Each one of us starts with the best intentions: eat well, exercise, do our best work at our jobs, get along with our co-workers, etc. Unfortunately, those good intentions don't always translate into actually doing what we say we'll do. Why is this?

In this article, we explore the answers to this question and how to consciously align our actions with our intentions.

Often, impediments to our success come in the form of "triggers" — the everyday disruptions that mentally or emotionally distract us from what we intend to accomplish:

  • You've prepared for your project team meeting with a detailed agenda, and several team members show up late.
  • You arrive at work with the intention of starting right away on your most important task, and you discover your email inbox flooded with "urgent" requests.
  • You present a proposal for a new project, and unexpectedly come up against a lot of pushback from other stakeholders.

What is your typical response to these kinds of triggers? For many of us, triggers push us into making choices that aren't fully conscious or intentional that is, we react rather than act with purpose. You may lash out at a team member, neglect other work you need to do, or make a rash decision that sets back the timeline of your project.

After engaging in these behaviors, we often feel guilty and unfulfilled. "Letting off steam" rarely makes us feel better, and can instead have the opposite effect: making us feel like we aren't in control of our own actions or emotions.

Fortunately, reacting to triggering events isn't our only option. With practice, we can develop the skill of making conscious choices about how to act when confronted with triggers. Here are some tips for making conscious choices in response to triggering events:

1. Identify what triggers you. We may often feel blindsided by triggering events, but if we step back for a minute, we can see some of these triggers are fairly predictable and routine. There are likely one or more of your team members who you can always count on to be late, no matter how many reminder emails you send about the start time. Acknowledging the probability that these folks will show up late again to your next meeting is the first step in preparing to react to this triggering event more intentionally.

2. Recognize and accept that you are being triggered. Now you're in the meeting, and sure enough the "usual suspects" come in 10 minutes late with their predictable apologies and excuses. And predictably, you feel annoyed. Recognize and accept that feeling.

3. Breathe. Deep, calm breaths help us reach a state of calm focus that prepares us to make conscious choices about how to respond to triggers.

4. Identify others' positive intentions. If the behavior of someone else is the triggering event (and this is often the case), take a minute to acknowledge the other person's positive intention that led up to his/her actions. As the saying goes, we often judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actions. Judging others by their intentions opens up new possibilities for understanding and empathizing with others whose actions trigger us.

5. Find a productive way to move forward. We don't have control over all the triggering events that happen in our lives. We do, however, have control over how we respond. After acknowledging you are being triggered and recognizing others start out with good intentions, you are in a great position to decide which actions will produce the outcomes you ultimately hope for. In the case of your team members showing up late, rather than chewing them out in front of everyone during the meeting, you might pause to ask yourself: What can I do right now to make this the most productive meeting anyway? How might I most effectively communicate with the late team members to let them know their tardiness is unacceptable?

When we act consciously rather than simply react when we find ourselves in triggering situations, we influence ourselves to act according our best intentions. This positive self-influence brings us a feeling of deep personal satisfaction and pride that is far more rewarding than the reactive behaviors we justify as a way to "let off steam."

While these behaviors may feel good in the moment, they do not help us achieve the long-term, sustainable happiness and success in our work that comes from making conscious choices.