Young people are constantly bombarded with free advice by the elderly: people tell them how to talk, how to socialize, how to deal with money matters, etc. It’s done to the point where it’s felt as preachy and rightly so. Why? More than what you say, kids pick up what you do. Words don’t mean much to them; actions speak much louder indeed.

Even as adults we read motivational text, watch TED talks, discuss problems with friends and get ideas/free advice all the time.

Now how useful are these ideas? Say you want to take the stairs instead of lifts everyday. You make a pact with yourself. Next day you get reminded of the pact while the elevator bell rings. So what’s missing?

We get a lot of ideas and tips. In this information age, they’re abundant to the point of becoming boring. Yet, why don’t we all end up showing them in action? Let aside all, not even many. Majority of adults (and some kids1), find it hard to change even one habit?

Invariably, we’re fed with ideas; when armchair theorizing they sound great too. When it comes to doing it, at that moment, it’s a totally different ball game.

Everyone knows what to do. How to do, however, has eluded us.

The Mind

It’s great to have a beginner’s mind; while an expert’s busy explaining how new is actually old, a beginner accepts new as it is; works with it. However, it’s just plain reality that most of us don’t have a beginner’s mind and we’ve habits. How, then, do we effectively change them? Let’s see how the mind works at a coarse level to understand behaviours.

Neural pathways are formed when you do a new action; bits of technique, from the new experience, is learnt. As you continue doing similar actions, the pathways become stronger and denser; more connections are made to other parts of your cortex. Once these pathways are quite established, it’s like a highway to involuntary action. Speaking while driving2, anyone? Yes, that’s muscle memory. It’s not just committed to memory but is autonomous. And this isn’t a good thing when the pathway is abetting one to reach for another cigarette.

Your conscious brain acts nice prude when you think consciously, but your subconscious, the final authority, isn’t as nice.

It might come to many as a surprise but this is just the hard truth. The subconscious loves habits. Since it doesn’t work consciously, to make decisions quickly, it just takes shortcuts.


Negativity bias is a common trait for all humans. Most can, when they sit and think, think positive things. Yet if you’re not conscious enough3, you slowly go back to your old ways of cribbing, sulking and be disgruntled. Why?

Most of the ideas we get, most of the resolutions we make are all just thoughts: electric impulses along existing neural nets and they’re just not enough

Do we need more current across our existing pathways or new pathways themselves? The latter, of course!

Newer alternative pathway is needed to steer away from taking the old route. For that good ol’ action is needed! When I suggest people to write a happiness log, people go, “I know I can think of these positive thoughts, why record them everyday? It seems silly to write down what I already know”. Well, there’s our problem. Knowing is not enough, doing is. Writing a log is perhaps silly but what it does to your brain isn’t.

An ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory.

Wanna lower your anger after identifying what pushes your buttons? Write4 and stick a big wall poster. No, that poster isn’t gonna calm you down. What does? The more you see it, the more your subconscious realizes that you’re serious enough to change something that you’ve shown it in action. The poster is a symbol of your action; a commitment beacon.

Motivation speakers, at least the more practical ones, suggest to make flash cards, write small logs of change every day, etc. When you do these small action everyday, incrementally, you change yourself without exerting a lot of effort: a lot of change intimidates your brain and you get burned out. So the two key takeaways

  1. Act
  2. Act small

In a couple of weeks, you should see something tangible as a product of your incremental changes; this puts you in a virtuous feedback loop. You’re well on your way to changing/re-programming yourself 👍

Bottom line

Most of humanity keeps ideating but little gets done; most keep talking but few are listened to. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Zen recommends listening over talking, doing to thinking. Know this title?

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!

In order to see the Buddha, you have to be the Buddha. If you aren’t the Buddha, you can’t really understand the Buddha5.

Wanna be a great driver, drive more6.

Wanna be a great talker, listen more!

Talking, reading or thinking about something won’t get you there; doing will7.

  1. Kids are fairly adaptable since their minds are fresh: a great advantage – the beginner’s mind. ↩︎

  2. Without being mindful about driving; sometimes called auto-piloting↩︎

  3. There are some ways around this but are very demanding: mind sculpting, a fairly recent technique. Suppose you want to fix anger; you come up all the possible situations in which you’d react; now imagine yourself calm in when you’re in those. Without imagining the situations, you’d still end up acting angry since the mind wasn’t trained in the right setting. ↩︎

  4. Don’t print it or, worse, buy one. ↩︎

  5. Title cheekily warns about imposters who just talk but don’t meditate. ↩︎

  6. As opposed to read, think or talk about driving. ↩︎

  7. This applies even to problems of much bigger scale. Worried about global warming? Worrying won’t improve the situation one bit; though a small act, however miniscule, would still improve it by some infinitesimally small delta. ↩︎