Build Effective Patterns of Action

“Well done is better than well said.” – Benjamin Franklin

We create a great deal of our own suffering in life through problems with self-control.  We are often very good at saying all sorts of wonderful things that we would like to do differently, but often we don’t back up those words with action.  This comes down to our behavioral choices.  Each action (and inaction) that you take in life is your choice.  If you want your life to start to look different, feel different, and be different, it requires you to break your old behavioral patterns.

In order to begin to get different results, you simply must be willing to act differently.  All of the changes that you experience in your thoughts and emotions will sadly end up meaning very little if you do not take action that is in line with that new thinking and feeling.  You must begin to build new patterns of effective action.

Studies have indicated that larger patterns of behavior are more resistant to short-term impulsive choices (Rachlin, 1995).  This means that if you make the decision that you want to start building a larger, new way of behaving (i.e., a new way of being in the world) that you will be building up a “buffer” to prevent you from making short-term impulsive choices that may not be in your best interest.

Realize that changing the way you act takes time and commitment.  All of your choices, small and large, come together to form a larger picture of “what you are like.”  Each small behavioral choice that you make is either taking you closer to or further away from your true goals.  As you learn to become more mindful in the present moment, you will be more in tune and aware of how you are behaving.  Many of us end up moving further and further from our goals and desired self because we are simply not tuned in and paying mindful attention to how we are choosing to respond to the present moment.

A big part of building effective patterns of action is taking responsibility for your actions.  There is no “time out” in life where your behaviors “don’t count.”  In every moment of your life you are building behavioral patterns through your actions and inactions.  Part of mindfulness is being aware of the relationships that we have with our patterns of behavior.  Imagine the following scenario…

You make the decision to “get healthy” and to “lose weight.”  You decide that you want to go from no physical activity at all to exercising twice a week.  You are also going to cut out junk food and introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet for a month to “get used to it.”  Your first week of this new commitment goes well – you feel proud of yourself.

In the second week, you forget to track what you are eating, it’s already Thursday and you haven’t exercised yet for the week. Rather than recognize that this is the perfect opportunity to get back in the saddle and get back on track, you start to feel like a failure.  This feeling results in you giving up.  Recognize the behavioral pattern that this is building: “make commitment — break commitment.”

There is much more involved here that simply failing to start a new diet or fitness routine.  The larger behavioral pattern that you are creating is one of excitedly making a new commitment, beginning to slip on your behavioral obligations to that commitment, experiencing feelings of failure, and then breaking the commitment.  Consider the way in which this pattern can reemerge in your life with future commitments: “make new commitment — do well for awhile — begin to slip — feel frustrated — quit.”

These larger behavioral patterns can build a trap that makes future success more difficult.  Once you become aware of what your habitual patterns of action are, you can begin to intervene and make different choices.  Hayes (2005) explains that “if you do anything different in the presence of events that normally lead to [old] patterns, you are helping to create more psychological flexibility.”

Building the strength of new patterns is the most important pattern of all.  Once you have identified your true values, it is important to act according to your values in all contexts as you begin to build your new behavioral patterns.  For example, if you highly value honesty, yet find that your actions are not in line with this value, you must mindfully act in ways that are honest in all situations to build this new pattern.

If you make mistakes or fall back into your old behavioral patterns, apply mindfulness to where things went awry.  Notice all of the contextual cues present in the situation where you reverted to your old ways.  How can you act differently next time?  It is important to be compassionate towards yourself when you make mistakes… the tendency to have thoughts of self-loathing and punishment does not help you.

In fact, these punishing thoughts are more likely to be part of your old way of behaving.  Act differently.  Rather than beat yourself up and tell yourself what a “failure” you are, treat yourself as you would treat someone else who made a mistake.  Be kind, understanding, and forgiving toward yourself.

Once you have identified what your old patterns truly are and how you would like to create new behavioral patterns based on your true values, the next step is to truly get committed to your goals.  The best laid plans and intentions mean very little if there is no behavioral change to back them up.  What is one thing you can do differently today that will begin to break your old patterns?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Hayes, S.C. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: World’s Favorite Sport by vramak / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Curt Rosengren on August 10, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Great post. This simple sentence struck me as potentially powerful in the process of sculpting one’s patterns of action:

    “Each small behavioral choice that you make is either taking you closer to or further away from your true goals.”

    Using that idea to habitually ask this one little question could make a world of difference: Is this choice moving me closer or distancing me from my goal?”

    I just discovered your blog. Some excellent content here. Thanks for writing it.

    • Laura on August 10, 2011 at 11:44 am

      Curt – I’m glad that you enjoyed this post. I find the simple idea of checking in with yourself about whether or not each behavioral choice is moving you closer to or further from your true goals to be quite powerful.

      I find mindfulness to be an excellent way to be more tuned in to how we are choosing to act in each present moment. There is great freedom in simple awareness of how we are behaving.

      Thank you for visiting my site!

What's On Your Mind?