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Using Cognitive Dissonance to Hustle

If you’re in the startup world you’re probably familiar with the concept that ideas aren’t worth very much. Instead it’s all about execution.

You can dismiss the rhetoric as overly simplistic (and it is), but the basic idea that actions matter more than ideas has a lot going for it.

You see, it’s incredibly easy to dream about something and fall in love with the idea of doing it. Many people dream of being a professional athlete or of starting their own company. Few attempt it. Fewer still succeed.

Instead most of us focus too much on our internal conversations, finding ourselves locked inside a silent monologue about the countless what-ifs or should-haves in our lives. It’s a vicious spiral because the more we think like this, the less we actually do anything, and the more the what-ifs pile up.

You have to put ideas out there for them to gain substance, to get vetted, to attract energy.

Yet because the internal dialogue is so present for each of us it’s hard for people to accept that maybe it doesn’t really matter that much. Imagine how liberating it could feel if all that time you spend locked in your own head was irrelevant. There’s power in accepting that it’s only what you do, not what you think, that counts.

In fact, you can use the power of actions to literally re-shape your thought processes. This can help you actually accomplish what you want to get done despite how you feel.

As the famous Japanese psychotherapist and philosopher Shoma Morita once asked: “Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” Morita said. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.”

Let’s take work, or any other task you may occasionally find dull, depressing, and/or incredibly hard to start.

You can HATE your work. It can make you actively depressed when thinking about doing it. But if you show up, do your job, and take action anyway DESPITE how you feel, then something quite interesting happens.

First, in that moment you’re actually moving myself forward regardless of what you think. Maybe you didn’t feel like working today, but when you go home you’ve accomplished a lot.

But that’s just the start.

If you can overcome how you feel and do your work once, twice, three times you will actually trigger one of the biggest self-change enablers that exists–cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance happens when there is a disconnect or conflict between what you think (your thoughts/beliefs/attitudes) and what you do. It is an uncomfortable state that almost demands you take action in order to alleviate your discomfort. Your brain will literally fight to return to a state of consistency between your self-beliefs and your actions.

And that means one of two things.

Either you will do something that ends this dissonance, i.e. you will take action, OR you will shift your mental framework and do as many mental gymnastics as you need until somehow you’ve reconstructed your mental image of yourself to fit with whatever it was that you were already doing.

Change what you’re doing, or what you’re doing changes you.

Lets get back to our example about work.

Now we can see that it’s actually the moments right before you commit to either working or not working, that are the most crucial. It’s way easier not to start down the ladder than it is to pull yourself back up and explain why you were down there in the first place.

So if you can just fight through your own mental barriers once or twice everything changes. In fact, it HAS to change. First, quite literally, you’ve gotten something done that you hadn’t before. Second, the act of doing something now tends to have a compound effect in the future. That’s both because once at work, you have a tendency to remain at work, but also because the very act of you working can reinforce a self-image that will propel you to take other actions in the future. I work, therefore I am a worker…or something akin to that type of positive muscle memory anyway. .

Breaking Mental Models

“Action as disruptor” is not just a theoretical principle. You can use it as a tool too.

I guess it’s really about controlling your actions to channel your thoughts, and not letting your thoughts carve self-destructive channels first.

Let’s say you are prone to periods of depression. Rather than engage in an internal dialogue about how you feel, or how you think you ought to feel, or how you believe you need to feel, you can disrupt your familiar thought patterns from casting you into depression by doing something other than your normal. One approach is to force yourself to take the actions of a “happy” person. You know, make yourself smile until you actually feel like smiling.

Here’s an example of how this can work. Imagine you are generally an extroverted person but that one of the symptoms of your depression is that it causes you to no longer reach out to others. You are experiencing great cognitive dissonance in these depressive periods because you generally associate your normal self with the desire to interact with others. Your current actions contradict this so one of your solutions in the past has been to construct a “depressive state framework” in which the act of retreating into your own head is to be expected anytime you feel down. You now have two “normal” states–one for when you are depressed and another for when you are not. One of these lets you be you, the other holds you back. Both have default actions that are triggered first by emotional states.

Now imagine if you consciously interrupted the depressive cycle by deliberately performing the actions you’ve previously associated with the “normal, not depressed” version of you. What would happen? Because you are doing what you do normally, are you are more likely to default to a normal frame of mind? Actions are easier to control than thoughts, so let them help you.

(Please note, I know that depression is complicated. I’m not saying this is a cure).

Translating Action

Now it’s really obvious that the prime trigger for getting cognitive dissonance to help you is to DO something to create that tension between what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.

But like with anything, the hardest part of doing something is taking the first step.

In fact, one of the things that always surprises me is how large the mental barriers feel before taking action compared to how quickly they shrink once you’re moving. For example, most of the time when I go to write curriculum notes for my study app, GoStudy, I have a mental block over the desire to spend several hours pouring over textbooks and translating that content. If I let that mental block become especially powerful I might spend days stuck on the same page, lost in a string of rapidly compounding zero days.  But if I accept that I don’t want to do this thing and I sit down and start anyway, then it is usually only a few minutes before I lose any trace of my initial reluctance.

You can be swept away by action because momentum is powerful. Understanding that it is normal to have differences between how you feel and what you do can also help sustain the reality of the day-to-day grind.

Maybe you didn’t feel good or strong in your workout, but you still hit the tenth rep on your fifth set. Good job. There’s a cold comfort in acknowledging the supremacy of action over intention here. You just got stronger than if you had accepted your mental state as an excuse for only doing eight reps.

You don’t have to be at your peak all the time, you only have to be at your peak at the right time.  And make no mistake, peak performance is fucking hard. Resist the temptation for comparison. Remember its easy to forget that we only see an athlete on game day. Our perception of these athletes and their success stories is not their perception of themselves. There are no overnight successes.

The Goal is Still Harmony

Now that’s not to say that the goal is to always take action to force your brain to re-route its thought patterns.

The harmonious marriage of mind with action is not only powerful, but desirous. After all, not only does everyone hope they can find something to devote themselves to that is meaningful and worthy of their energy, but we are also more likely to enter a state of flow (i.e. be in the zone) when we create this unity. Ultimately, believing that what you do is important matters too.

So:

  • Loving the idea of something is very different than starting down that path
  • It’s too easy to get stuck in your own head and let your lack of past action compound into the future
  • The hardest part is taking the first step
  • Once you do, you become a doer, and this act alone will change your self-beliefs

With that said, what’s the first step you need to take to re-arrange your mental framework?

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