Trigger Change

It’s 8 a.m., and you grab your laptop and gym bag on the way out the door. First stop, drop the kids off. Next stop, client’s office. Your last meeting ends at 5:30, so you can make the 6 p.m. spin class. By late afternoon when you’re gulping a latte and an energy bar because the client meeting ran through lunch, just getting through the rest of the afternoon seems like an accomplishment in itself. Maybe you’ll get to spin class tomorrow.

Bestselling author and world-renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith recognizes the planner and the doer parts of ourselves make it hard to make changes that we know we should, but don’t. In his latest book “Triggers,” he explores the environmental and psychological triggers that can derail us in life, and simple ways to shift your focus to effort — instead of achievement — and stay on track.

Beth Taska, 24 Hour Fitness Executive Vice President of Human Potential, asked Goldsmith about his own challenges to overcome, and techniques for making change happen.

Beth Taska (BT): What stands out as the most significant change you’ve made in your life?

Marshall Goldsmith (MG): Professionally, it was finally putting into action some coaching I got from Dr. Paul Hersey, who pioneered the situational leadership model used in so many organizations today. He taught me how to do what he did, and I was successful as a trainer. One day he told me, “You’re too good at this, and you’ll never be the person you could be.”

Twelve years later, I took in his coaching and started focusing on writing and long-term development vs. short-term focus. It was the biggest change and greatest advice I did not listen to for 12 years.

BT: What held you back from taking in his advice and following his vision for you, when he first gave it?

MG: Success. We think of the blessings and not the curses of success. I was making money, people liked me, and when things are going well, it’s hard to have a burning platform for change. There’s no sense of urgency to change, so we have to create our own and propel ourselves to change.

BT: People often think they’re doing pretty well in life, and then something like a medical emergency or scare prompts them to make a change. How do we encourage people to make changes before it’s a life-altering situation?

MG: Get help. One of the biggest obstacles to change is our belief that we can do it on our own. Think about how hard that last 10 pounds is to lose. You look good enough, and no one can tell the difference except you, but you keep telling yourself you can do it.

Having a coach used to be something to be ashamed of, and now people are finally saying it’s okay to get help and have a coach. All it takes is asking someone to make a phone call — I had a peer coach for years, and we’d call each other on the phone and ask the question, “Did you do your best?” in the areas I wanted to change.

BT: Having an executive coach seems expensive and for the elite, but it doesn’t have to be, right?

MG: Yes, having someone partner with you and remind you of your goals doesn’t have to be expensive at all.


BT: We often believe that we’ll change, and we don’t actually take action. Why is that?

MG: The top-selling diet books far outsell books about making change in your life, because it’s easy to understand the changes you need to make. But it’s hard to make those changes. We all have a part of us that’s the planner, and a part of us that’s the doer. The part of us who plans to go to the gym after work is not the same one who’s tired at the end of the day and has to go do it. The part of us who’s planning to diet isn’t the part of us who’s hungry and has to resist the chocolate. The doer is the part of us who has to make sacrifices.

Besides our belief in our ability to change, which doesn’t necessarily reflect reality, there are a host of other beliefs we hold that keep us from acting. For example, there’s the belief that “today’s a special day” – my birthday, or the Super Bowl. If we want to, we can make every day a special exception and not go to the gym, eat poorly, and so on.

BT: How have people you’ve coached dealt with a certain environment or a person who triggered a behavior they wanted to change?

MG: One of the most important qualities a leader needs to have is the capacity to compartmentalize. If you’re a business leader, you have to block out one meeting and move on to the next one, which probably has a different agenda and different participants. Sometimes it’s extreme: you might go from a meeting to a funeral to a presentation to analysts.

It’s not phony behavior, either — it’s simply being professional. An example I often use is the Broadway actor. You never hear a Broadway actor say, “I have a headache,” or “My foot hurts” or “My aunt died.”

BT: In “Triggers” you also talk about how we have to do things we “need” to do, but don’t want to do. We see successful people shift, however, from doing something they must do but don’t want to do, to actually enjoying it. People know they should go to the gym and they do it, but they might not want to. How do you coach people to turn that around?

MG: You have to find meaning and happiness in what you’re doing. For another book, “Mojo,” we did a study and found you need happiness and meaning, simultaneously, to have a happy life. And that means making peace with the fact that you have to do something and figuring out why it’s important and meaningful, so that you can choose not to feel like a victim or martyr.

At the gym, the people who are working out and recognize it’s important for their lives and their families probably find a way to enjoy it. You can start with a thought-provoking question: Did I do my best to be happy while I’m working out? The emphasis is on whether you tried — so you don’t feel like you have to find a reason why you didn’t do it. You did try, and sure, you could try harder next time, but you tried.

BT: In the book “The Power of Habit,” the author contends that forming a habit makes us more likely to be disciplined in other aspects of our life. But you suggest something different?

MG: I’m suggesting that instead of thinking that stimulus prompts an impulse that results in behavior or action, we should acknowledge and practice awareness and choice — after the impulse, and before we act. That way, you can keep track and learn what triggers set you off. The trigger will still occur and so will the impulse, but with the discipline to breathe, become mindful and realize you have a choice, you can change the action or outcome.

One example I give in the book is Jim, whose wife calls him at work to complain about her day. He’s about to tell her that her problems pale in significance compared to his, but instead, he acknowledges that impulse and chooses to say “I love you,” instead.

We’re bombarded by triggers and if we don’t take the time to recognize them, we’ll continue to be the person we don’t want to become.

BT: What’s the one thing you’d like people to take away from “Triggers”?

MG: I want people to recognize they can become who they want to be, and that they’ll get over the shame of not having total willpower and asking for help. I hope readers make peace with being human, and put in the effort rather than focus on the achievement. Chances are if you do, you’re going to better.