Feelings Follow Actions

Let me tell you about a saying that I used a lot when I first started coaching:

“Feelings follow actions, not the other way around.”

To illustrate this, I use this example:

  • You just took an exam, a few days later you get the results back and you aced it. Do you feel good?
    • YES.
  • You just took an exam, a few days later you get the results back and you failed. Do you feel bad?
    • YES.

Let’s look at the converse:

  • You just took an exam. Immediately afterwards, and before getting the results, you feel pretty good. Does that mean you passed it?
    • Not necessarily. Have you ever felt good about an exam and then failed it? I definitely have.
  • You just took an exam. Immediately afterwards, and before getting the results, you feel pretty bad. Does that mean you failed it?
    • Not necessarily. Have you ever been surprised by how well you did, even though you felt terrible the whole way? I have quite a few examples of this.

This is an illustration of “Feelings follow actions.” This example is not all-encompassing, but taken generally you get the idea. Your feelings are based on something that happened in the past. If you just recently had a failure, you’re going to feel pretty bad. If you just recently had a success, you’re going to feel pretty good.

The issue here is that many people base their next actions on how they feel. It comes out sounding like this:

  • “Let me see how I feel about it later.”
  • “I don’t want to do anything, I feel so bad about it.”
  • “I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can’t do anything right now.”

Let’s take the case of “feeling overwhelmed.” This is something a lot of people experience, and a typical response is to take a break, rest and relax. You’ll wait until you “feel like” doing something about it before taking action, but here’s where the downward spiral lies:

  • Things are piling up, or maybe things are just happening all at the same time.
  • As a result, you feel overwhelmed.
  • Because you feel overwhelmed, you don’t do anything but rest and relax.
  • In the time that you’re resting and relaxing, not only does nothing get completed, but there are more things that happen because, well, life is still happening around you.
  • Now that there’s even more things that you haven’t done anything about, you’re more overwhelmed and want to rest and relax even more.
  • And on and on and on…

Your “feeling overwhelmed” is a result of things piling up. Taking a different action will lead to a different result, which will in turn lead to a different feeling.

Now I’m not saying you should never stop to acknowledge how you feel. There are definitely times when it’s valuable to process what’s going on like grief and mourning, losing a job and transitioning to a new job. What I’m saying is that if you notice your actions strengthen that feeling you’re trying to recover from, then you’ve found yourself in a spiral. If you want to get out of it, then do something different. This may take some trial and error to find what works for you.

In the case of feeling overwhelmed, it starts by tackling the things that are piling up. Sounds simple, right? Right. It really is that simple.

Here’s a thing I’ve found about feeling overwhelmed: I only feel overwhelmed when I start thinking about all the things I have to do. When I start making lists and counting the items on them, or start thinking about it like a giant unending pile of stuff, that’s when I feel overwhelmed. In other words, the feeling of “overwhelmed” happens when I take a certain action: mentally listing all the things I need to do and possibly counting or numbering them.

The act of doing or completing these things doesn’t cause overwhelm, nor does overwhelm happen as new things pop up. For me, the overwhelm only occurs in my mental listing of my to-do items. So, you know what? I avoid mentally listing the things.

What do I do instead? There are two options I choose from:

To-Do Lists:

I write down the things I need to do, not as a means of counting them or looking at the list as a whole (that would again make me feel overwhelmed), but as a means to get it out of my head so that I don’t have to think about it any more.

  • Once I choose one thing to do, I work on it until I’m finished. I don’t look at the list, and I even avoid thinking about the list again until I’m finished. 
  • This keeps my mind clear and focused on only the task at hand.
  • Once I’m finished with it, I will look at the list and choose the next thing.

Schedules and Calendars:

If things get really crunched, I will schedule each item, with notifications so that my phone tells me when to switch tasks. Some tips about this:

  • This requires estimating the amount of time each task takes, and also adhering to my schedule. If my phone tells me to move on to the next task, and the current task is not yet complete, I will drop what I’m doing, schedule additional time at a later date, and note down that that task takes longer than I originally expected.
  • With practice, you will get really good at estimating how long things take. I’ve been doing things this way for 6 years now, and my friends know me as “the guy who always shows up 5 minutes early to everything.” Even birthday parties. Seriously, just ask them. When I schedule a phone or video call, I call exactly on time; 6:00pm phone call, the phone rings at 6:00pm, not 5:59pm, not 6:01pm. You’ll be amazed at how much gets done

Writing things down, and setting alarms and notifications means the computer/phone/cloud will remember for me. It allows me to stop thinking about the next thing and focus on what’s right in front of me. I’ve found this is the most effective mindset for working.

Here’s something I keep nearby to remind me of this:

I may write next week’s blog about this, but I’ll save it for another time. For now I will say that the Buddhist idea of peace doesn’t mean passivity and doing nothing. As this little medallion shows, buddhist peace is more of a mental/emotional stillness. Physical stillness can be an access to it but is not necessary nor required.

To-Do Lists and Schedules/Calendars are examples of what I’ve found works for me. You’re welcome to try it, too! It tends to work really well for most people, and you can tweak things here and there.

Did you try some of these? How did they work for you? Did you discover something else that works better? Please tell me. I’d love to know!

You can email me: Steve@CoachSteveYang.com

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