The Groundhog Day Effect


January 29, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Are you stuck in your own Groundhog Day? Author and entrepreneur Paul Hannam believes watching Groundhog Day (the movie about a weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who is forced to relive the same day, over and over), will teach you more about life and work than anything else you can do in less than two hours. He has even written a book about the lessons he discovered, The Magic of Groundhog Day, with an introduction by Danny Rubin, the originator of the story and one of the screenwriters.

Paul lives a few streets from me and we recently met at my home to talk about his new book. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation about how the movie can help executives.

How can a comedy made 15 years ago – which happens to be one of my favorite movies, by the way – help executives in 2008?

Groundhog Day is an extraordinary parable about personal transformation. The journey of the main character, Phil Connors, helps answer some critical questions most executives and employees have asked at one time: How do I get out of a rut? How do I find meaning and fulfillment in my work? How do I connect with my colleagues? How do I create enduring change?

Organizations spend hundreds of millions of dollars on trying to change their people with expensive training, coaching, and change programs. Relatively few of these programs succeed in creating enduring change because we are creatures of habit, and we instinctively struggle with change. We might not literally be trapped in a time loop, like Phil, yet we are often trapped in our routines by our conditioning.

For example, we might have built up a defensive mechanism for avoiding confrontation all our lives, so whatever we learn about assertiveness is futile. Many top-down programs fail because they do not engage people at these deeper levels. So how does Phil Connors change in the movie? Ironically, Phil breaks free and changes his life by slowing down. By doing the equivalent of going from fast-forward to pause, he can start to see an accurate image of himself.

Forced to witness his life in slow motion and pay attention to all the effects of his thoughts and actions on himself and on others, he gains great self-awareness and changes from the inside out. His transformation is authentic and enduring, unlike so many of the fleeting, superficial changes gained at such a high cost in business.

But Groundhog Day is a movie. How can we change in real life, like Phil does?

Many of the principles of change are transferable from the movie to our lives. Like Phil, we begin by paying attention to the consequences of our actions and recognizing the power of the underlying patterns and conditioned responses that determine most of our thoughts and behaviors.

Then we can start to break free of what I call The Groundhog Day Effect. This is what keeps us stuck, like the mysterious power of frozen time in the movie. When we accept that the strategies that used to work for us are no longer working, when we confront and overcome the fears and negative habits that keep us stuck, we begin to free ourselves and make genuine, long-lasting progress rather than a temporary fix.

What else can we learn from the movie?

The endless recurrence of Feb. 2 enables Phil to experiment each day with a new approach to life, and then measure the results. Phil can measure the effect of changing just one variable of his thoughts and behaviors. If all he does is change the way he greets Larry the cameraman, he can measure the results of that single modification. Over time he discovers his greatest power lies in his ability to choose how he will respond to his predicament.

At work, we also enjoy the choice of how to create our day even if we rarely exercise that choice. Like Phil, we can wake up to a new day and choose the most effective and fulfilling strategies to live to the fullest. We can accept what we can’t change, and focus on what we can. By paying attention to our moment-to-moment experience, we discover we have a wide range of options rather than restricting ourselves to our worn-out, habitual responses. We can generate new ideas, new thoughts, and new behaviors.

Can you give me an example?

Every day when we walk into the office we can press the reset button and start again. We can choose to carry on from yesterday and be angry with the COO, or we can press the reset button and listen to their concerns with empathy. We can choose to learn new skills and techniques, or stay stuck in what worked for us 10 years ago yet now delivers diminishing returns.

The most successful and fulfilled people I know tend to have the widest range of strategies, tools, perspectives, and skills. Like Phil, they focus on changing themselves rather than trying to change other people. They are more resourceful and able to find creative solutions to any challenge they face. Creativity begins when you simply make small adjustments to your daily routine, and start each day as a new opportunity to recreate yourself – like Phil does.

And is there anything we can learn about leadership?

It is only when Phil becomes compassionate and devotes his life to serving others that he breaks out of the loop and discovers his authentic power and joy. He becomes emotionally engaged with life and other people and lets go of his need to manipulate the world around him. I believe this offers a profound lesson to leaders.

So how do leaders emulate Phil’s transformation?

In the final chapters [of my book] I show how the same limiting patterns that hold us back as individuals also hold back organizations and governments. In particular, I demonstrate the damaging cycles that prevent us from tackling climate change and other environmental problems. So, I recommend leadership that has a triple mission to integrate personal, organizational, and environmental or social progress.

I am convinced that leaders find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment through serving a great cause which inspires them. I found such a cause in confronting the environmental challenges we face. After teaching at Oxford University for five years, I have set up three new environmental businesses in the U.S. and Europe with friends who are passionate about the environment, too. I try to apply the ideas of the movie to articulate a vision, set of values, and culture that helps people to make the shift that Phil does in the movie. When in doubt, I always ask myself “what would Phil do?”

How can we reach you?

I can be reached at