It’s NOT the Thought That Counts: Why Action Trumps Intention

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Life coach Carolyn Mahboubi on why our actions trump intentions

Whoever coined the phrase “it’s the thought that counts” was likely trying to make themselves feel better about disappointing someone due to a half-hearted attempt or one simply not taken at all. 

Nobody ever meant it when they let us off the hook by saying it’s the thought that counts when we didn’t make that call, write that note, or send that check. That person was just being nice; the kind of nice that leads to resentment and ultimately breaks down relationships. 

Thoughts are as powerful as a seed lying deep in the ground. That seed holds the potential to become a grand oak tree one day, but only thoughtful and consistent action will reveal that seed’s true potential. 

If you have nurtured the belief that people love, respect, and appreciate you because of your good intentions, I’m here to turn on the cold shower. 

Only our mom and dad would cut us slack for our “good intentions,” and even they had their limits. Everyone else has less kind labels for us when we don’t keep our word or honor our agreements. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that we always have to come through with the results that we or others desire. I’m asking you to take a good, hard look at how you’re actually living your life and do an honest audit of how often you use the “good intentions” excuse to take the easy way out.

Again, we are speaking about whole-hearted effort — not results. We know when we’ve done everything possible to do the right thing versus when we’ve chosen comfort over courage. Saying it’s the thought that counts doesn’t camouflage our bad choices. We know the truth, and over time, others will know it too.  

Next up, broken trust. Once the damage is done, broken trust is a lot harder to mend than the action you decided not to take. 

Paula (names are always changed unless with permission) is one of the kindest people I know.  

She is also a genius and has the potential to elevate her financial services firm to one of the top ten most successful in her territory. But there’s one significant and habitual way that Paula gets in her own way.

She doesn’t pay her bills on time.

She always comes through eventually, which is to say no one ever has been unpaid for their work. But Paula doesn’t understand why anyone would question her integrity, professionalism, and ultimately her leadership abilities when everyone knows her intentions are honest. And, after all, isn’t it the case that every single person has eventually been paid? 

Over time, Paula noticed a gap between how people see her and who she knows herself to be. She understood herself as someone who always comes through and often in a spectacular manner. So why do so many people, including those closest to her, who “should” know better, question her character?

As a professional life coach, it was heart-wrenching to witness this “misunderstanding,” one that had Paula’s life wrapped in a self-created Gordian knot. I knew Paula socially before we decided to work together professionally and would trust her with far more valuable things than money. I knew for a fact that she was deeply kind hearted, thoughtful, and spiritual. It pained me to see how by confusing intention for action, she was getting in the way of her own ability to enjoy more success, love, and prosperity.

In time, this insight dropped in for Paula and she became an expert in catching herself using the Intention Excuse. That simple “real time” awareness is enough for her to choose another option. Instead of allowing her mind to repeat the old story of how everyone knows she has integrity and will take care of her financial commitments eventually, she decided that in all instances, she will either show up for her word or have the required  uncomfortable but honest conversation. 

Less than six months after she made this commitment and began the practice of shifting from intention to action, Paula let me know during one of our sessions that she felt more grounded within and her relationships had become deeper and more trusting than ever before.

Intention is the start of a goal and desire. Write about your intentions and talk about them to your coach or anyone who can support you in manifesting them. But ultimately, it’s only action that people around us care about. Our actions decide who we are.

As the original Life coach, Yoda, expresses, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

To that I add, “If you truly gave it your best try and you couldn’t come through with the promised result, there’s still something you need to do.”

Have an honest, skillful, and timely conversation with the other party. That, too, is action — not intention.

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