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Mood Follows Action

I was doubled over, drenched in sweat, and breathing hard (or hardly breathing, I was so tired I couldn’t tell). My legs protested loudly as I toppled off the treadmill, as if they had been working for an hour straight– which, in fact, they had. I felt a tapping at my wrist, but I ignored the glowing numbers on my watch.

The progression leading to running for an hour straight took weeks of preparation, and while the level of fatigue was new, the endorphin-induced runner’s high” that I was experiencing was something I looked forward to daily. Breaking into a wide grin, I wiped the sweat from my brow as I imagined how unlikely this achievement would have seemed just a few months ago.

What does this even mean, and how is it different from motivation?

The idea that mood follows action is not novel. Whether that’s successfully asking someone out on a date or jumping off of a 20-foot cliff into a glacial lake of unknown depth (speaking from experience, they feel like the same thing), everyone has felt the euphoria of making something seemingly impossible, possible (1). That wasn’t so bad after all”, you say. Mood follows action.

But, those three words verbatim didn’t enter my life until I was listening to the Tim Ferriss Podcast during the abhorrent torrential rains we’ve had in Seattle for the last few weeks. The conversation inevitably turned towards behavior change as Rich Roll, ultra-athlete, content creator, and fitness guru was recounting his tenuous struggle with alcoholism.

As the words mood follows action” were uttered, I felt like I had been struck by lightning. I’ve never regretted a run that I’ve been on, and the hardest part has always been just getting started. The phrase also electrified me with the immensely gratifying feeling of having an experience put to words for the first time, which is something I now aim to do with my writing.

Some might feel that positive reinforcement fueling behavior is just being motivated”, but the thing that really starts the positive feedback loop is simply trying something for the first time. Think about it this way: there’s a fire under your ass was because you struck a match, not because you expended energy thinking about how nice it would be for a spark to appear. Here’s a good clip that clarifies this.

How do I apply this to my own life?

Reminding yourself of the importance of this philosophy is quite easy– the difficult part is living it. I’ll guide you through what I’m currently doing to make getting out of the door for a long run as easy as possible.

  • If I keep my running shoes under my bed and leave my clothes in the closet, there’s more friction between me deciding that I should run, and stepping out to do so. I want to use the smallest amount of willpower to leverage the maximum amount of benefit, so I set my clothes and running shoes out in a place that’s actively in my way so I pay attention to them.

  • I enjoy listening to music and podcasts on my runs, and I use my Apple Watch and Nike Run Club guided runs to slip into a state of flow. Giving myself something to look forward to for every day injects novelty into what can be a quiet, monotonous struggle at times.

  • I use a tracker called Life of Discipline that embeds into my Notion setup that shows me my running streak through a github-style heatmap. Ticking the box now becomes a smaller objective that I can work to achieve, which entails getting ready, which chains into walking out the door and starting the run. Not only am I lowering the bar as to what I need to accomplish to get me out of the door, but I’m making it satisfying to be able to check the box and see the color fill in at the end of my run.

If you read nothing else

My example about running as it pertains to mood following action is much less complex than starting a business or finishing your term paper, but the principles are the same. Choosing to take action leads to good mood, which reenforces behaviors and makes you more likely to do things again. You’re more likely to build consistency by making those positively reenforced behaviors as easy as possible, so build behaviors into your life that make them frictionless. See how easy things become when you stop thinking your way through life and acting your way through it instead (2).

Footnotes:

  1. Yes, this is me jumping off of this cliff. How did I get there, you ask? I hiked there!
  2. This last line was the original prompt for this piece, taken from James Clear’s 3-2-1 Newsletter.

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