Knowledge is inspirational but useless without action

Have you ever shocked yourself with your inability to apply what you know you should do to what you actually do? Welcome to the knowing/doing gap.

Acquiring all the knowledge in the world doesn’t mean that you will be able to put that knowledge into effective action.

The book ‘The Knowing – Doing Gap’, written by Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, is one of the great classics in management literature. The insights they share in this bestseller are as relevant today in both business and personal lives as they were when the book was first published almost two decades ago. In the initial chapter of the book they observe that: ‘many organizations and managers would rather talk, conceptualize and rationalize about problems and issues than confront them directly….and in many companies people are more likely to get ahead by talking smart than by doing smart and productive things’.

Their point: we know a great deal, are generally well trained, yet despite all of our knowing, we still are not doing what we know should be done. Whilst the book examined this concept mainly from a leadership standpoint it equally applies to many other areas of our work and lives including wellbeing, safety and diversity & inclusion.

Lets look at some typical examples:

We know we have to eat a balanced diet and exercise to lose weight…

We know we have to prioritise sleep if we are going to be at our best for tomorrows presentation…

We know that we have to stick to a budget to get out of debt…

Often it’s the doing part that is the culprit in stopping us achieving our goals, there’s this gap between what we know and what we do. Here’s why…

Depending on the person, it could be any number of things. Financial constraint, time constraint or probably the most common of all – fear. Humans are pre-wired to be afraid of failure. While this probably saves us in some areas, it certainly holds us back in others.

The knowing-doing gap is hard to overcome. If it weren’t, we would all be hitting the gym regularly and be well on track with our finances.

Learning something new and practicing something new may seem very similar, but these two methods can have profoundly different results. Here are some additional ways to think about the difference.

  • Let's say your goal is to get stronger and more fit. You can research the best instructions on bench press technique, but the only way to build strength is to practice lifting weights.
  • Let's say your goal is to grow your new business. You can learn about the best way to make a sales pitch, but the only way to actually land customers is to practice making sales calls.
  • Let's say your goal is to write a book. You can talk to a best-selling author about writing, but the only way to become a better writer is to practice publishing consistently.

Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill. Passive learning can be a crutch that supports inaction, this doesn’t mean to say that passive learning is useless. In many cases, learning for the sake of learning can be a beautiful thing. Not to mention soaking up new information can help you make more informed decisions when you do decide to take action. The main point is learning by itself does not lead to progress.

The bottom line

You can conquer the knowing-doing gap

The solution won’t be the same for everyone, because the underlying reasons are unique. The important thing is to reflect and understand your own triggers.

Don’t hide behind information and use learning as an excuse to delay the more difficult and more important choice of actually doing something. In time, you will have a new habit that supports the behaviour you want.

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