Lightning Bolt Moments: What Science Says About Radical Change


When David Goggins wanted to join the Navy Seals, he was given three months to lose over 100 pounds. He describes himself at that time as “lazy” with a “victim’s mentality”. But he dedicated himself to the task with superhuman determination. How did David Goggins get started? He had a “lightning bolt moment”. In an instant, he committed to making a sudden, radical change.

Goggins’ lightning bolt moment came in the form of a television show about the Navy SEALS. He describes it this way in his book, Can’t Hurt Me:

“The show followed Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL (BUD/S) Training Class 224 through Hell Week: the most arduous series of tasks in the most physically demanding training in the military…

I watched men sweat and suffer… the longer I watched the more certain I became that there were answers buried in all that suffering.”

After watching Navy SEALS surviving Hell Week, Goggins had his moment of realization:

“…after the show ended I walked back to the bathroom, faced the mirror and stared myself down…

[Becoming a SEAL] became an obsession I couldn’t shake.”

David Goggins went on to lose more than 100 pounds in 90 days, make it through Hell Week, and transform his life to become a Navy SEAL.


What is a lightning bolt moment?

For David Goggins, watching a television show about the Navy SEALS sparked what’s commonly known as a “lightning bolt moment” — something happened out of the blue that radically changed his attitudes and behavior.

These lightning bolt moments create an instant change in mindest, usually brought about by a sudden realization of a difficult truth.

Why do they work? It’s down to an underlying behavioral science principle called the Fresh Start Effect.

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Why lightning bolt moments can create a fresh start

The Fresh Start Effect states that people have an easier time motivating themselves to change around holidays such as New Years' and personal landmarks such as birthdays. But sometimes, as in the case of David Goggins, a fresh start can be a simple as watching a show about the Navy Seals on late-night TV.

Lightning bolt moments create new “mental accounting periods” that are uniquely personal for people. In other words, life becomes divided into two periods: before the lightning bolt hit, and after. The result is people changing overnight, and usually sticking to these changes.


The science behind the success of radical change

Although it seems counterintuitive, the radical, sweeping changes that result from lightning bolt moments are often easier and more effective than small, incremental ones.

Consider the case of coronary-artery bypass patients. After their surgery, patients are much more likely to have a positive outcome if they adopt healthier lifestyles. For many years, doctors and therapists have recommended small, incremental lifestyle modifications.

Although their lives are literally on the line, these patients have a difficult time adopting new habits. Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school at Johns Hopkins University put it this way:

“If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting — two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle.”

After watching the strategy of incremental behavior change fail in his patients, Dr. Dean Ornish decided to try another approach.

He designed a program that radically transformed patients’ lifestyles overnight. And his program got dramatic results — his patients saw a 91% decrease in the frequency of chest pains in their first month. Patients stuck to the program because they felt their sacrifices resulted in “changes worth making”.


Why moderate changes don’t always work

According to Dr. Ornish, moderate changes don’t work because people feel deprived but they aren’t making big enough changes to see relatively quick results. So people feel like they’re suffering for nothing.

Dr. Ornish’s program only lasted for a year, but 77% of patients stuck with their radical lifestyle changes for three years or more. Compare that to the 10% of patients that stuck with the moderate changes — Dr. Ornish’s radical change strategy was 154% more effective.

The program lasted for only a year, but after three years, 77% of patients had stuck with their radical lifestyle changes.

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How to put yourself in the “lightning bolt” zone

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

- Jack London, author and explorer

The tricky thing about lightning bolt moments is that they can’t be predicted, but you can put yourself in situations that increase your odds of getting hit.

First, you’ve got to be out in the storm — in other words, you have to be trying to overcome a problem. So much of our day is spent on autopilot that we don’t notice issues that might be obvious to other people.

Ask yourself, am I playing it safe by compartmentalizing?

Be honest with yourself, and take time to reflect on what’s not working for you. Look in the mirror and tell yourself some hard truths, like David Goggins did after he watched the Navy SEALS living the life he wanted for himself.


The bottom line

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but the decision to change can happen in an instant. Lightning bolt moments can snap us out of our old life and result in a lifetime of new habits — but we have to be willing to follow through with a radical change strategy.

That’s a mindset change, and it seems counterintuitive — but there is clearly science to back up this strategy. So start by tackling your biggest goal. Ask yourself,

  • What specific actions do I need to change to accomplish this goal? If you’re trying to lose 50 pounds, you might add “exercise for twenty minutes, three times a week” and “make better food choices” to this list.
  • Am I thinking radically enough? Now take those actions and 10x them. Instead of saying “make better food choices”, maybe you commit to fasting three days a week and going vegan. Instead of saying you need to “walk outside for twenty minutes, three times a week” maybe you commit to exercising every day for an hour. To be clear, I’m not recommending these changes, just using them as an example.
  • Conduct an experiment by committing to a radical program for 30 days: This approach might not work for you — but then again, if Dr. Ornish’s results are any indication, they could be much more effective.

Image Sources: Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash; Photo by Anupam Mahapatra on Unsplash; Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash; Photo by Agnieszka Boeske on Unsplash

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