Acting into a new way of thinking

Richard Wiseman has a good article about the pyschological benefits of action over thinking, in particular when it comes to self-help. The gist is that instead of trying to think differently, using positive visualisations etc, we need to start with behaviour, often at a fairly basic level. For example:

Motivated people tense their muscles as they get ready to spring into action. But can you boost your willpower by simply tensing your muscles? Studies led by Iris Hung from the National University of Singapore had volunteers visit a local cafeteria and asked them to try to avoid temptation and not buy sugary snacks. Some of the volunteers were asked to make their hand into a fist or contract their biceps, and thus behave as if they were more motivated. Amazingly, this simple exercise made people far more likely to buy healthy food.

This calls to mind the line attributed to Richard Pascale: it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting. This idea comes up a lot when I use activities to work with organisations. The default setting for meetings is very thinkerly: everyone sitting around tables, one person talking everyone (allegedly) thinking. It may have its uses but I itch to get people moving about, physicalising and playing out their issues and concerns. It’s a bit like the marshmallow challenge, where the well educated default to thinking and theorising, falling behind the kids who just start trying things out in physical space.

If I’m coaching people around assertiveness, I usually try to get them to play out a scene with me in which they try out different ways of expressing themselves. I find this is usually more engaging and effective then attempting to teach some cognitive model of how to be assertive. There’s a rich physicality to assertiveness (and all our other qualities) that a theoretical approach tends to ignore. I try to do this playfully, to lower the sense of risk and increase the ability to just try things out and see what works. Usually there’s a breakthrough moment where a new behaviour is discovered, after which the way the client thinks about the issue changes.

Of course, philosophically, I’m mindful that if we really think about this the separation of thought and action is not as clear-cut as it may seem. There’s a whole debate around the sequence of events in our bodies when we act and what comes first, the thought or the action.

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