By Marshall Goldsmith
This is a great question, and would make change possible for even the most challenging of changes. Let’s ask it again in a slightly different way.
What if you could control your environment so it triggered your most desired behavior?
This would mean that instead of blocking us from our goals, the environment would propel us toward them. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? It also sounds far-fetched. It’s not. To achieve “control” of the environment so it triggers our most desired behavior, we must first clarify the term trigger:
A behavioral trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior.
Within this definition, there are six distinctions that will help improve our understanding of how triggers influence our behavior.
- A trigger can be direct or indirect. Direct triggers are stimuli that immediately and obviously impact behavior. There are no steps in between the triggering event and your response. For instance, a child chases a ball into the street in front of your car. You slam on the brakes. Simple. Indirect triggers take a roundabout route to influence our behavior. For instance, you see a family photo, it triggers thoughts and memories – and you remember to call your sister.
- A trigger can be internal or external. External triggers come from the environment. Our five senses pick up on them, as well as our minds. Internal triggers come from our thoughts and feelings and are not connected with anything on the outside. Have you ever heard that “little inner voice”? That’s what I’m talking about here. It’s not prompted from the outside, but if it stimulates behavior, it’s as valid as any external prompt.
- A trigger can be conscious or unconscious. Conscious triggers require awareness. Hot plate – withdraw hand! Unconscious triggers are beyond our awareness. Most people are oblivious to how much the weather influences their moods. Respondents to the question, “How happy are you?” claimed to be happier on a perfect weather day than respondents to the same question on nasty weather day.
- A trigger can be anticipated or unexpected. Anticipated triggers are visible a mile away. For instance, we know right now that the National Anthem will be played at the Super Bowl next year. Unanticipated triggers take us by surprise, and often stimulate unfamiliar behavior, possibly even a drastic desire to change!
- A trigger can be encouraging or discouraging. Encouraging triggers push us to maintain or expand what we are doing. They reinforce us – like the finish line for a marathon runner. Discouraging triggers push us to stop or reduce what we are doing. Chatting in a theater and hearing a barrage of “Shhh!” is one such discouraging trigger.
- A trigger can be productive or counterproductive. This is an important distinction. Why? Because productive triggers push us toward becoming the person we want to be. Counterproductive triggers pull us away from that goal.
And, there you have them. Six distinctions of behavioral triggers that will help improve our understanding of how triggers influence our behavior.
Now it’s your turn. Try this exercise. It will make you smarter about specific behaviors and help you connect them directly to your behavioral successes and failures.
- Pick a behavioral goal you’re pursuing: losing weight, being more patient, calling your parents once a week, etc.
- List the people and situations that influence the quality of your performance / progress towards these goals. Stick to the trigger or two that relate to one specific goal. Define them. Are they encouraging or discouraging, productive or counterproductive, etc.?
- Chart the triggers to see if you are on the positive or negative side of your goals.
While this exercise may not solve the puzzle of achieving behavioral change – you’ll have to read the rest of the book and take action on what you learn to do that – it will point you in the right direction.
And, starting off in the right direction may be the greatest payoff in identifying and defining our triggers. It is an occasional but necessary reminder that no matter how extreme the circumstances, when it comes to our behavior, we always have a choice!