Photo Credit: Alex Block,

Written by Steven C. Hayes, PhD
August 12, 2019

People often fail to make a change because they get stuck in their own heads. They might struggle with a lack of motivation, or fight with self-doubts like, “I’m not strong enough,” or “This isn’t worth it.” In short, they try to “fix” themselves before they dare to take action. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t how change works.

Where Real Change Begins

Suppose I point a gun in your direction and tell you to feel happy or I’ll shoot. How would you do? Now suppose I go one step further and demand you only have happy thoughts. How would that go?

Chances are you wouldn’t survive my little experiment. No matter how much tried, you wouldn’t be able to control your true emotions.

Now let’s try something different, but this time I demand you say the words “I’m happy.” Would you be able to do that?

The answer is YES!

Although you still wouldn’t be genuinely happy, you’d be able to act just a bit like a happy person. 

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that you fake it until you make it. Let’s change the experiment so you can see how general a point this is.

Instead of a gun to motivate you, I’ll let you choose your own self-direction. Suppose you choose “authenticity” (it could be any value). You want to be authentic, genuine, and true to yourself.


Now let’s try the same experiment again. I magically arrange for this: unless you have happy feelings right now, you can never, ever be authentic. Unless you have only happy thoughts from now until next Tuesday, you’ll never be genuinely you.

Again, a failure!

But what if I ask you to tell someone a bit of what you feel, or genuineness will never arrive–could you do that?

Sure. You could.

While you can’t control how you think and feel, you CAN control how you act.

Reliable change doesn’t begin with your thoughts or feelings. Instead, it begins with your actions. If you wish to make a change in your life, start by taking new action that’s an example of that change.

You can remember this principle with the acronym S.T.A.R.T., which stands for “Start Taking Action Right There.”

People often want to “figure it out” first. They look up strategies online, fantasize about change, argue with themselves, and try to find the “right” mindset. But while these attempts often come from good intentions, they also fail to result in change. Instead, it’s better to stop “figuring it out,” and start taking action right then and there–here and now.

What S.T.A.R.T. Looks Like In Practice

You can apply the S.T.A.R.T. principle across almost all intentions for change:

  • Instead of trying to devise the “perfect” workout plan, get out your running shoes and jog around the block for five minutes.
  • Instead of giving yourself a pep talk before you can face your fear of talking to strangers, get out of the house and make eye contact with people walking by.
  • Instead of angering yourself about not being able to meditate in a loud environment, sit down, close your eyes, and meditate for two minutes.
  • Instead of worrying about finding the “right” words after a fight with a friend, get out your phone, dial the number, and see what happens.

S.T.A.R.T. means being willing to take imperfect action. Real change is almost always messy and chaotic at first. That’s all right. You can adjust your strategy as you go along.

Why It Works So Well

There are a few reasons why this principle works:

First, by taking action first, you’re immediately one step closer to your goal. No matter how small your step, progress is still progress.

Second, by first taking actions that are examples of what you want, you motivate yourself to keep going forward. Emotions have a tendency to follow actions, and by acting out a small piece of the change you desire–whether or not you feel motivated to do it–you’ll gradually notice a great sense of connection to your chosen purposes simply because you’ve proven to yourself you CAN head in their direction.

Third, by taking action first, you’ll get immediate feedback. Instead of wondering about countless imaginary scenarios that’ll never happen anyway, you get real-life feedback about what works and what doesn’t. You can then change your approach to fit your needs.

The S.T.A.R.T. principle is as simple as it is effective. So stop reading this freakin’ article! What’s an example of the change you want in your life? What’s one small action you could take right now?

To hear more from Dr. Steven Hayes, listen in on his One Idea Away Podcast episode!

Photo Credit: Alex Block,