Sunday, December 17, 2017

Act First, Then Think

Among the more egregious errors propagated by psycho professionals is this one: mind precedes action; mood controls behavior; you need to get your mind in order before you try to change your behavior; you must find out what it means before you can change.

Serious philosophers, especially those in the tradition of Western empiricism, from Aristotle to Hume to Wittgenstein, have tried to correct this error. Yet, it persists. Most forms of therapy, from psychoanalysis to touchy-feely feel your feelings swill… base themselves on this notion.

Thus, we are happy to welcome the words of performance coach Brad Stulberg. If you are working to help people to perform better, you are more likely to care about what works and less likely to get lost in the philosophical weeds.

Stulberg writes:

Conventional wisdom holds that mood and motivation supercede action: The better we feel and the more motivated we are, the more likely we are to act.

While this is certainly true in a lot of situations, there are some situations in which it’s not. Sometimes when we are feeling down and unmotivated, the best thing we can do to change our mental state is to change our physical state. Mood follows action.

In acute situations, this could be as simple as forcing yourself to exercise, run errands, or get dinner with a friend when you’re feeling particularly low. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals through anxiety and depression, places an immense focus on the “behavior” part of the equation. That’s because it’s hard, if not impossible, to control our thoughts and the subsequent feelings they generate, but we can control our behaviors.

If your thoughts and feelings are telling you “you suck, be low, stay in bed,” good luck trying to convince yourself otherwise. You can’t talk or think your way out of that jam. But if you force yourself (again, I use force because in these situations, you really have to force yourself) to take any kind of actioneven just doing the dishesyou give yourself the best chance at changing your thoughts and feelings. They dont always change, but at least you give yourself a chance.

Stulberg emphasizes the importance of learning how to force yourself to do what you need to do, especially when you do not feel like doing it. I have made the point over and over again on this blog, but it deserves re-emphasis. When it comes to control, a late obsession in the psycho world, it is far easier to control your behavior, to get yourself to the gym, than to try to control your mental processing.

When you choose to develop a good habit, you begin with all the right motivation. But then, after a time, something intervenes and slows you down. You then find reasons and excuses for stopping and you revert to what feels more normal because it has been your behavioral norm.

Stulberg writes:

To achieve success in any long-term pursuit, perhaps the most important attribute is simply showing up. This is especially important early on. When taking on something new, mood and motivation are often quite high at the outset. But then, when the first rough-patch hits (there is no escaping rough patches), mood and motivation dwindle. This is when you sleep in on cold mornings instead of run; don’t give your all at the end of a big project; or, following the honeymoon period, decide to ignore your partner when they tell you about their day. And yet if you force yourself to show upto do the run, to focus on the project, to be present for your partnerand if you do this consistently, a strange thing starts to happen; your mood, motivation, and interest lift. Sure, a firm daily practice takes some motivation to get going, but over time, the equation is reversed; dedicating yourself to a firm daily practice is what builds motivation.

In summary, in both acute and chronic situations, focus less on motivation and more on action. If your mood and motivation are low, are telling you not to act, that’s all the more reason to act. Yes, feeling good can lead to action, but action can also lead to feeling good.

So, do the right thing, even if you do not know why you should and even if you do not understand why you were doing the wrong thing.

Words of wisdom for a Sunday morning.


David Foster said...

A quote that has been attributed to Goethe:

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

...actually inspired by this actual Goethe quote, in Faust:

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!"

(spoken by Mephistopheles, but whatever)

Sam L. said...

Ya gotta put on your iron pants, sit down, and do what needs to be done.

trigger warning said...

I think it's much more centering and healing to wallow in the grievances, resentments, and victimization constituting the psychological violence, bashing, hatehatehate, and disrespect one has suffered at the hands of the various and endless types of oppressive [insert label here]ists.

In fact, I'm exausted just writing that. Time for a consciousness-raising drum circle and a calming, integrative session with Play-Doh.

Sam L. said...

tw, don't forget to load up with chocolate and donuts, for extra soothingness.

Ares Olympus said...

More important than simply accepting "behavior changes feelings" is to remember that your feelings changed. If you don't "feel" like exercising, you can tell yourself "I don't feel like exercising, but I might be wrong, so I'll try." And then compare how you feel afterwards, and at least in the case of exercise 9 of 10 times, you'll be glad you did exercise. And this is an easy experiment since results are obvious.

And if you can see it's true in something easy, then its possible your feelings are wrong about other things that take days or years of discipline to change.

iOpener said...

Fake it til you make it is a workable philosophy, which I learned from my wife whose solution to any problem was 'work, and plenty of it'.