I heard about this book via Cortex, a podcast discussing work (and life) habits of CGP Grey and Myke Hurley (of podcasting and Youtube fame). In the episode, they discuss the book and lay out what they both had taken home. Although Triggers falls right into the business self-help category, it seemed that the message was somehow clearer and more pronounced than in other books. So I decided to check it out.

Before you’re even on the first page of this book, you’re impressed by the praise written by some incredible people. It includes many top CEO, world leaders, and great thinkers. These are only three that stood out to me the most:

The book, Triggers – Creating behaviour that lasts – Becoming the person you want to be, is structured in four parts:

  1. Why don’t we become the person we want to be?
    • Hint: it’s our environment
  2. Try
    • Hint: active daily questions
  3. More structure, please
  4. No regrets

In short, the book can the summarised as follows. It’s very hard to change your behaviour as an adult. We are influenced greatly by our environment and willpower is unlikely to help you in the long term. You’re a good planner, but your doer needs a coach to close the feedback loop. And with active daily questions, you can actively work to change your behaviour.

There are some immutable laws of behaviour change:

  • Meaningful behavioural change is very hard to do
    • We can’t admit that we need to change
      • (e.g. my body looks fine, smoking helps me socialise, I’m fine in my current job)
    • We don’t appreciate inertia’s power over us
      • It takes an extraordinary effort to stop doing something in our comfort zone, in order to do something that is good for us in the long run
    • We don’t know how to execute a change
      • You need motivation, understanding, and ability
  • No one can make us change unless we truly want to change
    • Change has to come from within
    • You really have to mean it
    • And you have to have buy-in from your partner or co-workers
  • Behaviour change is simple, but far from easy

We have many beliefs that stop behaviour change in its tracks:

  • If I understand, I will do
    • There is a difference between understanding and doing
    • We are confused about this difference
    • Personal note: I understand so many things about startups, life, fitness, etc. But doing them is whole other thing
  • I have willpower and won’t give in to temptation
    • We chronically underestimate the power of triggers in our environment
    • Few of us will foresee the challenges we will face
    • We have overconfidence in our abilities
    • Personal note: has anyone seen Temptation Island?
  • Today is a special day
    • Excusing our momentary lapses as an outlier event triggers a self-indulgent inconsistency which is fatal for change
    • Change doesn’t happen overnight
  • At least I’m better than…
    • We trigger a false sense of immunity
  • I shouldn’t need help and structure
    • We have contempt for simplicity and structure
    • See: The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande
    • We think we are better than the rest, we lack humility
  • I won’t get tired and my enthusiasm won’t fade
    • Self-control is a limited resource, that will deplete
  • I have all the time in the world
    • We underestimate the time it takes to get anything done
    • We believe that time is open-ended and sufficiently spacious to get things done
    • This will lead to procrastination
  • I won’t get distracted and nothing unexpected will occur
    • There will be a high probability of many low-probability events
    • Example: there is a small change you will get a call from someone specific, but there is a high chance that you will get a call from anyone this week
    • This will lead to unrealistic expectations
  • An epiphany will suddenly change my life
    • Sure it happens, sometimes
    • But in most cases, it leads to magical thinking
  • My change will be permanent and I will never have to worry again
    • We have a false sense of permanence
    • If we don’t follow up, our positive change doesn’t last
    • When we get there, we cannot stay there without commitment and discipline
  • My elimination of old problems will not bring new problems
    • We don’t understand that we will have future challenges
    • Once we are in a new situation, other problems will prop up
  • My efforts will be fairly rewarded
    • Our dashed expectations trigger resentment
    • Getting better should be its own reward
  • No one is paying attention to me
    • We falsely believe that we’re in isolation
    • But people always notice
  • If I change I am “inauthentic”
    • You stubbornly stick to your old behaviour
    • You try and use that to justify why you can’t change
  • I have the wisdom to assess my own behaviour
    • We are notoriously inaccurate in assessing ourselves
    • We have an impaired sense of objectivity

Internally we have a lot of rationalisations. But we are also unaware of how our environment shapes our behaviour:

  • Our environment is at war with us
  • It’s a nonstop triggering mechanism whose impact on our behaviour is too significant to be ignored
  • Small tweaks in the environment can change everything
  • We choose to place ourselves in an environment that, based on past experience, will trigger bad/old behaviour
  • Example: bedtime procrastination, we prefer to remain in our current environment
  • The environment is situational, it’s a hyperactive shape-shifter
  • And a changing environment changes us
  • Our environment is a relentless triggering machine

We can identify our triggers with feedback loops:

  • Feedback teaches us to see our environment as a triggering mechanism
  • A feedback loop comprises four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence, and action
  • Behaviour follows a pattern
  • You could say that it’s a complex adaptive system (The Quark and the Jaguar)

What if we could control our environment so it triggered our most desired behaviour?

Trigger: Any stimulus that impacts our behaviour

  • It can be direct or indirect
    • Direct: you see a happy baby, you smile
    • Indirect: you see a family photo, thinking, you call your sister
  • It can be internal or external
    • External: from the world via our senses
    • Internal: from thoughts and feelings
  • It can be conscious or unconscious
    • Conscious: requires awareness
    • Unconscious: e.g. weather
  • It can be anticipated or unexpected
    • Anticipated: e.g. reaction to a song
    • Unexpected: sudden realisation (falling stair example)
  • It can be encouraging or discouraging
    • Encouraging: maintain or expand what we’re doing
    • Discouraging: stop or reduce what we’re doing
  • It can be productive or counterproductive
    • Productive: push us towards becoming the person we want to be
    • Counterproductive: pull us away
    • We want short-term gratification, we need the long-term benefit
    • We define what makes a trigger productive (and encouraging)
      • These last two make a quadrant of wants/needs
      • Using this quadrant you can identify your habits

There is a step (impulse, awareness, choice) between trigger and behaviour.

  • We are not only driven by the triggers/antecedents/cues
    • See: The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg)
    • His idea: keep the cue (trigger), change behaviour (routine), keep the consequence (reward)
  • With interpersonal behaviour, there is more to the routine
    • Impulse: your first reaction, not always the best
    • Attention: our awareness and thus ability to make;
    • Choice: to react automatically or do something different

We are superior planners and inferior doers

  • How is your planner going to deal with your doer?
  • Measure your need, choose your style
    • Directing: giving instruction, one way
    • Coaching: helping, working together
    • Supporting: offer support where needed
    • Delegating: give an assignment, step away
  • This is based on Ken Blanchard (One Minute Manager) situational leadership
  • And also applies to yourself (the planner and doer)
    • The planner intends to change our behaviour
    • The doer actually makes change happen

We must forecast our environment

  • Anticipation
    • We can think, beforehand, what to do in an environment
  • Avoidance
    • In many cases, it’s best to avoid a situation
    • E.g. don’t take the route via the supermarket when we’re hungry
    • We rarely triumph over an environment that is enjoyable
    • Inertia is partly to blame
    • Temptation can corrupt our values
    • Because of our delusional belief that we control our environment, we choose to flirt with temptation rather than walk away
    • In many cases, it’s best to selectively avoid instead of always engage
  • Adjustment
    • If forecasting is successful (after anticipation and avoidance) we can adjust our environment

Behavioural change can happen in 4 different ways (Wheel of Change)

  • Creating: when you add new (positive things). This can be stopped by inertia. You need an impulse to start adding or inventing.
  • Preserving: Keep what is already working. Not messing up a good thing.
  • Eliminating: Sacrifice something we like or are good at, to have something better in the future (this is difficult to do).
    • This reminds me of the 80/20 rule (The One Thing), stop doing some ‘good’ things, so you can have the time to do ‘great’ things.
  • Accepting: Accept reality. Don’t do wishful thinking.

How do we get to change? By trying.

One of the most important (and again, difficult) things about change is that you need to follow-up. One excellent way of doing that is by asking active questions.

Only when there were active follow-up questions, did training within an organisation work.

The format for active questions is: Did you do your best to…? or Did I do my best to…?

Here are some examples of the engaging questions:

  • Did I do my best to set clear goals today?
  • Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals today?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning today?
  • Did I do my best to be happy today?
    • Book: Stumbling on Happiness – Dan Gilbert (TO READ&LINK)
    • Finding happiness (and meaning) where we are
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged today?

Active questions reveal where we are giving up. In doing so, they sharpen our sense of what we can actually change. We gain a sense of control, personal ownership, and responsibility instead of victimhood.

You can use the daily active questions to compare yourself against yesterday (or last week).

But beware, it’s tough to face the reality of our own behaviour – and our own level of effort – every day.

When making your own questions. Feel free to start with those above and add ones that reflect your objectives. Are you learning to meditate? Add it to the list. Want to lose weight? Add it to the list. Tired of being late all the time? Add it to the list.

The daily active questions help us in 4 ways:

  • They reinforce our commitment
  • They ignite our motivation where we need it, not where we don’t
    • They work on intrinsic motivation
  • They highlight the difference between self-discipline and self-control
    • Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behaviour
    • Self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behaviour
  • They shrink our goals into manageable increments
    • They neutralize the archenemy of change, impatience

Daily active questions compel us to take things one day at a time.

Scores for the daily active questions need to be reported somewhere, preferably that is to someone else.

That person will be your coach. This can be a professional coach, a friend, a lover, or an accountability buddy.

The coach bridges the gap between your visionary Planner and the short-sighted Doer.

But first, you have to admit that you’re fallible, that you’re not perfect, and that you’re weak. You can’t do it on your own, and that is ok. Even Marshall Goldsmith pays someone to call him every evening and go through the daily active questions.

“When we dive all the way into adult behaviour change – with 100 percent focus and energy – we become an irresistible force rather than the proverbial immovable object.”

For the past months, I have been using the daily questions. First I had too many (for myself) and now have about 6 per day. I think that on 80% of the days I answer them and use them as a reflective moment (become the coach). I have an external coach for sports, and I (want to) share my goals with Lotte as so to better reflect on them and work towards them. 

Update May 2019: I still use the system and today will update the 6ish goals. I also use a checklist for my stretches and weightlifting exercises. It’s become quite ingrained in my routine. I could do it a bit better by completing it at the beginning of the evening/at the end of activities and not before I go to bed (when I sometimes forget to do it).

Update August 2020: Still using the system, and doing it every day. Have updated it several times and still very happy with the format.

Update December 2020: Still going strong, daily. Updated it today and now at 8 questions that provide a feedback loop for several aspects of my life.

Update January 2024: Still doing (nearly) daily check-ins with slowly (every 2-3 months) changing questions. It just works.