themselves of destructive behaviours. He makes his clients accountable to the people around them in order to heighten the pressure to adjust. And the nightly ritual is his own trigger to recap the day and aim for better behaviour tomorrow.
In his new book Triggers, he defines them as any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions. “In every waking hour we are being triggered by people, events, and circumstances that have the potential to change us,” he notes. The triggers are practically infinite in number. The key is to make them work for us rather than deflect us from our goals.
By Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter
Crown Business, 244 pages, $32.00
Unfortunately, too many work against us, making meaningful behavioural change very difficult. When he interviewed people on the topic, the most poignant comments came about behaviour they felt they should have changed but didn’t. “They’re reflecting on their failure to become the person they wanted to be. And it often overwhelms them with desolate feelings of regret,” he writes.
Indeed, the book opens with a verse from Birds on a Wire, a song by Canadian poet-singer Leonard Cohen, a master of desolate regret:
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried out to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
We tend to deny regret or rationalize it. He suggests a different attitude: Embracing regret, although not too tightly, or for too long. “When we make bad choices and fail ourselves or hurt the people we love, we should feel pain. That pain can be motivating and in the best sense, triggering — a reminder that maybe we messed up but we can do better. It’s one of the most powerful feelings guiding us to change,” he observes.
And that’s important because nobody can make us change unless we want to. Change has to come from within. It can’t be dictated by your boss or demanded by colleagues. If you don’t wholeheartedly commit to change, it won’t happen. Even then, the obstacles are considerable, starting with inner beliefs that sabotage us such as:
- If I understand, I will do it: People who have read his books say it’s just about common sense. And it is. But just because people understand his ideas for behavioural change doesn’t mean they can implement them.
- I have willpower and won’t give into temptation: He argues we overestimate our willpower and chronically underestimate the power of triggers in our own environment that will lead us astray. Odysseus knew better. He put wax in his men’s ears and tied himself to the ship’s mast in order to ward off the Sirens’ singing.
- Today is a special day: When we yield to impulse and break with desired behaviour we label the momentary lapse as an outlier event. But it reoccurs, if we’re not vigilant.
- “At least I’m better than…”: In our down moments, we console ourselves with comparisons to others. “We award ourselves a free pass because we’re not the worst in the world. This is our excuse to take it easy, lowering the bar on our motivation and discipline,” he says.
- I shouldn’t need help and structure: We have too strong a belief in our own abilities and contempt for simplicity and structure. We believe that we are above needing structure to help us on seemingly simple tasks.
Not Goldsmith, however. That’s why he takes those nightly calls that force him to review the day and determine whether he has lived up to the standards he has set. The questions he fields include:
- Did I do my best to set clear goals?
- Did I do my best to make progress towards goal achievement?
- Did I do my best to find meaning?
- Did I do my best to be happy?
- Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
- Did I do my best to be fully engaged?
- Did I do my best to learn something new?
- Did I do my best to avoid angry or destructive comments about others?
- Did I do my best to avoid trying to prove myself right when it’s not worth it?
- Did I do my best to not waste energy on what I cannot change?
- Did I do my best to exercise?
- Did I do my best get a good night’s sleep?
- Did I do my best have a healthy diet?
- Did I do my best to say or do something nice for Lyda [his wife]?
- Did I do my best say or do something nice for Bryan [his son]?
- Did I do my best say or do something nice for Kelly [his daughter]?
- Did I do my best say or do something nice for Reid [his son-in-law]?
The questions cover a variety of issues beyond just being effective at the office. It’s an approach you may want to consider for triggering better behaviours in your own life, having a trusted friend pose questions appropriate to your own situation by phone or email.
The daily questions force you to be accountable to yourself. They prevent the slippage that happens as we become consumed with life’s many tasks and our vows of change fly out of mind. They can only be forgotten until the day’s question period. It keeps you on track, so that you don’t end up with desolate regrets.
The wording is essential. The constant “Did I do my best?” mantra seems needlessly repetitive and wordy but is actually crucial. Previously, he asked questions that allowed him to evade accountability, such as: “How happy were you today?” or “How meaningful was your work?” If he wasn’t happy and work lacked meaning, he could blame it on some factor outside himself. Now, he isn’t asked how well he performed but how much effort he put in, having to rate it on a 1 to ten scale. That’s a more active, engaging question. It injects personal ownership.
“If I scored low on trying to be happy I had only myself to blame. We may not hit our goals every time, but there is no excuse for not trying,” he writes. “This ‘active’ process will help anyone get better at almost anything. It only takes a couple of minutes a day. But be warned: It is tough to face the reality of our own behaviour — and our own level of effort — every day.”
There’s no prescribed number of questions. Some of his clients have only three or four, focusing on some crucial behavioral changes they crave. Usually the questions individuals devise cover health, family, relationships, money, enlightenment, or discipline.
People routinely assume they have a better than 50 per cent target of hitting the targets in their question. But that’s unrealistic. “Within two weeks,” he will announce at workshops, “half of you will give up and stop answering the Daily Questions.”
That doesn’t just mean they — and you, if you try the method — will slack off on a few of the goals. The tendency is to abandon the process completely, no longer keeping score. When struggling, the questions can prod us to redouble our efforts. But ashamed, we could also quit rather than be faced daily with numerical evidence of our failings. After all, we wrote the questions and are flunking the test.
In dealing with triggers, it’s helpful to distinguish between discipline and self-control, which we tend to view as the same thing. There’s a subtle difference. Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behaviour while self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behaviours. Behavioural change demands both.
Most people are better at one than another and we can phrase our questions accordingly. “Did I do my best to limit my sugar consumption?” calls for self-discipline, while “Did I do my best to say no to sweets?” hits at self-control.
The questions provide structure. And he says we’ll never get better without structure. Keeping them active and thinking about the difference between discipline and self-control can help shape them better. If you don’t want to end up with deep regrets about your career or beyond-career life, Triggers can help, providing the intellectual and research backdrop as well as practical tools.