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Triggers, Once Again

| November 8, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Last year, shortly after Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers:  Creating Behavior That Lasts, Becoming the Person You Want to Be was published, I focused – in the August 11, 2015 Tuesday Reading, Triggers – on a practice he discussed there that has brought significant discipline into his life.  (Goldsmith is one of the best-known executive coaches in the U.S., if not, perhaps, the world.)
Specifically, at the end of each day, he has a friend call him and ask the same 22 questions each day.  He answers each question, which typically begins with “Did I do my best today to …”  As he responds to each question, he relates what he did that day in that category.  He also evaluates his work in that area on a scale from zero to ten.  All this informs his subsequent actions.
So that you get the idea, typical questions are:

· Did I do my best today to make progress on each of my priorities for the day?

· Did I do my best today to provide time to meet the needs of my staff?

· Did I do my best today to provide clear feedback to staff, both acknowledging good work and addressing needs for improvement?

These questions are examples of what Goldsmith calls “triggers,” deliberately designed prompts to move you continuously, relentlessly in the direction of productive, beneficial change.  Having made responding to the questions a regular part of his day, they serve as “triggers” to how he approaches his work throughout the day.
This process of asking a fixed set of questions at the end of each day may work well for some people in some circumstances.  However, I suspect that for you, as well as me, this is at a bit too high a level to capture the detail that is needed in our review if we are to make meaningful change.  So, how might we adapt what has worked so well for him over several decades?  Let me suggest an approach that has promise.
First, let me provide a context.  In the Leaders Programs we now ask each participant to develop a practice of weekly and daily planning.  The planning guide, states it this way:

One “keystone habit” we will ask every person to adopt between workshop one and two is the weekly planning practice. 

This requires participants to spend 30-60 minutes on Friday afternoon or Monday morning setting out their top three to five priorities for the next week or two. In addition, we want individuals to identify the actions they need to take or delegate to move these priorities forward. Then we want the person to go to the calendar and put these important activities on the schedule. This is also a good time to look ahead to see if there are meetings on the calendar they can delegate, not attend or meetings for which they need to prepare. Weekly planning is one “keystone habit” we know can lead a person to becoming more focused and productive. 

I’m a firm believer that you need to do the weekly planning.  However, in my view that is inadequate.  You need the weekly planning to give you a foundation as well as a view into the future, and you need to plan in more detail at the beginning of each day.  In my life, I simply don’t know enough beyond the key events of the next week to do the detail that is needed.  This is like using a piece of mapping software, Google Maps, for example, first to get a broad overview of an area and then “zooming-in” to get the details of a particular location.
So, you build your daily plan in detail each morning and identify your triggers, at least initially, on your daily calendar.  That means, each day you need to focus on making sure that daily calendar has your full plan for the day.  A young software executive told me this past weekend, “I live by my calendar.”  If it’s not on the calendar it doesn’t get done.  If it is on the calendar, it has priority.
A recent manager I coached this past year was having trouble being doing his daily planning.  Like so many of us, when he arrived at his desk, he immediately jumped online.  After all, his monitor was sitting there, pleading for attention.  I suggested to him a minimal intervention:  As his last action each day, tape a sheet of blank paper to the front of his monitor.  Seeing that when he arrived would  “trigger” him to do his daily planning.  And, it did.  After a couple of months he reported that he no longer needed to tape the paper to the front of the monitor.
Your daily planning begins by reviewing your calendar and your To Do list.  You begin with a number of commitments including the priority work that you developed in your weekly planning, in meetings with staff and others, from tasks previously listed on your To Do list, etc. already on the calendar.  Commit to what you are going to do in any blocks of time you have reserved for doing “your” work as well as any blocks of time that are still uncommitted.  And, put in time for short breaks, a walk outside or around your office space to do some “leading by walking around.”  However, do make commitments for how you are going to use the time.  While it’s OK to make deliberate changes as you are doing your planning as well as during the day, my experience is that if you don’t make specific commitments for any unassigned time on your calendar, you’ll waste away that time on easy, low priority tasks.
As you create your calendar, deliberately make note as to what you expect to achieve from each activity you undertake.  I’ve found that, even for one-on-one meetings it is helpful to have an agenda.  Also, write down the actions you plan to take on the margin of the main events.  For example, if you are working on the practice of building relationships, you might have an action item to introduce yourself and have a short conversation with any attendees you don’t know.  Make a note – a “trigger” – of these impromptu meetings on your calendar until that action becomes a deeply ingrained habit.  Also, note any side conversations you plan to have at the meeting, etc.
The activity of carefully planning your day, and every day in its turn, creates a list of triggers for your day, a comprehensive guide for you.  And, if you add all these details to your calendar for the day, you have a real action plan for the day.  Also, your notes from these activities will tell you whether or not you met your goals and what your next steps are.
Then at the end of the day when you reflect on how you used your time that day (another practice I have recommended in the past), you have a ready made list of questions that will help you evaluate how you did during the day.
Go through the day with deliberation.  Ask, as Goldsmith does, “Did I do my best …” for each activity you engaged in.  What did you do?  Did you achieve the result you anticipated?  What might you have done better?
As triggers become ingrained in the way you do certain tasks, they just become automatic.  And, they assist you in making your day more productive and keep you from falling into traps that lead to you becoming less effective.
So, if you don’t yet do weekly and daily planning, give it some serious consideration.  You can start small and I think that it will be sufficiently valuable you’ll step up the game.  And, if you are already planning some, do step it up.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim

Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.