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Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith

Sep 5, 2023

Triggers ended up on one of my “want to read” lists after seeing it at a local bookstore. I think I mostly liked the cover, but if you look through my past reading list and you’ll see a fair number of books on similar topics. Triggers has some themes in common with books like Atomic Habits and The Checklist Manifesto and Smarter Faster Better, specifically how do you change your routines and thinking about how you live your life to achieve meaningful change. Or, to use the title in a sentence: when something in your environment triggers you, do you respond without thinking, or do you introspectively look at how that trigger impacts you then respond. And can you get to a point where you respond to triggers in your environment as you want to without having to think about them.

One point that stood out to me in this book that was unique to it was the idea of looking at a set of goals with active questions instead of passive ones. The example it uses is changing this type of review:

  • How happy were you today?
  • How meaningful was your day?
  • How positive were your relationships with people?
  • How engaged were you?

to this:

  • Did you do your best to be happy?
  • Did you do your best to find meaning?
  • Did you do your best to build positive relationships with people?
  • Did you do your best to be fully engaged?

And keeping a daily 0-10 scorecard of the answers to the active questions. Goldsmith recommends six as a default set anyone could use:

  • Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  • Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals?
  • 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?

Asking active questions does two things: it prevents you from blaming outside circumstances for failures, and it makes you, over time, recognize the places you are actively not doing your best to give you the option to get better, or give up. As a simplified example, imagine you want to exercise every day. You make a grid with every day of the week, and check it off if you exercised for 30 minutes. Now say on Thursday you’re not feeling well, and on Friday there’s an interruption in the morning and work goes late and you meet up with friends after. Simple tracking you’d not check those days. In active questioning format you might put 0s for both days. Or you might put a 5 on Thursday, giving yourself some leeway knowing that rest is as important to an exercise routine as the exercise itself, and a 0 on Friday and make a plan for next Friday to get out for a walk at lunch. If you put 0s for an entire week, there's no need to dig into excuses, you just recognize “I’m not doing my best” and you either stop trying or do better.

The focus of the book is deeper behavioral change more than simple habits. Professionally, Goldsmith is a coach to CEOs and other already successful people who know how to excel in at least one domain in their lives. He states the point clearly later in the book: something like quitting smoking is a great change, but it’s not a behavioral change that’s going to impact the other people you interact with on a day to day basis (short of smelling less smoke). The book is more focused on the ideas captured in his six questions: did I do my best to find meaning, happiness, build relationships, stay engaged. The sort of things that will not only make your life better, but will likely cascade back to your environment as well.

The principle theme of the book can be summed up as “you can‘t control what happens, only how you respond to what happens”. Goldsmith’s advice in the book is also entirely reasonable. He notes that sometimes you don't have the space or energy to change, or do the best thing in a given situation. It’s fine. The important part is acknowledging the triggers that got you to that state, instead of having things trigger you that you don’t notice or acknowledge, which lead you into traps of behaving badly or falling short of the goals you’ve set. Goldsmith references a Buddhist parable as an example of not blaming your environment for why you can’t change, which I enjoyed:

A young farmer was covered with sweat as he paddled his boat up the river. He was going upstream to deliver his produce to the village. It was a hot day, and he wanted to make his delivery and get home before dark. As he looked ahead, he spied another vessel, heading rapidly downstream toward his boat. He rowed furiously to get out of the way, but it didn't seem to help. He shouted, "Change direction! You are going to hit me!" To no avail. The vessel hit his boat with a violent thud. He cried out, "You idiot! How could you manage to hit my boat in the middle of this wide river?" As he glared into the boat, seeking out the individual responsible for the accident, he realized no one was there. He had been screaming at an empty boat that had broken free of its moorings and was floating downstream with the current.

Certainly I can think of many empty boats I’ve yelled at in my life. Overall I recommend the book. If you were looking at it or Atomic Habits I’d go with this one, the strategies outlined in it target behavioral change in as simple of a format but in a more meaningful way.

Posted: September 2023

Tagged: book notes