Understanding Triggers

We tend to behave in ways that we don’t intend to. We experience certain triggers that make us do things contrarily than what we desire. Often, we are not aware that these ‘triggers’ affect us negatively. Triggers (2015), by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter, explains what these triggers are and how they thwart us from bringing about positive changes in ourselves. 

Goldsmith and Reiter also show the way to deal with and overcome these triggers and focus on the path to achieving success. They show that the triggers that are out of our control, especially those in our environment can be mastered and we can rationally take control of our lives.

Triggers Prevent Change

What is this ‘trigger”?

A trigger is any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions

Let’s understand it with an example. Imagine that you are out with your family at the beach on a pleasant, sunny morning. The smell of hot-dogs and barbecue fills the air. There is but one problem. You have just started a new diet. While you stand in the queue buying delicacies for your family, you think, “ Let me indulge for just one more day. I can always start this diet tomorrow.”

The smell wafting in the air acted as a trigger to make you counter your decision to stay focused on the diet. In our lives, triggers can appear in the form of people, circumstances, or events. Even the mere smell of rain far away can trigger memories.

Triggers can impact us in a number of ways. Their effects can be conscious or unconscious, external or internal, unexpected or anticipated, direct or indirect, productive, counter-productive, encouraging, or even discouraging. For example, the smile on one’s face when one sees a baby is a direct trigger. An indirect trigger is one that sets off a series of thoughts that propels one into action. For example, seeing the photo of your college reunion could trigger you to think of certain events at college, and make you contact a long-lost friend.

While triggers can lead to positive actions and thoughts, they can also propel negative ones, and even prevent changes from taking place in one’s life. The fact of the matter is, however, that one isn’t always aware of these triggers.

For example, for many years, influenced by his surroundings, the author couldn’t admit that he was balding. He sported a comb-over under the pressure to look young and sleek. However, when the hairdresser cut the remaining hair too short to comb, he realized his superficial, vain, perception and embraced his baldness.

Triggers Are Part Of The Environment And Born From One’s Own Beliefs

We are all good at making excuses to embrace changes in life. This is because our belief triggers prevent us from accepting and making those changes. Belief triggers are actually one’s inner beliefs that make one justify their resistance to making those changes.

People commonly believe that they have the ability and the wisdom to evaluate their own behaviors. While such a trigger can make people believe that they have the ability to make changes in their lives whenever they want to and justifying one’s resistance to make the changes when needed, the reality lies in the fact that most of us inaccurately assess our own behavior, take credit for successes and blame others for failures.

A study conducted of about 80,000 professionals who were asked to rate their own performance, showed that about 70% believed they were in the top 10%, 82% put themselves in the top 20%, and 98.5% rated themselves in the top half! In this manner, our own internal triggers can create misconceptions about our own self-improvement. 

However, the external triggers in our environment are the ones that have a stronger influence on us. Take for example the fact that people who visit an expensive restaurant, think that they are entitled to royal treatment and thus treat the friendly staff in a rude manner. These people behave politely when they are outside the restaurant. This shows how the environment can affect or influence behavior – often for the worse. 

If people are not aware of these external triggers, they will continue to behave undesirably.

Triggers (2015) by Marshall Goldsmith
Triggers (2015) by Marshall Goldsmith

Impulsive Behaviour Can Be Checked With Self-Feedback

The important question for everyone is – If triggers can make one behave undesirably, how does one identify and become aware?

One of the ways that people can identify triggers is with self-feedback. For example, a person who is trying to achieve the goal of regularly exercising in the morning can make a list of the situations or people that influence the outcome, that is, whether they act as positive triggers or negative ones. A positive trigger could be a neighbor who exercises regularly and motivates, whereas a negative trigger could be a habit of spending time on social media in the morning.

What is crucial, is to determine what one wants and needs – for example, spending time on social media is what one wants to do, as opposed to needs to do. In this scenario, chatting up with the health-conscious neighbor will help in achieving the goal of exercising – maybe by deciding to join the neighbor for a daily morning run.

Differentiating between needs and goals helps in connecting one’s triggers to one’s behavior vis-à-vis the goals. Thus, identification also helps in avoiding impulsive actions. Over time, and with practice in identifying and differentiating between needs and goals, one develops a sense of awareness, making one adept at identifying triggers. After that, one can choose to act against the trigger.

Adjusting To The Change By Leading

It is unfortunate but true that negative and hostile environments are difficult to change. Often, environments and situations that are detrimental to achieving one’s goals become inevitable. In such cases, one can adapt one’s own approach to the goal rather than try to maneuver the environment itself.

One can try to predict the environment to check if one needs to adapt one’s own approach or avoid the environment completely. For example, an Indian Tech Executive Sachi was worried about how her friends back home in India would react to her high-flying job. She worried that they would consider her a braggart and think that she had changed. 

While she couldn’t avoid the environment (of meeting her friends when she went back home), she decided to adapt to the situation by describing her job differently. She told them that her job required her to travel extensively – a tiring ordeal – rather than tell them about her frequent visits to Paris. Thus she not only managed to be the sensitive caring person she was but also avoided being insensitive about their environment.

Being aware and making such adjustments can help one become the leader of their own behavior. Thus it becomes easier to assess what needs to be accomplished as a leader and one can even choose one’s own leadership style. 

Approaching the trigger in a practical, determined, and step-by-step manner can help one lead the change by comprehending what the environment requires and how to adjust to it!

Owning The Change

It is no doubt that resisting and maneuvering negative triggers is tough and that people often behave undesirably once they give in to these negative triggers. However, once the change is determined, one has to own the change.

Asking oneself active questions is a great way to start. Active questions, as opposed to passive questions, focus on what one is doing rather than what needs to be done?

For example, there is a profound difference between, “What is the goal?” and “Which goal did I achieve today?” The second active question instills a sense of fulfillment and a sense of responsibility towards achieving the goal.

The author habituated himself to asking active questions rather than passive ones every night. He would ask, “Did I do my best to be happy?” an active question, rather than, “How happy was I today?” a passive one. Active questioning has helped the author connect with his goals and raise the level of engagement with achieving them.

Another way to own the change and keeping track is by maintaining a track record of the progress achieved. Finding a scorekeeper – a person who could help or a system one can follow is essential, especially considering that it is difficult to measure behavior. For example, the author seeks the help of a person who calls him every night to score the questions on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being ‘didn’t do anything’ and 10 being ‘did my best’.

Maintainig a scorecard helps in understanding exactly where one stands on making and achieving the behavioural change.

Routine And Structure

It is a common occurrence that after some time of following a system, one’s discipline tends to slacken. The good news is that this doesn’t happen because the person is weak to see the change through. In fact, one’s energy to sustain the system simply depletes.

Roy F. Baumeister, a psychology professor in 1990, proposed the phenomenon of ego depletion. He said that humans have a limited ego-strength that depletes through the day as one makes numerous decisions, keeps fighting temptations, and use their willpower for many other things. He said that it is during this depleted state that the triggers of a negative environment affect us most.

However, through awareness and by creating structure, this depletion can be adeptly fought off. One can bring in structure in their lives by studying the decisions needed to be made o a daily basis and sticking to the decisions by making a choice. Therefore, one does not have to rethink to make those decisions daily and thus the ego can be conserved.

The author has employed many structures that have helped him. For example, he wears only green colored polo shirts and khaki pants to work. This ensures that the daily cumbersome decision of ‘what to wear is avoided. Similarly, all of the author’s travel decisions are managed by his assistant, helping him avoid the stress that accompanies the decision-making.

While structures help one manage some of the predictable aspects of life, it is the unexpected events that act as surprise triggers, throwing one off balance. During these unpredictable moments during the day, one can employ active questions.

Six Engaging Active Questions

It is imperative that one understands when change is required and how to bring about that change. As we have already seen, one has to be consciously aware of their environment, the triggers, and thus their behavior.

The author gives six questions that help in raising awareness. The six questions are – 

  1. Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  2. Did I do my best to make progress towards my goal?
  3. Did I do my best to find meaning?
  4. Did I do my best to be happy?
  5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  6. Did I do my best to be fully engaged?

These six active questions help in making one aware of how they are managing the triggers that affect them. This awareness, in turn, keeps one engaged and committed to creating positive change. With a regular effort to create awareness, one can create a reciprocal interplay between one’s environment and themselves.

If one becomes actively aware of this interplay, one can make positive impacts on the people surrounding them.


The environment has triggers that can affect every aspect of one’s behaviors. Thus, even if one wishes to, making a change can be difficult especially since it is difficult to change the environment that triggers the change. 

Employing methods of using self-feedback to check impulsive behavior, trying to adjust to the change brought about by the inevitable environment, are some of the ways one can lead the change and own it. Using active questions that help in monitoring and adjusting responses to the triggers also helps. 

In conclusion, triggers lead to impulses. It is possible to keep triggers in check with awareness, which leads to a choice. Choices lead to behavior patterns that in turn, lead to another trigger. One has to simply create awareness of this circle to make a positive impact with positive choices.