Breaking and Making Habits – My Summer Book Review

When I was a newly minted speech pathologist working at UVA Health Sciences Center, my friend, John Caine, chastised me for my habit of reading several books at once.

“Oh, Melissa,” he shook his head. “You should always read just one book at a time.”

I decided to try it, and I’ve been a one-book-at-a-time woman for more than 20 years now, with one caveat. I read fiction and nonfiction simultaneously. They don’t seem to compete with each other for space in my brain.

But during our recent summer vacation, I broke that habit and dove into two great nonfiction works, alternating between Triggers, Creating Behavior That Lasts– Becoming the Person You Want to Be, by Marshall Goldsmith (2015) and True Refuge, Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, by Tara Brach (2013). I found that these two don’t compete with each other at all. In fact, they support and complement one another beautifully. They became my personal retreat during our family vacation, where I went to rejuvenate in the midst of time zone changes and long car rides.

Meditation, the subject of True Refuge, has been on my to-do list (to-be list?) for many years. When I completed my yoga teacher training in 2008, it was the meditation practice I found most powerful. Each morning, I sat still with my racing mind and restless limbs, usually feeling like a pretty clueless meditator. But even when I found little evidence of enlightenment during the meditation practice itself, I discovered that the rest of my day went … better. Not perfect. But it was like I’d had a mild dose of Prozac. As Dan Harris puts it in his book, 10% Happier, I had improved the quality of my life by at least 10%. My reactivity and anxiety when confronted with conflict and challenges went way down. My ability to appreciate and enjoy the present moment went way up.

Could it be that a few moments of pre-dawn stillness (or attempted stillness) were really infusing a bit of equanimity into my entire day? Were these few minutes of sitting with my breath each morning providing me with a welcome spiritual and psychological re-booting? I experimented by noticing what happened on days I practiced and on days that I didn’t. Yep, there was a direct correlation between my meditation and my own centeredness and kindness towards others.

Knowing how transformational meditation is for me, you might guess that I do it daily, right? Wrong. I certainly think about how I should be meditating regularly. But the reality is that I don’t live up to my own standards in this area.

This is one reason I fell in love with Tara Brach’s True Refuge. I felt my shoulders relax and exhaled a sigh of relief reading her words. She made me feel better about my scattershot meditation practice, quoting Julia Child, “Always remember: If you’re alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who’s going to know?”

If I miss a day, a week, a month from my mediation practice – who’s to know? I can just pick it back up.

And that’s where Marshall Goldsmith’s Triggers enters to lend me some support. In his book, Goldsmith emphasizes the undeniable need for structure for those of us pursuing any meaningful behavioral change. He shares a structure called the Daily Questions. These are questions based on something important we want to include or develop in our lives. Examples might be connecting with loved ones, showing compassion towards a stranger, setting clear goals.

And – this is key – we write these daily questions as Active Questions, not Passive Questions.

A passive question: Did I exercise today?

An active question: Did I try my best to exercise today?

See (and feel) the difference?

The active question measures effort and engagement with the target behavior. It holds us accountable for our actions, how much we tried to act the way we say we want to act. We choose the challenge, and we’re aware throughout our day that we will grade ourselves come nightfall. But it’s a private list, for our eyes only. And our scores are not there to judge us but act as a neutral source of information and support.

Did I do my best today to: Mon. Tues. Wed. Thurs. Fri. Sat. Sun.
Connect w/ loved ones 7 9 2 8 10 6 8
Show compassion 8 5 4 8 9 8 10
Set clear goals 9 3 8 8 6 10 5


Goldsmith created a spreadsheet similar to the one above. He measures himself on 22 questions nightly, using a 1-10 scale. For me, that’s a lot of behaviors to keep up with. (As a beginner, I might choose four to six questions.) At workshops with the big leaders and CEOs he coaches, he warns the group, “20% of you will quit within two weeks.”

The reason for this high attrition is that for some it requires too much effort. Or they don’t choose meaningful behaviors to change. Or the fit’s not right.

I’m going to try it. On my Daily Questions spreadsheet I’m going to have one question near the top:

“Did I try my best to … meditate today?”

I can’t wait to see what happens.


Books mentioned:

Brach, T. (2012). True refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart. New York: Bantam Books.

Goldsmith, M., & Reiter, M. (2015). Triggers: Creating behavior that lasts– becoming the person you want to be. New York: Crown Business.

Harris, D. (2014). 10% happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works : A true story. New York: Harper Collins.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *