Books with Impact: Triggers

The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

I first read Triggers about two years ago… and it was one of those experiences where I could tell that the book was meaningful, but it simply wasn’t the right moment in my life for the book to click with me. I did my usual routine with nonfiction books, which is that I highlighted it like crazy as I was reading it, let it sit for a few weeks, and then went back through the highlights, writing down the ones that were still jumping out at me, and writing down my own reflections on those thoughts, too. Then, for whatever reason, I put those notes and thoughts aside and didn’t think about them any more.

Then, several months ago, one of my favorite podcasts released an episode where they discussed the book in detail. After listening to that discussion, I went back and looked through my notes on it, and something clicked this time. I reread the book and, after my second time through it, something clicked, and it nudged me to put the principles into practice on something of a trial basis.

It’s been a pretty stunning success, and I’ve moved on to trying to use them on a much broader basis in my life. I can feel the impact of this book constantly in my life right now, and I wanted to share it with you.

Triggers is fairly well summarized by its subtitle: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. The core idea of the book is that virtually everything we do is made up of a sequence of behaviors that are triggered by our internal and external environment. Something inside us or outside us triggers a thought or a behavior, we execute that behavior, and then the cycle loops.

The problem is that we’ve built a life out of a complex set of triggers and behaviors and changing them is incredibly difficult. It’s a mix of changing the actual triggers in our environment – adding new ones, reducing or eliminating old ones – as well as changing the behavior we have in response to those triggers.

Goldsmith’s basic model is this: an event of some kind (the trigger) happens, we have a cascade of thoughts (often mostly subconscious, but some conscious), and this often results in us taking some kind of action (or non-action) in response.

A concrete example is probably a good idea here.

Let’s say I’m driving along in my car and I drive by one of my favorite independent bookstores in the world – Plot Twist Bookstore in Ankeny, Iowa. (Please, if you live in central Iowa and like books, stop in there if you get a chance.) The triggering event, for me, is getting close to that store – I notice the sign, or I simply realize by other environmental triggers that I’m close to the store.

Inside of me, a series of thoughts occur, most of them subconscious. I’m deliberating whether or not I should stop at Plot Twist and check out their selections, which comes with a real risk of buying a book or two, or drive on by and get to my destination. Being in that location is the trigger, my conscious and subconscious mind percolate with thoughts, and out comes a decision – I decide to stop in for a few minutes and see what’s on the shelf.

Another example: let’s say I’m walking through the kitchen, headed for the bathroom on the south end of the kitchen, when I walk by the fridge. That trigger causes a subconscious thought process, one that I am barely even aware of – am I hungry? is there something yummy in there? – and I take action on it by raiding the fridge or by continuing onward to the bathroom.

The core of his argument is that, if we want to change the actions we take in order to elicit better behavior, we need to find effective ways of either changing elements of our environment – which we have limited control over – or, more importantly, altering that cascade of thoughts in response to a trigger.

It makes sense. A lot of triggers in the environment are things that we can’t really change – sure, we can change a few things, but not everything. I can’t move the location of Plot Twist Bookstore (though I can, on occasion, drive a route to my destination that doesn’t take me anywhere near Plot Twist). I can’t really move the location of the fridge (I can use another bathroom, but… really? I’m not going to do that.) Goldsmith is fine with using some environmental changes to nudge things in a better direction, but the focus of the book is on that cascade of thoughts – the ones that take us from “trigger” to “action.”

Goldsmith spends perhaps the first half of the book setting up these concepts, as well as discussing the inherent difficulty of adult behavioral change.

The real problem is that we usually don’t recognize the vast, vast majority of the triggers in our environment and how we react to them. Instead, we walk through life being constantly nudged by triggers in our environment that nudge our behavior. (This is why advertisement and marketing is so effective – it’s all about nudges and altering that subconscious thought in response to a trigger just a little bit, just enough to get some more people to make a purchase.) We operate through inertia most of the time, almost on autopilot, bouncing from trigger->subconscious thoughts->behavioral response over and over again almost without recognizing it at all.

The revelatory point in this entire book boils down to one simple thing: the only way we change those subconscious thoughts and behaviors is through a truly effective feedback loop on our behavior. We need to be giving ourselves constant feedback on how well we’re doing with the changes we want to make in our lives.

Goldsmith offers an incredibly effective way of developing this kind of feedback loop for ourselves that hinges on a few key principles, two of which I really need to highlight here.

First of all, you should be judging your effort, not the results or the specific steps you took. Not every day is made the same – there are simply some days where you can’t make it to the gym because of other responsibilities. The question is how much effort you put into physical fitness that day, not whether you did some specific thing or achieved some specific result.

Second, this process tends to work best with an accountability partner of some kind who’s on board with helping you. That’s because it is easy for us to lie to ourselves, but much harder to lie to an accountability partner. I have a friend with whom I’ve been doing this practice for a while, and I’ve also been sharing the resulting data with a small group of close friends on a private website. Having others aware of what you’re doing adds the additional pressure of public humiliation to the equation.

Goldsmith calls this practice the “Daily Questions.”

Daily Questions

The daily questions are simply a series of questions intended to help you specifically evaluate the effort you’re putting into making a particular behavioral change happen in your life.

It starts with simply making a list of behaviors you want to change. This is different than a list of goals. For example, saying “I want to lose 20 pounds” isn’t a behavior you want to change. “I want to eat less food on impulse,” however, is a behavior you want to change, or “I want to eat smaller portions at meals” or “I want to eat a much higher proportion of vegetables” and so on. These behaviors certainly can overlap with goals, but the purpose here is to alter your behavior in such a way that the goal becomes a more or less inevitable outcome.

So, let’s say that the five behaviors we wanted to change are:
1. I want to eat mostly vegetables in my diet.
2. I want to improve my physical fitness.
3. I want to stop spending so much on coffee.
4. I want to read more.
5. I want to be a better listener for my close friends.

Goldsmith strongly recommends that being happier should be one of your behaviors that you want to change, simply because a happy mindset is one that makes all other change easier, that most people actually have a lot of things to be happy about in their lives even if they don’t think so, and that happiness is a conscious choice most of the time. So we’ll add that as a sixth one.

The idea of daily questions is that, as a daily practice, you ask yourself a simple question about how you did regarding that behavioral change today.

So, you might have these six questions at first glance:
1. Was I happy today?
2. Did I eat mostly vegetables today?
3. Did I improve my physical fitness today?
4. Did I control my spending on coffee today?
5. Did I read more today?
6. Was I a better listener for my close friends today?

Remember, however, a good daily question is focused on your personal effort to change this behavior, not on the yes/no completion of a specific step.

Goldsmith offers a brilliant formula for this: simply start each question with “Did I do my best today to…” So, your six questions might look like this:
1. Did I do my best to be happy today?
2. Did I do my best to eat mostly vegetables today?
3. Did I do my best to improve my physical fitness today?
4. Did I do my best to control my spending on coffee today?
5. Did I do my best to read more today?
6. Did I do my best to be a better listener for my close friends today?

Each evening, you simply go through each of those questions and answer them with a score on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how well you think you did on each one. Did you regularly try to be happy by thinking positive thoughts about situations and seeking out some things that made you joyful? You’d probably give yourself a pretty good score. On the other hand, if you downed a bunch of steak for dinner and left vegetables on your plate, your score for the “eating vegetables” question is probably pretty poor.

The nifty part about this is that it’s not about results, which can easily be affected by – and blamed on – the environment. Rather, it’s about your effort, which is strictly on you.

Think back to Goldsmith’s model for how we behave. We are triggered by things in our environment, go through a cascade of thoughts, and that results in behavior. The entire purpose of the “daily questions” is to nudge that cascade of thoughts, to focus solely on the first part of that equation that you control. It prevents you from simply blaming your environment for terrible behavior because, in the end, you chose that terrible behavior. Being at a steakhouse did not force you to eat a giant steak and no vegetables; rather, your own thought processes and choices did. If you had put effort into change there, you would have ordered a large salad and maybe a small steak instead, or ordered a meal, eaten the vegetables and just a bit of the steak and taken the rest with you, or simply asked your friends to eat at a different restaurant. That’s the “effort” – better thoughts you have and better actions you take as a result.

Giving a low number as a score for a particular question at the end of the day feels pretty awful, and that itself becomes a pretty strong motivator to do better, especially when you’re reporting that score to a friend.

How I Practice the Daily Questions

Surprisingly, Goldsmith really doesn’t offer a good methodology for actually doing these daily questions and making it into a daily practice. The one model he clearly gives in the book is simply having a friend ask you these questions each day, which doesn’t necessarily work for everyone’s life. He makes offhand mention of emailing his self-scores to people, but, again, he doesn’t quite put forward a model for doing it.

Over the last several months, I’ve worked out a system for doing this that has worked well for me, and I want to share it here.

First of all, I did a trial run of this in June with a few behaviors, then changed it up and decided to do this for 90 days with several behaviors in the third quarter (July through September). It helped a lot with the things I wanted to work on – some finance related, but many addressing other spheres of my life. For the next quarter (October through December), I’m going to do it again with a somewhat modified set of questions based on what I want to work on now.

So, here’s my system.

One of the first things I do each morning is to simply review the behaviors I’m working on. This is basically the “daily questions” written down as a series of statements.

Today, I will do my best to be happy.
Today, I will do my best to be humble.
Today, I will do my best to control my food intake.
Today, I will do my best to minimize my hobby spending.

Those are just four examples that I’m using for my upcoming quarter. I just get out of bed, read through those statements slowly as one of the first things I do for the day, and then start my day. Sometimes, I’ll look at those statements at other points during the day, just to make sure they’re “front of mind.”

At the end of the day, sometime in the hour or so before bedtime, I score myself on a series of questions that mirror those behavioral statements.

Did I do my best today to be happy?
Did I do my best today to be humble?
Did I do my best today to control my food intake?
Did I do my best today to minimize my hobby spending?

I do this in a spreadsheet that I can access from pretty much everywhere. I have a row for each question and a series of columns for each date where I can enter the scores.

For each question, I reflect on the day a bit and give myself a score based on my effort to do better, not necessarily the results. Some days, the environment around me gives me lots of easy reasons to be happy, and on some days, it does not. That means there are days when I feel pretty happy but didn’t put much effort into it, so I give it a mediocre score, while there are other days when I struggle but largely succeed at finding happiness, so I give it a pretty high score even if I didn’t seem quite as happy as I did on the easy day. The difference is effort – did I do my best to do this thing today?

This spreadsheet is shared with a couple of friends who are also sharing their sheets with me, so every day or two, I check their sheets and send them some positive thoughts or questions about their results. (You can share sheets really easy with Dropbox or Google Sheets.) They do the same for me. We have a strong understanding between us that the feedback we give here is never, ever intended to be hurtful, but only helpful, so if the question stings, that’s on us and not on the friend asking the question who is merely trying to help. I try to check their sheets every day if I can, and I make a strong effort to check if I miss a day.

Another key thing that I do is use this information as part of my weekly review. Each week, usually later on Sunday morning, I put aside an hour or so to review several things about the week gone by, use that information to assess how things are going, and think about what I want to do in the week ahead. My “trigger question” numbers for the last few weeks have become a significant part of that review. What do those numbers tell me? They usually make it clear what areas I’m doing well in in terms of my actual behavior and what areas I’m not doing well in, so that might inform things I specifically want to work on in the coming week.

What do the results look like, though?

As I mentioned, I did a trial run of this in June and then spent the last three months practicing this virtually every day. The big areas I wanted to work on were handling day-to-day stress better, improving my professional workflow, and generally feeling better about the state of my life, and the changes in each of those areas have been profound. The last quarter has been extremely trying in a number of ways, but through it I’ve managed to handle a ton of little stressors that have dropped on my plate while, at the same time, drastically improving my writing process and feeling better about things in general.

My focus in the questions I’m using for the rest of the year are around physical health, financial behavior, and building relationships, areas that I feel weaker in at the moment. I’m aiming to try to break out of an easy fitness routine, curb some of my worst spending habits (I’m looking at you, online spending), and work on some of my relationships while building some new ones.

Final Thoughts

For me, the core revelation of this book is that behavior changes only through continuous effort, and frequent assessment of one’s effort is the key to making that happen. Effort isn’t in what one achieves today, but in how hard one tries to achieve positive things in that area of behavior, and honestly evaluating that effort (and sharing the evaluation with friends, if possible) on a frequent basis is absolutely vital.

There are parts of this book that seem to drag on and on, particularly in the earlier sections. They’re focused solely on the underpinnings of all of this – why behavioral change is hard, the entire model of trigger -> cascading thoughts -> behavior, why the part that matters is the effort towards improved behavior, and so on. I first started writing this article as a chapter-by-chapter discussion, but I realized that writing about the early chapters alone would make for some dreadful reading. The thing is, those early chapters are foundational for the genuinely interesting and powerful stuff to come. He spends a lot of time on the “why,” setting things up, before describing the system, and although the “why” parts are pretty dry, they make for a pretty solid foundation.

I’ve been using this system for four months now and it’s really powerful. I feel like it’s been responsible for the most useful behavioral change in my adult life since my actual financial turnaround, and it’s a book well worth reading and putting into practice. I can’t really speak much more highly than that.

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