24/11/2014 05:59 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Reach Your Potential and Be Happy? Be Mindful of These Two Beliefs?

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Today is the big day. Today is the day that you are going to start exercising, quit procrastinating, finish that big project, make that crucial phone call, and begin living the life you were meant to live. It's just that the excitement you felt about all of this yesterday is not quite as powerful today when you are thinking about going to the gym, sitting at the computer, or looking at your to-do list. There is the urge to rearrange your desktop, get a cup of coffee, and see if your friends have posted something clever on Facebook. Maybe there is something inspiring or helpful on Reddit. Perhaps what is needed is something to eat....

You know in your gut that if you stuck to the plan, you would realize the results that are possible, and you would experience the competence and confidence that you desire. There is no way around the fact that self-control - cognitive, emotional, and behavioral - is fundamental to both happiness and sustained excellence. The research on this point is abundant and clear. Yet, you have areas in your life where the self-control you need never quite materializes. Take heart! You are completely normal and human!

If you look closely at the areas of your life where self-control is a challenge, you are likely to find a belief that keeps mucking things up. There are two very common beliefs about the relationship between feelings and behavior:

You have to feel like doing something to do it.

You have to do what you feel like doing.

Of course you do things all the time that you don't feel like doing. And you take a pass on many things that you do feel like doing. Despite all the evidence that behavior does not have to be chosen based on what you feel, you still have parts of your life where these beliefs absolutely run the show.

Why do we believe so strongly in the connection between feelings and behavior? It has to do with evolutionary adaptations of your brain. The part of your brain that is wired for survival wants you to do what you have done in the past. This is because, as far as this part of your brain can tell, whatever you did yesterday has led to you being alive today. Your survival brain is constantly storing patterns of associations so that it doesn't miss something potentially threatening. When it recognizes a pattern, then it creates feelings - a combination of sensations and thoughts - to trigger a behavior that "worked" in the past. This is why you find yourself waiting until you feel like doing something to do it. It is also why you engage in behavior even when you know that it will not lead to the results you want.

How does this play out? You feel angry and you yell or sulk. You have time to make that phone call, but you decide to wait until later in the afternoon. You feel bored and look in the refrigerator for something tasty. You tell yourself that twenty unscheduled minutes just isn't enough time to get started on anything.

So how do you work with this very normal phenomenon? How do you recognize these beliefs when they show up and keep them from running your life? Mindfulness - awareness and acceptance of what you are feeling in real time - is a great place to start. Once you are mindful of sensations and thoughts, then you can connect to what is most important to you.

You are free to respond to whatever shows up based on what is really important to you - this may be the most powerful lesson you can learn. Fear, frustration, craving, sadness, boredom, anger and all other emotions are passing combinations of sensations and thoughts. These feelings are not irrefutable orders that you must obey. Research bears this out - people who accept anxiety or stress as part of the process of life, rather than an obstacle to get past, are happier and perform better.

Developing mindfulness takes practice. The good news is that you can practice anytime and anywhere. The more you pay attention, the more you can focus on the answers to questions such as: What is most important? What am I committed to no matter what I am feeling? What works? How can I act on what I am committed to in this moment?

The more you are focused on what really matters, the more regularly you can engage in behaviors that enhance your experience. Expressing gratitude, being kind, smiling, standing or sitting upright, breathing gently, going for a walk, listening closely to a friend - these are all behaviors that engage the most open and creative parts of your brain. And these behaviors have the power to dramatically improve the quality of your life. And you can engage in these behaviors whether you feel like it or not. In the same way that you do not have to feel like bending your elbow to bend your elbow, you do not have to feel like smiling to smile. You do not have to feel like being kind to be kind. This is the Golden Rule and The Law of Karma in a nutshell - you get what you practice and what you practice is your choice. What are you practicing right now?

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