Your Feelings Don’t Matter

starting-blocksMany years ago when I was a personal trainer I discovered the reason that personal training works for clients, even if, like me, the trainer is singularly poor at the job.  Those that hired me (and a great many did) really were not interested in my masters degree in Exercise Physiology, my background as an athlete or dancer, how much I worked out, or what programs I had designed for them. In fact, it was truly a matter of indifference to them how I trained them, what exercises we did, or whether I had any credentials at all.  They hired me for two reasons that were intimately connected:

  • I was expensive (and gave no refunds).
  • Once I showed up at their home or at the gym, I was absolutely incorruptible. We would be working out no matter how much they argued, coerced or pleaded to get out of it.

What does that tell you? My own conclusions were that they had discovered that their own willpower was so weak that they needed both a carrot and a stick to ensure they would do what they had committed themselves to doing. The carrot was my showing up and providing motivation, instruction and company. The stick was the high price they had paid and the policy that stated that if they cancelled the money would be gone, replaced by a high degree of shame. In other words, my only reason for being there was so that they would be cornered into actually exercising, whether they felt like it or not.

At the time, I had very little interest in what motivated people or how our brains and psychology worked to make us effective or conspired to keep us ineffective. I just did my job and showed up when scheduled to do so.

Now, with some hindsight and a different focus, I’ve come to see this personal trainer scenario as classic of a specific cognitive phenomenon. I call this the Feelings-Action Fallacy.

There are lots of things in life that we must do even though we probably do not feel like doing them. Almost no one enjoys paying taxes, or worse than paying, filling in tax forms. No one likes paying bills. And I haven’t yet encountered anyone who leaps out of bed looking forward to sitting in rush hour traffic. We do these things because usually the penalty for not doing them is severe. Unless we are willing to contend with an IRS audit, the power company turning off the electricity, or being fired for failing to go to work – we simply do these unpleasant things despite not feeling at all like doing them. Why, then, can’t we bring an equal amount of forbearance to the tasks of working out, eating healthily, filing reports ahead of time, writing the chapter we said we would write or any of the myriad other things we really want to do, but don’t feel like doing at any given moment?

That’s where the Feelings-Action Fallacy come into play.

When I talk to people about their own procrastination in the moments when they are actively delaying getting started on the activity in question, I often hear a similar explanation.

“I don’t feel like it”, “I’m not in the right mood”, “I can’t think of anything to write”, or “I’m not inspired”. Each of these statements, and hundreds like it, is based on the same basic premise, that a given activity requires a sort of “matching” mood or feeling.  That is the fallacy.

And so, when someone says they aren’t writing because they aren’t inspired, or that they aren’t going to the gym because they don’t feel like it, they have granted enormous power to their state of mind, operating under the fallacy that how they feel should dictate what they do.  If it’s the wrong state of mind then the activity can’t take place. This idea that one has to feel a certain way to do a certain thing is incredibly destructive to personal effectiveness.  Moreover, it is flat out wrong.

In order to research this, social scientists have done a few different kinds of experiments as well as having collected a great deal of historical data on how people actually complete arduous projects. From an experimental perspective, controlled studies have been done in which people are given psychological quizzes immediately prior to different activities. The kinds of activities used in these experiments include exercising, studying vocabulary or spelling lists and completing menial tasks like typing data into a keyboard. All of these activities have clear metrics for success. Exercise can be measured by heart rate, METs exerted, miles cycled and so forth. Study effectiveness can be measured by post-tests of retention.  Data entry can be measured by speed and accuracy. All of these experiments have shown the same result. The state of mind prior to doing the activity has no bearing on the result. So, whether you feel like it or not, if you start exercising, your strength, stamina and flexibility will get the same benefit and the workout will be, on average, the same. That’s the experimental data.

The historic information is just as compelling. In interviews, authors, musicians, composers, athletes or computer coders all report the same thing. They do the work whether they feel like it or not. That is how they become accomplished. That is how they write poetry or novels; win races or poker games; write programs or compose symphonies.

There is a second finding that may be equally as important. Both in the experimental cases and those reported by successful professionals, once action was begun, the participants’ states of mind changed. In other words, for the group that reported they didn’t feel like cycling, when taking the same psychological assessment after the cycling was complete, they reported that once they started pedaling they did feel like it. In the case of the professionals, they said much the same thing. Regardless of how they felt when they began, in the course of doing the work – whether practicing the piano, running on the treadmill or starting to type – once underway, they found they were in the mood to do that activity. The action itself changed their states of mind.

What conclusion can we draw from this? Well, despite the very tempting belief that we perform better if we are in the right mood, there is no evidence that that is true. To the contrary. Our emotions and states of mind are irrelevant to the quality of our work. What matters is getting into action.  This is contrary to a lot of what we hear in popular media. We are told to follow our passion, or do what feels right. But in truth, we should follow our commitments and do what we say we will do, regardless of what we feel like and regardless of our mood. Feelings are basically irrelevant. What matters is action. Action interrupts inertia. And action changes our emotional state so that whatever mood we were in at the beginning will be quite different once we get going.

How does this work in practice? Well, it will take some tough love toward yourself. Next time you find yourself procrastinating about some activity, ask yourself this question:  “Why am I procrastinating?”  To which will likely come the response “because I feel like X”, or “because I don’t feel like Y”. To which your answer should be, “So what?” Take a moment to have a good laugh and remind yourself that your feelings are completely irrelevant.  And then, regardless of how you feel, get into action.


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