“If I Didn’t Take Drastic Steps I Wasn’t Going To Be Around for My Son.”

I’m writing my next book, Better than Before, about how we make and break habits– an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To hear when Better than Before goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Angela Peinado:

I believed myself to be Wonder Woman and loved when people used to say “I don’t know how you do it all.” I would never say “no” to anything. I loved the recognition and praise. This Wonder Woman Habit came tumbling down fast and hard. I found myself working a 40 hour/week job, teaching one or two nights a week, finishing up my dissertation, part of my son’s school advisory council, home room mom, volunteering for a large community event, on top of being a wife and mom.


I was feeling stress and the beginning stages of anxiety. My sleep habits were out of whack, not to mention my eating schedule. I had gone to the doctor because I wasn’t feeling good (wonder why), and she starting asking me questions about my daily habits. She almost flipped off her stool and said I had to let some things go. I walked out saying OK but then didn’t do a thing (except added on a church committee).


One day, every single thing I was doing either had questions I needed to answer, problem to address, or deadlines for that day. I just lost it and felt this thing happening inside me but couldn’t tell what. My heart was beating fast, had shaky palms, and felt this exhaustion I never had before. My first thought was I was having a stroke. Nope! It was a full fledged panic attack. My doctor then said if I didn’t take drastic steps I was not going to be around for my son. Talk about a wake up call.


I refocused my life, read well-being books, meditated, took some me time, and learned how to relax. Slowly the Wonder Woman habit wants to sneak up but I have to learn I can say no. This was a tough habit to break, since I had been doing it as long as I had. Slowly my life is becoming something I am proud of and do not care what others may say or think. This was the toughest habit to break and it took a long time to recover, but I did and and work hard each day to be mindful and find that balance.

This is what I call the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

Discussions of habit-change often emphasize the importance of repeating an action, over and over, until it becomes automatic, and such repetition does indeed help to form habits. However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a longstanding habit. The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt takes its power from knowledge, beliefs, and ideas.

The Lightning Bolt is a highly effective strategy, but unfortunately, it’s rare, and practically impossible to invoke on command.

A milestone event, whether positive or negative—a panic attack, as in this example, or a marriage, a diagnosis, an anniversary, hitting bottom, a birthday, an accident, a midlife crisis, a long journey taken alone—often triggers a Lightning Bolt, because we’re smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change.

Have you ever been hit by the Lightning Bolt, and found that your habits changed — whether gradually, as in this example, or perhaps even overnight?

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  • grahamita cracker

    I had one of those experiences. I was in a serious car accident at 24 and finally realized that my drinking was totally out of control and that I was going to die – literally – if I didn’t stop. The vehicle was totally smashed and curled around me and I escaped with relatively minor injuries; it was life-changing for me. That was 28 years ago. I still don’t drink.

    • Marci

      Congratulations on your 28 years! I have alcoholics in my family who hit rock bottom, turn their life around for a few months and start the cycle all over again. I know that every day can bring temptations and I love your strength and commitment to staying sober.

  • Sarah

    This sounds very familiar. Couple of months ago, one morning I had a panic attack in the car on the way to work. Luckily I could take an exit to a car park. Due to the build up of stress and insomnia because of my too heavy work load. Though I had discussed it before with my boss, I really needed to call in sick for a couple of days for them to work out a solution. Doctor said I was on the edge of getting a nervous breakdown and burn out (at the age of 30, go figure). Work load has been reduced, and I’m really being more mindful about my energy and stress levels. And finally last month I signed a contract for a new job, starting August 1st, in a company that ‘s more humane about its employees and closer to home, so reducing the commuting to less than half of what it was before. Huge lesson learnt: take care of yourself, mind and body, and don’t be afraid to speak up.

  • Natalie

    I had many events that I felt should have been lightening bolt moments for me in my weight problems. Certain numbers on the scale that I swore I would never reach but did, learning I had pre-diabetes, high blood pressure. Each time I would tell myself ‘this is the thing that will motivate me to lose weight and be healthy.’ But the good intentions would last a matter of days.
    Then earlier this year, after months of terrible sleep, I found out that I have sleep apnoea and needed a CPAP to keep me breathing properly at night. And somehow that was the thing that got me started (5 weeks in to healthy living, probably longer than I’ve ever stuck to it). I guess the other issues were too abstract, but having to wear a face mask every night is very concrete and a nightly reminder of why I need to keep on with my plan.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      This was a BIG one for me as well.

    • PolarSamovar

      I wonder if not being sleep deprived anymore makes changing your other habits easier, too. When I am sleep deprived, I crave fatty foods and sweets, I’m too tired to exercise, and my mood craters. The apnea could possibly have started a long time ago, but only recently got bad enough to notice.

  • Abby

    Wow! Thanks for sharing. I feel like this is a friendly reminder for me. I know that I need to do a better job at balancing the amount of time I spend doing my extracurricular activities and the amount of time I spend doing things for myself. I’m blessed to work for an employer that advocates self-care, which is great given that I spend 8 hours a day/ 5 days a week there. I loved The Happiness Project and I can’t wait for Gretchen to publish her book on habits.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! I’m so happy to hear that you’re interested in the book.

  • nancy Alfred

    Well, today is the 28th of june and Jim asked me if we could be back together this morning. Of course I said yes. Thanks to you Esango priest , thanks to the spirits, thank you God. I cannot thank you enough Esango for bringing him back into my life. I didn’t think it was never gonna be possible possible after all i did to him, I had lost my hope and most of any little faith that I had to begin with, but thanks to you, I have my love and my life back. Thank you. God bless you many many times over for all the help you give to people, you have a beautiful gift to humanity, his email is esangopriest@gmail.com. contact him on relationship or life issues.

  • Lisa

    This one totally fascinates me. How does this work some of the time and not at other times when events should function as “lightning bolt moments” but don’t? When I look at the points in time when I’ve been able to make dramatic changes that is retrospect look relatively effortless, the only thing i’ve been able to figure out is that I needed to be steeped in reinforcing behavior on an ongoing basis to make the change stick. When I eliminated alcohol from my life I needed the reinforcement of a recovery group to embed the change but I wouldn’t have made the change without the lightening bolt event. My latest one is eliminating the carbs after reading “Why We Get Fat”. I have lost all appetite for them but I also reinforced that by drowning myself in reading similar material, listening to podcasts, etc. For me I think this is the critical change that keeps me from rethinking the original decision to make the change and then later talking myself out of it. You’re right that we can’t invoke this on demand but I think I may have figured out what makes it easier for me in the long term. I don’t know if others have had this same experience in making these pivotal changes out of the blue.