How to Use Triggers for Behavior Modification: An Interview with Marshall Goldsmith

Becoming the person you want to be requires behavior modification, but there's an easier way: you can modify your behavior by modifying your environment. How? Create triggers so you become a better you.

Stever Robbins
3-minute read
Episode #364

personal developmentMarshall Goldsmith is a #1 New York Times best-selling business author and expert in behavior modification. He's an executive coach who has worked with many of the Fortune 500 companies, and his speciality is helping people change their behavior. I spoke with him about his latest book, Triggers: Creating Behavior that Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want To Be.

When it comes to personal development, Marshall found that some people changed with coaching, while others—who seemed identical in every way—didn't. The difference wasn't the coach, the difference was the individual. It wasn't an issue with the person's skills or abilities; the problem was the environment. A person's environment plays a huge role in their ability to make meaningful change.

Our environment holds us back by triggering old behaviors. Triggers come in many forms:

  • Smells
  • Sounds
  • People
  • Habits

Triggers can be external, or they can be internal. They can be habits, daydreams, and thoughts.

Behavior Modification Requires Adding Choice

Triggers are usually thought of as being a simple: trigger -> impulse -> behavior link. The trigger happens, it sets off an impulse, which moves a person to act. By becoming aware of our typical triggers, we can change that sequence:

trigger -> impulse -> awareness -> choice -> behavior

Adding awareness gives us choice when we didn't have any before.

Once you're aware of your triggers, you can arrange to avoid them. Or, if you can't avoid them, you can anticipate problems that might arise and learn how to recognize the triggers and adjust your behavior in the moment.

Use Daily Tracking to Add Awareness

The most effective way to become aware is through daily tracking. Ask yourself, "Who do I want to be?" (That's the personal development question). Then, make up a set of questions you can ask yourself on a daily basis. They should be yes/no questions, or questions that can be answered with a number. For example, "How many times did I lose my temper at my assistant yesterday?" Every day, review the questions with a friend and write down the answers.

This simple act of tracking will keep the new you front-of-mind. This is the behavior modification part of the process. If you choose the questions to align with who you want to be, you won't be able to fool yourself as to whether you're making progress.

Adding awareness gives us choice where we didn't have any before.

Beware the Dastardly Story

What if you don't actually do what you need to do to make progress? It's probably not because you're dumb, or because you're lazy. Indeed, it's usually the opposite! When you're busy and overcommitted, it's easy to fool yourself. "I'm just busy for now. In a couple of months, I'll have lots of free time to work on changing!" That never happens, however. When you do your tracking, you'll begin to realize that the craziness and overcommitment are the norm, and aren't going to magically vanish in two months.

Take an Active Role

If you want changes in your life, you have to take an active role. In employee engagement surveys, for example, companies ask employees, "Do you have clear goals?" It's a great question, but it implies that clear goals are something given to you. Rephrasing the question as, "Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?" puts the control back in the hands of the employees.

You can do this for yourself. There are four questions Marshall has found to be most critical in personal development and becoming the person you want to be. Ask yourself: Today, did I do my best to...

  • Find meaning in my life?
  • Be happy in my life?
  • Build positive relationships in my life?
  • Be fully engaged in my life?

When you track these over time, you'll find yourself making progress more rapidly than you'd ever suspected. You can listen to the full interview by downloading the episode from iTunes.

I'm Stever Robbins. Follow Get-It-Done Guy on Twitter and Facebook. I help thought leaders build businesses that bring valuable results to their audience, while handling all the heavy lifting for them. If you want to know more, visit www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and Have a Great Life!

Personal development image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.