The Lightning Bolt of Habit Change

Jul 22, 2015

photo credit goes to my brother-in-law, Jon

Many of you know I'm a diligent journal keeper. No, diligent is too mild a word for it. Dedicated? Yes, but still not strong enough. Obsessed? There we go.

But have I ever told you about how that diligence/dedication/obsession came about? Probably not because, the truth is, it's a very short story.

I was a teenager, and, as usual, I was stressing about something (a characteristic trait that, unfortunately, has not changed in the last fifteen years). It was probably a lot of little somethings because I tended to let them pile up in my brain until I grew so overwhelmed I couldn't stand it. My dad was inspired to offer me some short and simple counsel: make a to-do list every night.

And so that very night, I did just that. It felt nice to write, and so I decided that as long as I had a pen in my hand, I would just write about the day, too.

And, just like that, in a single moment, a habit was formed.

I had experienced a Lightning Bolt.

In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin says, "Sometimes we're hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits, instantly. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a long-standing habit--without preparation, without small steps, without wavering--and we pass from before to after in a moment."

That's exactly what happened to me. I don't remember thinking, I'd like to be better about writing in my journal regularly. In fact, I don't remember thinking about my journal at all. I was trying to write out a to-do list. But then, suddenly, there I was, writing about my day every day.

The thing about this particular strategy is that it's unpredictable. Gretchen says, "It's practically impossible to invoke on command. Unlike all the other strategies, it's not a strategy that we can decide to follow; it's something that happens to us."

It's really too bad because, as you can imagine, it's actually pretty nice to just wake up one morning and find you've acquired a habit (but only if it's a good one). Gretchen says that big events can trigger Lightning Bolts but that it's often something small: "a passage in a book, a scene from a movie, or a casual comment by a stranger."

That last one? A casual comment by a stranger? That set off a Lightning Bolt for me a couple of months ago.

For a long time now, I've been struggling with how to prioritize my time, particularly as it relates to this blog. I get a lot of joy and satisfaction when I finish writing a post but that can be compounded by feelings of guilt and frustration if I sacrificed time I would have been spending with my kids to write it. For many months, I tried to write during quiet time, which we have every afternoon, but I found that there were still little interruptions throughout the afternoon, and those interruptions broke my concentration and irritated me.

Then, one evening, I was chatting with a new woman in our neighborhood. She's approaching eighty, and so naturally, the three of us who were visiting her wanted to hear all about her long life. At one point, someone asked, "What are your hobbies? Reading? Sewing? Cooking?"

This woman replied, "Oh, I used to sew a lot. When my daughters were young, I sewed all their clothes. But now I wish I hadn't. I was so concerned with getting things done, and it didn't really matter."

Many people express similar sentiments of wishing they'd spent more time with their children, but there, in that otherwise normal moment, hearing that regret hit me hard. I thought, I don't want to share similar thoughts when I'm almost eighty. So something has to change now.

That woman's statement cast an illuminating light on my situation, and all of a sudden, I realized that if I really wanted to write, I should be doing it in the early morning hours before anyone in my house was awake. I've always been a fairly early riser, but I shifted my wake up time even earlier so that I could have a solid hour and a half to two hours before anyone else woke up.

Almost immediately though, I ran into a problem. I have a tendency to stay up late, like 11:30ish, but now I was trying to wake up between 4:40 and 5:15 every morning. I often have interruptions in the middle of the night from the baby or Maxwell who needs to relate all of the details of his bad dreams in order to go back to sleep. I knew I wasn't getting a healthy amount of sleep, but I felt fiercely committed to waking up early, so obviously the change needed to happen on the other end, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

And then, on a Sunday evening just a couple of weeks ago, I was reading this article about how so many successful people follow a pattern of going to bed early and waking up early, and something finally fell into place. It was another Lightning Bolt, if you will.

The article mainly talked about the benefits of arising early when our minds are clear and our energy is replenished, but the reminder that this is only possible if you also retire early made me decide to move up my evening routine an hour earlier. I don't know if I was finally ready for the lesson or what, but suddenly I was able to make the change.

Because I've seen the wonderful results that have come because of these two recent Lightning Bolts, I've been trying to think if there are any ways to encourage them to occur more frequently. I believe what Gretchen says--that it's not a strategy we can "invoke on command"--but I also think there are certain things I can do to make Lightning Bolts more likely: read a wide variety of material (books, articles, current events) that will expose myself to new ideas (and maybe one of those ideas will be just the trigger I need); visit new places, regardless of whether they're near or far from home; chat with new people and glean what I can from their experiences.

And then, once the Lightning Bolt strikes, I can harness that energy by using some of the other strategies to hold it in place. A Lightning Bolt carries a lot of momentum with it, and sometimes it's enough, but it never hurts to secure it.

I'm very interested in hearing about the Lightning Bolts you've experienced in your life. What triggered those positive changes in eating or exercising or [fill in the blank]?


  1. I love what kindred spirits we are in our struggles and goals to overcome them. Kudos to you for waking up as early as 4:40! That is impressive! I'm still struggling with the going-to-bed-early thing, partly because my husband is a night owl, and partly because I've found myself struggling with insomnia recently when I've tried to go to bed earlier (super frustrating, but I'm working on it). I'd love to hear more about your successes in this habit.

    Yes, a lot of my lightening bolt changes have come from reading books or other inspiring material online, so I think that's a good excuse to read widely and often. :) One of my recent lightening bolt changes came after reading an article about how another mom handles dishes and laundry. I changed my habits immediately, and it's made such a huge difference in my daily housekeeping.

    1. I've been having trouble falling asleep at an earlier time as well . . . the upside is it means I'm getting in a lot of reading!!

      Okay, now you must share about how you handle dishes and laundry! I'm super interested!

  2. This is very interesting, Amy. For the past year or so I've been getting up ~4:30, so that I can exercise and read the paper and triage email before my husband and daughter wake up. This was especially important during the school year, when I would have to wake her up by 7. Mostly it's that I just value the quiet time to myself. This time is especially important for me when we have guests in the house. The down side is that I'm very tired in the evenings, and it's hard to go to bed early when we have social plans, etc. But I have definitely found it worth the effort.

    As for lightning bolts, I can't think of any specific examples, but I, too, read widely. I've always believed that any piece of advice has to resonate with you at a particular time to be useful. You could read 100 self-help articles, but there will be that one that makes you nod and say "yes, exactly." And that's the one you'll follow. It's more like the advice is something that you wanted to do anyway, and hearing it stated gives you the impetus to take action. Or something like that :-)

    1. I agree with you--even if I'm not writing a blog post in the morning, having that quiet time to myself is invaluable and helps me be more patient during the rest of the day.

      And yes, I think Lightning Bolts are very dependent on being/hearing/reading the right thing at the right time!

  3. I get up before 5 every morning. I try to wake up by 4 but sometimes it doesn't quite work out. I can't feel relaxed at all in the morning if I don't get up way before everyone else and have some time to drink my tea and read or work.

    1. That's awesome, Erica! And I agree...even if I don't get any writing accomplished, I like having a couple of quiet hours to myself to collect my thoughts and plan for the day!

  4. I, too, acquired a journal habit through a lightning bolt experience! Though my father gave me some good advice about journaling in my youth (he was an avid journal keeper), it wasn't until I was off at college that I realized suddenly one day, during lunch. "If I don't write this all down No One Will Ever Know It!" I began journaling every day and haven't looked back.

    I need the link to the article you read about getting up early, please! Wanting to change...

    1. That sounds like a true Lightning Bolt moment--totally out of the blue. Love it! (And I love finding a fellow journaler!)

      Yes, it's a great article! It's linked in the post above, or you can find it here:


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