Is there a deeper truth in Nike's famous adage of "Just Do It"?
The term mindset has become common in everyday use. There is a certain romance to the idea that if we can somehow just change our mindset everything will fall into place.
This leads many to undertake retreats to “get into” the “right mindset” or to “fix your mindset” and stay there perennially. Given the proliferation of “mindset coaches” you would think that all of us should be set for life. Clearly that's not the case. So what gives?
Mindset often follows action instead of the other way around. Decoupling mindset from actions can be transformative. The deeper truth behind "just do it" is that physical reality is often easier to change than psychological reality.
William James, the father of American psychology, alluded to this when he said:
I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing.
Why do we love the idea of "mindset"? For one, it's harder to sell "just do it". It's much easier to psychologize and package mindset change.
But the real answer might lie in our desire to technologize change. We want the quick and painless path to perfection. Except change is never easy. And neither is it effortless.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in Immunity to Change, highlight this aspect of balancing reflection with action and mindset with behavior :
Neither change in mindset nor change in behavior alone leads to transformation…each must be employed to bring about the other.There is an age-old battle among philosophers of personal change.
Are we better off trying to “reflect our way” toward transformation, expecting eventual changes in behavior as the outcome of our hard-working contemplation? Or would we be better off taking up new behaviors as best we can and trusting that our minds will catch up with the realities of our new experience?
In the world of psychology, for example, the insight-oriented approaches reflect the first school, and the behavioral modification approaches reflect the second. Our answer is: neither.
… Our experience is that we cannot simply contemplate our way out of the mindset our immunity X-ray reveals, but neither can we simply elect to alter the behaviors of our second column. Rather we must take up an activity technically known as praxis—practice specifically designed to explore the possibility of altering our personal and organizational theories (the theories that reside in our big assumptions).
… We can’t merely think or feel our way out of an immune system no matter how high our motivation is to accomplish our goal. Kant said “perception without conception is blind,” and we don’t disagree: the mindset does create what we see. But it is also true that conception without inception is paralysis. We must set out. We must begin to take new action.
Success follows from taking intentional, specific actions—the reaching hand—that are inconsistent with our immunity so that we can test our mindset.
– Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change 
Behavior change both on the organizational and personal level cannot happen without sustained attention, energy, time, and followup. Anyone promising you otherwise is either ignorant or hasn't tried anything of significance.
📚 HBR 100 Best Reads: You also get a curated spreadsheet of the best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.
What Kegan call’s praxis and others have called observations, is an integral part of my coaching/consulting practice. These observations/practices are designed based on what emerges out of our work together. They are the instruments or technology that enable the “focused, structured, persistent and active reflection” that Kegan mentions.
Change cannot be just taught or “transmitted”. It has to be learned and embodied by the person attempting the change. Reading about swimming and actually swimming are completely different experiences. Why do we expect any different in organizational life?
Anything that can be “taught” to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior.
The only kind of learning which significantly influences behavior is self- discovered, self-appropriated learning. Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.
– Carl Rogers, cited in Educating the Reflective Practioner by Donald Schon 
Experience, our observations of that experience, and reflection on our observations, are the way we integrate and assimilate learning.
But without taking action there is nothing to observe and reflect upon. More than likely it's just plain rumination.
Small physical actions are often easier than changing mindset
We tend to overestimate massive life-changing decisions, and equally underestimate the small adjustments that add up to actually making a big difference over time.
Traditional self-help tends to see change in terms of lofty goals and total transformation, but research actually supports the opposite view — that small, deliberate tweaks infused with your values can make a huge difference in your life. This is especially true when we tweak the routine and habitual parts of life, which then afford tremendous leverage for change.
– Susan David in Emotional Agility 
Physical action also tends to be easier than controlling our mental states. As Dan Millman put it, we have significantly more control over our physical bodies than our minds. This might sound obvious but easy to forget.
It's easier to just show up at the gym than it is to get ourselves into the right mindset for exercise. The mindset usually "sets itself" following the physical actions. Waiting for the right mindset or the right feeling state to show up can be a losing strategy.
Actions can be independent of mindset and ultimately lead to the "right" mindset.
Most of the time we already know what needs done.
An undue focus on mindset or feelings unfortunately tends to focus our efforts on the very thing that is harder to control.
This notion is consistent with the Japanese philosophy of Shoma Morita who emphasized focus on action and doing what needed done, regardless of our mindset.
Examples of changing actions before changing mindset
- Moving the pen or the keyboard to keep writing instead of trying to “break through” writer’s block.
- Picking up the phone and making the call instead of waiting for the right mindset.
- Showing up at the gym. Literally moving your body to a different place and ignoring how you “feel”.
- Just “showing up” at the interview or the speech, instead of trying to psych yourself up.
- Exercise: changing my physical state changes my mental state.
The idea is not ignoring mental preparation, but to keep it in check and stopping it from turning into analysis-paralysis, or even worse into inaction.
The next time we pick up a book or try out a technique, consider which aspect it's emphasizing. Is it mindset or is it action? How can you increase your chances of success by balancing them out?
The framework of head, heart, and hand is a useful one to remember. We need the heart(meaning and purpose) to balance out the head (mindset) and hand (action/behavior). No amount of analysis or action will work if it does not have meaning for us or lacks purpose.
In another post, I highlight the idea of technology dumbing us down and robbing us of richer experiences.
One reason people fixate on changing their "mindset" is the notion of eliminating doubt before we take action. But doubt is not going anywhere so we might as well keep moving and take action. Trying to eliminate doubt is the wrong strategy.
📚 You also get a curated spreadsheet of 100 best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.
- Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey
- Educating the Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon
- Emotional Agility by Susan David