Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions


While reading Gandhi’s autobiography recently, an interesting non-sequitur caused me to rediscover an important motivational technique.  Gandhi said something* about the need for his followers to internalize the British government’s rules before engaging in civil disobedience, and that they should do this via their thoughts, speech, and actions.  This 3-step progression is a natural way to build momentum and ensure that your intentions get translated into actions.

Some people find it difficult to go straight from intention to action.  The gulf seems so large, that often intentions die before they become reality.  How can you address this?  I’m reminded of a common idea from the study and practice of influence, in which it’s suggested that you get people to agree to your proposal by starting them off saying yes to a small part or small detail, and then build a series of yeses on that small seed.  You’re much more likely to win over the undecided if you build support this way.

So if you find yourself failing to go straight from thought to action, try one or two intermediary steps.  First, write your intention down.  Then tell someone, especially someone you know will ask you about it later.  Or, broadcast it to the world, or your world (social networks make this really easy these days). I find it also helps to name the thing you are trying to do by giving it a label or code name.  By attaching a label, you not only make it a real “thing” in your mind, but also make it easier to bring it up in conversation.  It also gives you the opportunity to give it a whimsical name that you associate with the positive side of the effort, which also acts as a code phrase between you and your confidants.  Which sounds better coming from your friend or loved one, “How’s the weight loss program coming along?” or “How is Project Slim Jim?”

As a personal example, a few years ago, I needed to drop about 10 extra pounds.  It wasn’t enough for me to just think that I wanted to drop the pounds.  I tried that for a while, and although I was able to eat a little less and exercise a little more, it just didn’t translate into losing weight.  So I started “writing down” my intention on a daily basis, by recording my weight.  That was it – just weighing myself every day, and writing that number down.  I also told my wife that I was doing it.  That one little change made all the difference, and within 6 months I had safely reached my target weight and maintained it for some time afterwards.  In the last year or so, though, it inched back up.  What happened?  A combination of life changes and the fact that I had stopped weighing myself.  Needless to say, I’m back on the scale every day now, and re-dropping those excess pounds, as part of “Slim Jim – the sequel”.

Another example: I wanted to read more books.  So I wrote down that goal, but initially I didn’t share it with anyone.  Needless to say, I didn’t really get off my butt and start doing something about it.  As it turned out, around the beginning of the year, the website Goodreads was making it easy to make my intention even more concrete by allowing me to “challenge” myself to read a certain number of books this year, and then broadcast that to all my Facebook friends, along with a notice every time I finished a book.  After I’d taken that simple, little step (of writing it down, labeling it as a “reading challenge”, and telling the world), suddenly I started to collect and organize my to-read list, and really start reading.

The inverse of this works for things you don’t want to do – bad habits, catastrophizing, and dwelling on the negative.  In these cases, the best course of action is to simply stop thinking and talking this way by catching yourself and literally mentally telling yourself “Stop,” followed by replacing the negative thought or speech with a positive one.  This technique (from what is called cognitive therapy), along with rationally examining your negative thought patterns, can go a long way towards keeping you on track and focused on the right things.

Do you have a goal you want to achieve, but just can’t seem to get started or have a hard time maintaining the effort needed to accomplish it?  Try the age-old technique that Gandhi hinted at: write it down, give it a name, tell others, and update them on your progress.  You’d be surprised at how much easier it makes turning your thoughts into actions.

I’ve tagged this post with the “happiness” tag for a simple reason: studies show that successful people are happier, healthier, and live longer.  And what is success, but accomplishing the goals you have set out to achieve?  I hope this simple technique helps you along the path to success and happiness.

* I’ve lost the exact quotation, but Gandhi makes use of the “thought, words, actions” triplet often in his writings, and even extends it, for example, in this oft-cited quote, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”