Monday, June 5, 2017

Changing Times

As is probably pretty obvious by now, I'm a self-awareness and human behavior junkie. So it is not at all surprising that I picked up Marshall Goldsmith's Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be (2015).

I've blogged about Goldsmith's work a bit recently ("Here and There") and I must say, I found Triggers even more interesting.

Put simply, Goldsmith argues that "Our environment is a nonstop triggering mechanism" that profoundly affects our behavior.

I know, not a terribly new insight, is it?

But as my dad used to say, "Common sense isn't so common," and despite the fact that we know that our environment sets us up for some bad choices--from things as harmless as hitting the snooze button 16 times instead of heading out to the gym or getting into yet another blowout over politics with our brother-in-law at the family picnic to ignoring the doctor's warnings about our smoking --but we continue to make them anyway.

Perhaps more importantly, we make them despite the fact that we plan to stop doing precisely the things we know we shouldn't do.

Our intentions are good. Why do we keep getting sucked in and find ourselves at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. wondering why we felt compelled to eat 5 more slices of birthday cake?

Goldsmith argues that "we start each day as a bifurcated individual, one part leader, the other part follower--and as the day progresses, the two grow further apart." We wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (after we stop hitting the snooze button) and we decide that it doesn't matter if we didn't make it to the gym this morning!  We drive right by it on the way home from work, so we'll do our workout then!

Until we end up running late at work, and realize that there really isn't any point in doing a workout an hour before the gym closes...that's just foolish.  And anyway, we're hungry and the Chinese take-out place we love just happens to be right around the corner from the now-nearly-closed gym, so...

You know how this story ends.

Goldsmith argues that we start with a plan, like a boss. But then, as the day wears on--and ye gods does it wear on sometimes--"with little to no awareness, you assume a different role." But the leader in you thinks the inner-follower will stick to the plan, regardless.

But our inner-follower isn't like that. If the environment changes, the follower will rationalize not sticking to the leader's plan. And what's even worse, our follower-self will "flirt with temptation" precisely "[b]ecause of our delusional belief that we control our environment."

Ultimately, Goldsmith argues, "We willfully ignore how profoundly the environment influences our behavior" and instead "make excuses," "rationalize," and "harbor beliefs that trigger all manner of denial and resistance."

And sadly, "As a result, we continually fail at becoming the person we want to be."

Goldsmith's solution is interestingly simple: we need to take stock of our willingness to try (whether or not we succeed) and we need to do so by framing the behavioral change we wish to effect in terms of "active self-questioning" rather than posing "passive" questions about our desired behavioral change.

For example, if you go on a diet, chances are, at the end of the day, you ask yourself, "Did I stick to my diet?" If the answer is yes, awesome!  On to the next day.

But if the answer is, "Wellllll... not really," you will almost immediately begin blaming the environment somehow or finding an excuse (or beating yourself up for failing, to such an extent that you end up giving up entirely). You'll note that it isn't really not sticking to a diet if you only had the one cookie (plus the other two that your kids picked up and then didn't want) at that event earlier in the afternoon, because the cookies were made by a friend, and wouldn't it be rude not to at least try one? Of course it would.

You see where this is going.

Active self-questioning, Goldsmith argues, "can trigger a new way of interacting with the world" because "Active questions reveal where we are trying and where we are giving up."

Instead of asking "Did I [fill in desired behavior change here]?" you ask, "Did I do my best to [fill in desired behavior change here]?"

Instead of, "Did I stick to my diet?" the question becomes, "Did I do my best to eat healthy food today?"

And then, you score yourself on a scale of 1-10. So, the cookie scenario might earn you a 3 out of 10. Which isn't great, but if you think about it, it's easier to say, "Well, I'll try to at least get a 4 tomorrow!" 

More importantly, active self-questioning forces you to think about the extent to which you're trying and the extent to which you're simply giving up on the behavioral change you're trying to bring about.

According to Goldsmith, "Injecting the phrase 'Did I do my best to..' triggers trying. In a world full of triggers, active self-questioning helps you create your own trigger and train it on the behavioral change you wish to bring about.

Obviously, Goldsmith's book is full of other helpful (and interesting) suggestions, but if you'd like more insight into his strategy of using "daily questions" as a trigger for effecting positive personal change, you can check out his article "Why We Don't Become the Person We Want to Be" on his website.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."