Video: For Habits, the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of the Lightning Bolt. Ah, this is one of my favorite strategies.

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. Which can be frustrating, because it often makes change so easy.

Something, whether positive or negative—a panic attack (here’s one person’s story), pregnancy, a documentary, a diagnosis, an anniversary, hitting bottom, a birthday, an accident, a midlife crisis, even a conversation with a stranger—can trigger a Lightning Bolt, because we’re smacked with some new idea that jolts us into change.


As I explain in the video, I was hit by a Lightning Bolt in March 2012 when I read Gary Taubes’s book, Why We Get Fat. I was so persuaded by his arguments about nutrition that my eating habits changed, for the better, overnight. No small steps, no gradual change, no looking back — bam.

Have you ever been hit by the Lightning Bolt, and found that your habits changed? I’ve been surprised, as I’ve been writing Better Than Before, to discover that this happens more often than you might expect.

  • Barrie/The Life Passion Coach

    Gretchen, I LOVE the idea of The Lightening Bolt. Rich Roll, the super ultra athlete named one of the top 25 fittest men in the world, talks about his lightening bolt when he was 50 pounds overweight in his mid-40’s and nearly collapsed while climbing some stairs. At the very moment, he decided to overhaul is health and became a vegan and started running daily. He tells his amazing story in my habits program I teach. And I’m thrilled you share your habit knowledge with my students in
    Thank you, thank you!

  • Katie

    Funny how things come together – between your video and this post at the Simple Dollar, it seems like a Lightning Bolt day!

    • gretchenrubin

      HAPPY minds think alike.

  • dmutmansky

    Your video reminded me that I had a similar experience. I came across “The China Study” six or seven years ago. It stopped me in my tracks and changed me into a vegan almost overnight. What he wrote made so much sense that I could not justify eating the way I had previously been. Maybe I was ready to hear his thesis because I am older and realize that although I will not live forever I certainly want to be as healthy as I can until the day I die!

  • Catseye

    I was hit by a lightening bolt in August of last year when I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Talk about changing habits!
    I began eating healthier immediately, began exercising soon after and I’ve lost a dress size in the past 12 months. My constant fatigue has disappeared and I haven’t had this much energy since I was in my 30’s.

    • gretchenrubin

      A big lightning bolt!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      good for you that you CONSIDERED it to be a lightning bolt. A lot of people just think ‘well darn, I have to take another pill!’ and do nothing.

  • Word to your Mummy

    Love this! Also isn’t it heartwarming to know that actually it is not THAT rare and cn happen in the most every day of moments ( as well as the big events)

  • Great analolgy about the lightening bolt. Another way to look at it as something that hits totally random but seems to resonate with people.

  • It’s uncanny — the only time I have ever gotten hit by a ‘lightning bolt’ and changed habits overnight was after reading that VERY SAME BOOK (Why We Get Fat) about 18 months ago!! The communicator in me is now very curious about how many others have been affected by that book in that way. What makes particular writing so persuasive that it can do this, I wonder?
    My second question is about the duration of the lightning bolt: does it still count if after a period of time we go back to the old ways? (I recently started eating cookies again!)

    PS Of course I have changed the way I do some things after reading your books, Gretchen, but not quite as dramatically! 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      You raise an excellent point about the lightning bolt: how long does the effect last?
      That’s why I think it’s important to recognize this strategy. It’s wonderful when it makes change easy – but that might not last forever.
      If we want to hang on to that change, we need to observe and protect the associated habits. If you want to keep your recent eating habits, figure out what is right for you, and follow those habits.
      Because the easy, effortless change may begin to wear down.

      I still eat exactly the same way that I did when I first read the book – in fact, as my fellow Upholders may understand, I’ve “tightened.”

      • Lisa H.

        I too was hit by the lightning bolt after reading “Why We Get Fat”. Thank you again for mentioning Gary Taubes’ work because it finally pushed me to read it. Like you, I didn’t make a gradual change, I simply could not look at a carbohydrate the same way that I did before. I’ve yo-yo dieted for years and now this is absolutely effortless. I simply cannot explain it. I have very consciously made an effort to reinforce this habit though by reading other similar material and listening to podcasts on low carb lifestyle, etc. Continual reinforcement of this decision will help me not to rethink it. I did the same thing with alcohol decades ago and reinforced that by entering a recovery group. Without that regular reminder, I might be tempted to return to old behavior. If only you could summon lightning bolt moments at will or figure out how to induce such a dramatic change!

    • Claudia Tiefisher

      Persuasiveness is about the quality of the writing. I was a writer for many years and it’s only now, having been hit by a lightning bolt reading Why We Get Fat and The Big Fat Surprise, about 12 years after I’d stopped writing, that I am inspired to write, write, write and get the word out there about how we’ve been lied to, nutritionally, for decades. I have started a blog and hope to turn it into a book. I wish I’d been the one to write Why We Get Fat because it is so well written and so persuasive that it’s hard to imagine I have anything to add. But I know I do. I know that the way I disseminate this information may resonate with some people for whom Why We Get Fat doesn’t, and so I write.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Lightning Bolt responses are pretty interesting. Although we can’t ‘make’ them happen, I think they happen ‘under the right conditions.’ We may be mentally contemplating or desiring a major change ‘in background’ but not knowing how to accomplish that change, or feeling somehow that we can’t or shouldn’t change.Suddenly, it seems, the teacher appears, or the word drops on you from on high, and you have your lightning bolt. My experience of these ‘out of the blue’ changes is that way, So it is like that proverb ‘the teacher appears when the pupil is ready.’
    In my own experience, this has not been as much about habit changes as it has been about major life decisions. Lightning bolt moments were the turning point in both my decision to end my failing marriage and years later, to make a major geographic move. These big turning points and huge decisions seemed to others to be the work of a moment, inspired by a bolt from the blue. Later reflection showed me that in fact each event had been building up within me for a long time: the lightning bolt moment empowered me to focus my attention and take action. While these big decisions have been very consequential, I found that they were in both cases very much the right choice for all concerned–very probably because each change was something that I had inwardly prepared much more than I consciously understood at the moment of change..
    Habit changes, for me, come much more from long-considered conscious decisions. They are harder to maintain.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I, too, changed my eating habits overnight because of a book. It was a different book, but one in a similar vein. I was perusing books in a health food store when Real Food by Nina Planck leapt out at me, and, on a whim, I bought it. I immediately started doing the bulk of my food shopping at a local, mostly organic farm market and the local weekend farmer’s market. I began drinking raw milk and rendered my own lard for pie crust. I got rid of my hydrogenated vegetable oils and canned soups. I have since read other books about how what they sell in supermarkets is generally not good for you. Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is a good one, as is Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. I’ve watched documentaries, like Food Inc. and Farmageddon. I had always thought that I ate quite well, and cooked from scratch. But I had been using hydrogenated oils, meat from the supermarket, and farmed fish. I spend more money on food now — the bulk of it with local farmers — but I know that I am eating a healthier diet.

    • Claudia Tiefisher

      I’ve read Salt Sugar Fat, too and all the books mentioned in my post above. Real Food is really how we should be thinking about our diet. Good for you for making these changes.

      • Mimi Gregor

        I went to Amazon and ordered the books you mentioned. One would think that I’ve read enough books on this subject, but it seems that the more I find out, the more there is to find out, and I find it endlessly fascinating! Thanks for the reccies!

        • Claudia Tiefisher

          I think there does come a point where you’ve read enough, or where certain books on the topic just don’t do it for you. I recently got the book “Eat the Yolks” from the library but it’s not adding anything new and it’s written in too “folksy” a style. I feel like I’m being condescended to. I’m now exploring the role of a low carb diet in conjunction with fitness and exercise beyond walking and yoga. You will LOVE the books you ordered. 🙂

  • Etta

    After reading about Caroline Arnold’s micro resolution “it is just as easy to hang it up” in her book “Small Change Big Move” I overnight changed from a slob to someone who now has a tidy home! After reading those words the lightning bolt struck and I knew I could change by using her strategy.

  • Etta

    That should be Small Move Big Change!

  • Claudia Tiefisher

    My lightning bolt came when I read “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Meat, Butter and Cheese belong in a Healthy Diet”, after which I read Wheat Belly and then Gary Taubes’s “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why we Get Fat” (I read many others too, on this topic, but these are the seminal ones). Did a total 180. Everything I THOUGHT I knew about nutrition (and I worked in the natural health industry for about 12 years) was WRONG. I am now eating a diet free of grains and sugars and processed oils and processed foods of all kinds. Telling EVERYONE I know how we’ve been lied to, nutritionally, and are all fatter and sicker for it. Everyone who will listen. I have lost 14 pounds, my husband 10, another male friend 10, my parents are slowly losing weight, my dad has his blood sugar more under control (he’s Type 2 diabetic). This has all happened in the last couple of months only.

    A similar lightning bolt hit me when I spoke to a stranger at a conference I was at about 10 years ago. Because she was gluten intolerant (I’m not) she couldn’t eat anything with wheat in it. She was thin. It twigged something in me, so I cut anything with flour out of my diet (still ate other grains, which I don’t do now) but at that time effortlessly lost 30 pounds which I kept off for 10 years. Recently regaining some of that weight was followed by my reading these books (not because I was looking for a weight loss tool, but simply because I have always had an interest in nutrition). When I’d read a few of the books, I put the science, the COMMON SENSE in them into practice, and have now lost that 14 pounds, and the weight is still coming off, effortlessly. Not just weight has improved, but overall health: skin, sleeping, mood, bloating, constant hunger, energy, all fixed. When I look back, I did 10 years ago more or less what I’m doing now, I just didn’t realize it. Both were lightning moments, but this latter one more complete, more impactful. YOU, Gretchen, were the one who mentioned “The Big Fat Surprise” in one of your blogs. Talk about a life changing moment. Thank you!

  • Rebecca

    I had a similar experience with sugar, after watching Dr. Robert Lustig’s lecture (Sugar, the Bitter Truth) on YouTube.

  • PolarSamovar

    I think it’s interesting that so far, all but one Lightening Bolt experience reported has been about food/diet. Maybe because that’s an area where we all have a lot of choices, and changing from one choice to another is easy compared to some other habit changes, like quitting smoking.

    So I will share that my Lightening Bolt moment came when I discovered that I have denture breath if I don’t floss daily. Now when I question whether I really have time to floss before heading out the door, I imagine having bad breath all day. The choice becomes easy.

    • gretchenrubin

      I have a friend who had a Lightning Bolt about quitting smoking.

      She smoked two packs a day, and one day, seemingly out of the blue, she thought, “Wait, why am I doing this?” and she never smoked again. It was super-tough for the first three months, but she’d made up her mind.

      • PolarSamovar

        Wow, good for her!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I guess you could say that a lightning bolt finally stopped my smoking–but only after a number of abortive attempts to quit by other methods. One day I was at a senior execs meeting at work, and found myself out in the hall with the only other senior execs who still smoked–a couple of grizzled old veterans whom I liked, but whose looks and health had been adversely affected by cigarettes–I suddenly didn’t want to become like them, and I stopped right away. It stuck. Does that count?

      • gretchenrubin

        Absolutely. Sounds like it was the Strategy of Identity as well.

        I’ve noticed that when a major habit changes, often, multiple strategies are at work. We need a lot of firepower to change a big habit.

  • Tess

    Gretchen, I would love to know the particulars of your eating regime since your big turnaround. Obviously, you are avoiding carbohydrates and sugars, but how do you meal plan when there are others in your household? Also, how can someone on a budget adhere to this plan? This may be taking us away from happiness and habits, but, especially with a family, meals and budgets have a lot to do with happiness!

    • phoenix1920

      Me too! Perhaps you can discuss in a post about how to handle adopting new habits when others (like family members) would be affected? I was so interested in this book based on your comments that I bought this one!

  • robin

    I always would eat in front of the tv – and I didn’t even have a tv tray, I must admit. I would just balance my plate on my lap. I’d get home from work, tired and want to watch the news… i had wanted to start eating at the table like a civilized person, but would never stick with it. One night for some reason it just hit me – and I ate at the table. I listen to peaceful music while I am eating, and focus on enjoying my food. It is much more relaxing than vegging out in front of the tv. After I eat dinner (not rushed) – then I do watch the news. Yes I watch old-fashioned nightly news though it’s usually dvr’d so that I can fast forward thru the commercials. It’s a hold-over from when I was a kid in the 60’s and our whole family would watch Walter Cronkite together.
    I feel like this change is going to stick.

  • Marta

    I love the lightening bolt effect. All of a sudden it’s so easy and effortless to change your ays of doing thing. Someone said that there’s a lot of exammples regarding food/ eating habits. for me it usualy is the way I plan my day – to check/not check e-mail before breakfast, to go offline at least an hour before bedtime, al this little things. However, I am not sure if I would call it a strategy (ok, you can always say it’s just semantics ;)) as it’s something I cannot plan and execute, it just happens. 🙂 One day I read something or talk to someone and there’s this revelation – I need to change this and somehow, magically, it sticks 🙂

  • Mary

    I’d always assumed I’d never had a lightening bolt, but listening to this I’ve realised I have. 6 years ago I’d been thinking about giving up caffeine because I knew it made my anxious and not a nice person. I just never quite managed to cut down, or find a good time to. Then I got the norovirus and felt very unwell for 3 days, and only drank water. As I began to get better, I realised I’d given up caffeine, all the withdrawal symptoms had got lost in the horror of the norovirus, and I so I didn’t have another caffeinated drink again.

    • Carolyn

      This is how I gave up cola. I was hospitalized for severe dehydration (which had put my kidneys in peril) and during the 4 days in hospital and the 7 days of recovery, couldn’t drink cola. When I tried to drink one afterwards, it tasted so terrible I knew I was done. That was 3 years ago.

  • Lotus lady

    I think we have to be ready for the lightning bolt. We can’t make so done else ready. We won’t respond if we aren’t ready.

    • gretchenrubin

      I think this is true – like the Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
      But it’s hard to KNOW that we’re preparing ourselves, to be ready.

  • NJ Darling

    Thank you for this Gretchen. I have been a vegetarian for 30 years, read nutrition books as a hobby and have been a promoter of animal welfare, low fat, ya da ya da. Now over 70 I was beginning to wonder why my skin is in such poor condition with red and brown spots and extreme dryness. Also, my energy has gone way down and my posture seems almost impossible to maintain. I feel like I am collapsing. I got the book and read it immediately! I could hardly believe it but he does annotate it very well. The idea that meat has more vitamins and minerals than grains was new to me. It’s like the Woody Allen movie The Sleeper. I’m starting on it now and have had BACON! MEATLOAF! Yum. Also I am buying my meat from humane sources. THANK YOU!

  • Awesome

    I like coming up with lots of ideas in my head and then pretending that I am updating myself to a new version like apps do. Me 2.0 or whatever number I am at. I know it sounds weird but it is a way to have this “lightning bolt” change happen right away, with you controlling it. Habits are just psychological anyway, so doing this will allow us to change instantly without really having a sudden realization or something. The human mind is capable of amazing things if you can control it the way you want to.

  • Robin

    My first lightening bolt that I remember was when I was a kid. My little sister and I were abused by our dad and (I’m sorry to say) I would hit her anytime I didn’t like what she was doing. One day I realized i was doing the same thing as my dad and decided I wasn’t ever going to hit her again. And I didn’t. Sometimes it was really hard (I was maybe seven at the time) but I learned to walk away or distract myself until I calmed down. That was huge for me. With that, I realized that I could always choose to improve myself. Since that point, I’ve always been a “self-improver”. Not in a creepy controlling way but just if I notice something I need to do or not do, I set myself a date, give myself some sort of accountability (I now use a the Daily Success app on my phone) and I start my new habit. It works better for me then gradual improvement. Some things have more back sliding than others and sometimes I have a great habit in place and then lose it. But I know I can always do it again.

    Thanks for all the inspiration on this website!

    • gretchenrubin

      what a tremendous lightning bolt.

  • If we can’t really plan for it or make it happen, why call it a ‘strategy’? I love the term ‘lightning bolt’. I even like the idea that one can hope for or maybe even go looking for a lightning bolt. But if it is as random as described, doesn’t ‘strategy’ kind of lack precision? Just a thought I had while watching the video. I love the topic and concept though!

    • gretchenrubin

      In Better Than Before, I outline all the ways that we can change our habits. You’re right, Lightning Bolt is anomalous; it’s not a “Strategy” in the same way as Monitoring or Pairing, but because I want my framework to be complete, I include it. and while we can’t invoke a Lightning Bolt, there’s a lot of strategy about how to approach a lightning bolt, to maintain a desirable change.

      • Carolyn

        When life gives you lightning bolts, make lightening changes! Couldn’t think of an analogy to lemonade, darn. I’ve had my share of lightning bolts. I was diagnosed Type II diabetic, lost 50 pounds, exercised, travelled, and felt decades younger. (Sadly I learned that I could eat and not die right away, so gained some of the weight back). My mother died after a fall which broke a vertebra and I instantly gave up coca cola which is possibly linked to the kind of osteoporosis that ultimately led to her death. This one took and it’s been 3 years since I’ve had a coca cola or any soda.

  • Timothy S

    While this is indeed an interesting concept, it seems to me a misnomer to label as a “strategy” a pathway for acquiring a habit that we ostensibly don’t really have much control over invoking.

    • gretchenrubin

      In Better Than Before, I identify all the strategies that allow us to change our habits.
      I agree, the Lightning Bolt is anomalous, but I wanted my framework to be complete, so I included it. That’s why it’s also called a “Strategy” even though you’re right, it isn’t quite the same as something like the Strategies of Monitoring or Scheduling.

  • Hey Gretchen,

    I’ve also seen this called the “Inciting Incident” taken from the literary definition:

    “An inciting incident is an event or action that propels the plot of a story forward. It is the thing that makes the protagonist or hero take action. It acts as a catalyst for everything that happens in the story.” -from ask dot com

    Thought you might find that helpful.


    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting! I’ve heard this term but didn’t think about it in this context.

  • Linda Charlton

    Interesting topic. Sometimes a person has knowledge but puts it out of his mind in order to do what he knows is not in his best interest. I did that exact thing. am supposed to follow a low carb diet as well but allowed a little slip here (sweets) and a little slip there and soon I was eating way more desserts than I should. I have stopped but in this transition, I have realized I am more of an abstainer than I would have imagined.I always believed I was more of a moderator (Weight Watchers) than an abstainer (Atkins). I have found it is much easier to abstain than limit.

    • gretchenrubin

      From what I’ve observed, many people assume they’re Moderators, when in fact, they’re Abstainers.
      Like my sister. It took her a long time to realize that about herself.
      Abstaining SOUNDS hard! So sometimes it’s tough to realize that it’s actually EASIER.

  • Dunx

    My Lightning Bolt was going to a farm animal sanctuary. Once I met my “food” and stared into their eyes, I knew I would never be able to feel just about eating them again, and I never did (and never will!). Going vegan was the best decision I ever made.

  • bill

    I used to be very self-concious. I did not go where there were a lot of people. For example, I felt uneasy when I approach a bus stop because there were groups of people there. Then one day I realized I am not special. I am just as different to them as any of them is to me. So suddenly the uneasiness disappeared. And sometimes I like to go where there are a lot of people.

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