May 28, 2022 4 min read

Changing your Mindset by Taking Action

Changing your Mindset by Taking Action

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 us to undertake courses or retreats to “get into” the “right mindset”  or “fix our mindset” and stay there perennially. ‌‌‌‌Given the proliferation of “mindset coaches” you would think that all of us should be set for life by now. Clearly that is not the case. So what gives?

Mindset often follows action instead of the other way around. Decoupling mindset from actions can be transformative.


Expediting change

The 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 [1]

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 has not tried anything of significance.

Embodied change

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 [2]

Experience, our observations of that experience, and reflection on our observations, are the way one integrates and assimilates learning into their being.

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 [3]

Physical action also tends to be sometimes easier than controlling our mental states. As Dan Millman once said, we have significantly more control over our physical bodies than our minds. This might sound obvious but is easy to forget and equally hard to implement.

It is 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.

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.‌             ‌

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.

Further Reading

In another article I have explored 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.


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Footnotes/References

  1. Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey
  2. Educating the Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon
  3. Emotional Agility by Susan David

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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