Feelings Follow Behavior: The Key to Unlocking New Habits

Behavior change can be aggravatingly difficult. A handful of years ago, I couldn’t seem to make any meaningful changes stick!

It didn’t matter what habits I was focusing on–meditation, waking up earlier, meeting new people–I wasn’t making progress.

“Is there something wrong with me?” I’d think to myself. “I know I want to do this…Why haven’t I followed through?”

The wider the gap between my intentions and my behavior, the greater my feelings of embarrassment and frustration.

Looking back at these failed attempts, a clear pattern emerged. I call it the No-Follow-Through Cycle.

Here’s what the No-Follow-Through Cycle looks like:

  1. I’d set a goal, intention, or resolution. (“I’m going to wake up on my first alarm.”)
  2. An opportunity would arise to do said thing. (e.g. *The alarm goes off*)
  3. In-the-moment me wouldn’t feel like doing what former-me wanted to do…
  4. I wouldn’t do it.
  5. I’d feel frustrated about not changing my behavior. (And confusion about what to do differently.)
  6. The cycle repeats.

If you’re human like me, you’ve probably experienced some form of this cycle.

But just because it’s common doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it!

Thought it initially felt insurmountable, I’ve learned that the No-Follow-Through Cycle is 100% overcome-able!

The rest of this article outlines a key reframe to help you do that. Knowing this principle enhanced my ability to quickly build new habits.

The Behavior-Feelings Misunderstanding

In my unsuccessful behavior-change efforts, one misunderstanding kept setting me up for failure. (Though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

I was trapped by my beliefs about how thoughts, feelings, and behavior work together.

I thought that it worked like this:

  1. First, you have a thought that you want to do something.
  2. Then, at a given time, you feel like doing that thing.
  3. And when that happens, action ensues!

It’s a super simple progression: Thought → Feeling → Behavior!

The trouble is, when I followed this mental model, not feeling like it was an acceptable excuse for not doing things that mattered to me.

Every opportunity to do what I said I would presented a fork in the road. Feel like it? Follow-through. Don’t feel like it? Don’t do it.

The fundamental misunderstanding here is the idea that in-the-moment feelings should direct all of your choices!

In reality, feelings follow behavior just as much as the other way around.

This means that instead of waiting to feel a certain way before acting, you can ACT as a way of creating that feeling for your future self.

“Behavior wags the tail of feelings…We do, then we feel.”
~ David K. Reynolds

Feelings Follow Behavior

Your behavior has a direct impact on your feelings. When you do something, you feel different for having done it.

So instead of framing it as Thought —> Feeling —> Behavior…

A more effective framing is Thought —> Behavior —> Feeling!

  1. First, you have a thought that you want to do something.
  2. Then, you act on that intention.
  3. And that leads to you feeling a certain way.

Simply taking action CREATES the feeling you thought you needed to act in the first place.

This is true for anything worth doing:

  • I might not FEEL like meditating, but after sitting for 20 minutes, I’m more grounded and clear-headed
  • I might not FEEL like getting a tough workout in, but I’m more energized and powerful after doing so
  • I might not FEEL like writing, but I am enriched and satisfied after going through the creative process
  • I might not FEEL like waking up early my alarm goes off, but I feel great about seizing the day after doing so
  • I might not FEEL like taking a proactive break from work, but I’m always fresher and more effective afterwards

Understanding that feelings follow behavior means you don’t have to take your in-the-moment self so seriously.

And in doing so, you can focus on making choices that align with your high-level values and priorities.

Another way to think about this is having empathy for your future self.

Empathy for Your Future Self

Having empathy for your future self means making decisions in the present that benefit you in the future. Every time you do this, it’s like giving your future self a present!

It’s a pretty awesome idea, yeah? Future-you is ALWAYS grateful when present-you makes choices that align with your values and priorities.

When considering choices in the moment, you have two options:

  1. Let your smaller-self, who doesn’t see the big-picture, choose by asking “Do I feel like doing this right now?”
  2. Have your higher-self, who is grounded in what you care about most, choose by asking “How would future-me feel after doing this?”

Sustained positive feelings AFTER doing something indicate that the behavior enriches your life. If that’s the case, it’s probably connected with the things that you value.

Making choices with your future self in mind creates a link between your high-level values and your in-the-moment decisions. It gives you power to overcome fickle in-the-moment feeling states in favor of expressing your highest-self.

4 Steps to Doing More of What You Value

Understanding that feelings FOLLOW behavior makes it easier to do what’s important to you, but never urgent.

You can start by orienting your decision-making process around a simple question: “How will future-me feel after doing this?”

But if you want to apply this principle more deeply, I created a short exercise to help you out. To make things even easier, enter your email to grab the free worksheet.

Get the "Golden Behaviors" Worksheet

A simple reflection tool to start doing more of what lifts you up!

We'll also add you to the Mindful Ambition email community. Powered by ConvertKit

1) Identify “Golden Behaviors”

What are the activities that you always feel better after doing?

I think of these as “Golden Behaviors” because you’ll never regret prioritizing them. They always lift you up.

List out as many as you can.

2) Clarify Your “Whys

Note why and how these Golden Behaviors lift you up.

What does life look like when you make a habit of this behavior?

What does life look like when you don’t?

3) Prioritize Focus Areas

You’d be unwise to try and add 15 different behaviors to your life all at once.

Instead, look back at your list and STAR the Top 5 difference-makers.

If you could only do 5 of these things on a regular basis, which would you pick?

This is where you want to start! As you begin integrating new habits to your routine, these top Golden Behaviors are where you want to focus.

Start by focusing on 1-3 of these Golden Behaviors. As you get them locked in, you can start adding more!

(Take it a step further by creating a Daily Wins Checklist for these top Golden Behaviors.)

4) Cultivate In-The-Moment Awareness and Take Action

Following through on your intentions means cultivating awareness of your opportunities to act.

  1. See your opportunities as they arise
  2. Note any resistance that threatens to hold you back from action. Observe the sensations that accompany your resistant feelings. See how they ebb, flow, and shift.
  3. Connect with your higher-self by recalling your intention. What did you want to do in this moment?
  4. Consider: “How would future-me feel after doing this?” Will it feel expansive or contracting?
  5. Take action based on your answer.

Shaping Your Identity —> Accessing Your Highest Self in Every Moment

Mindful Ambition is all about helping you show up at your best every day, in-alignment with your highest values, as you courageously pursue your most exciting ambitions.

Doing that means BEING the type of person who follows through on what they care about most.

Any time you mindfully note resistance, and act anyway, is cause for celebration.

Your future-self will experience the benefits of that gift! But it’s important to note them clearly, and celebrate those little successes. This is a way of re-shaping your self-identity.

I didn’t always view myself the way I do now. Now, I know that I’m someone who acts on my high-level goals and intentions, even when I don’t feel like it in the moment. (#ThatsLikeMe)

I’m far from perfect at this, but am proud of the progress I’ve made in recent years. And more importantly, I’m committed to honing-in and getting a little bit better at it every day!

I hope you’ll join me. 🙂

Here’s to you, shaping your new identity: “I don’t make choices simply based on how I feel in the moment…I make choices based on how future-me feels AFTER the fact. That’s like me.”

Let’s do this!

Get the "Golden Behaviors" Worksheet

A simple reflection tool to start doing more of what lifts you up!

We'll also add you to the Mindful Ambition email community. Powered by ConvertKit