You Can’t Get Fit by Watching Others Exercise

I was on a panel discussing my book The Happiness Makeover. “What’s the hardest piece of advice in it?” asked the moderator. I took the book and put it on my head. “To somehow take what’s here and put it into your head. That takes doing. You can’t become happier by reading about happiness.” The audience laughed.

It’s easy to confuse intention and action. I’ve had clients like this. They hire me to help them do something–become happier, achieve better work/life balance, discover what they want to do next in their lives. Then they proceed to talk to me every week about what they want, why they want it, and why they can’t have it.

“Ok,” I say, “What action are you willing to take this week to bring you closer to your goal? Here are my suggestions.” They always agree and then are back next time, not having done anything and ready to talk about it all over again. I’ve come to understand that the reason they are stuck is that they see talking to me as doing the work of changing. Our appointments make them feel like they are changing–or at least trying to. When you talk to a family member or friends about what you want, you too may be confusing those efforts with the actual work of change. But as the Chinese proverb says, “Talk doesn’t cook rice.”

Recently I heard this joke: There are five frogs on a log. One decides to jump off. How many are left? Five–because deciding isn’t doing.

The hard reality is that we only bring something new into being in ourselves through action. Reading and talking to others can give us insight and support and can offer valuable reflection on what’s working and what’s not. But only if we are doing the heavy lifting in the first place. That’s because the brain learns through experiences. You can’t create new neural pathways by wishing you were different. Or talking or reading about being different.

It’s like the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. When you comfort yourself with a walk instead of reaching for a cigarette, a candy bar, or a drink; when you ask yourself, “what could be right about this?” instead of responding in your usual negative fashion; when you turn the computer off and turn to your spouse or child to have some quality time, that’s when you are actually bringing your intention into being in your brain.

To try: Each day this week, every time you think about your intention, ask yourself, “Now what am I going to DO about it?”

Ready to get started? Post your intent and find community support and content to help you achieve it!

In this monthlong learning series, M.J. Ryan, author of the best-selling book This Year I Will…: How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True, will take you through four steps, each lasting one week, to help you figure out what your most important intentions are and give you the tools to make each a reality. Just joining the learning series? Go here to start at the beginning. provides content and community for who you aspire to be–personally, socially and globally.


Vural K.
Past Member 8 years ago


Carina Engstrom
Carina Engstrom9 years ago

Amen to that! I know that I´m good at thinking but doing is, for some reason more difficult. I think the MOTIVATION is an important factor in changing your lifestyle or doing something totally different. The conflict between the limbic system and neocortex is something to really think about. What I´m thinking isn´t always what I´m feeling! Think and feel must be on the same side to reach goals.

Thank you for a good article!

Sharon S.
Sharon Swartz9 years ago

What a wonderful article! You have hit the nail on the head and I am taking your advice to heart!