Knowing Vs Doing: The Chasm


I spend most of my Friday nights indoors with my tribe. We watch documentaries – mostly on nature, science, politics, and pop culture – and we discuss ideas over food and bottomless cups of tea. We’re living that rockstar life, aren’t we?

Last Friday was no different. We talked about the gap between knowing and doing, a distance that seems to stretch to infinity sometimes. The idea was popularised by Jeffrey Pfeffer, but a popular proponent of the idea, and how we came to learn about it, is Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

The idea behind the knowing-doing gap is this: we often know what we want to do to improve our lives, but we rarely translate that knowing into doing.

This is curious. But why?

I’ve come across this idea a few times in a few different forms, and I’d like to approach the discussion in the context of creativity, something that’s relevant to me, and if you’re reading this, you too, I suspect.

As we proceed, please keep in mind that this is a bit of an oversimplification, there are only so many words and only so much space a blog post affords, and it's nowhere near what's required to do this subject justice. So, please pick up a copy of the books I've linked to above, and read on if this piques your interest.

Still with me? Sweet!

Here's a question for you: how many times have you had a thought, I should do X, and then you sat for a moment imagining yourself doing X, and then you felt a satisfaction mixed with lethargy, with the resulting outcome being a voice in your head whispering, you've done enough for now, maybe do X tomorrow? 

X can be almost anything that applies to you, like playing guitar, learning to swim, writing your book, anything at all. 

How many times? If you're like me, the number is too big to mention. Quite frankly, it's innumerable, not the kind of thing you keep track of.

A while ago I learned that I'm not alone in this, it just has to do with how the mind works. Here's why!

When you get that idea to do X, your mind starts to act on it immediately. Your mind imagines and visualises you doing X. This is all well and good, except, your mind is remarkably bad at differentiating between imagining doing X and actually doing X. 

I'm bored of writing X now, so let's say X is knitting.

Take a moment to dwell on this; the act of daydreaming about knitting engages the same cognitive processes in the brain as the act of knitting itself. So when you imagine yourself knitting, for all your brain knows, you might actually be knitting, thus you get the same satisfaction regardless of whether you sit still in your chair or whether you embark on the numerous stitches required to conjure up a scarf.

You might be wondering, this doesn't sound so bad, it's actually kind of cool, why should I care? 

Here's why! Energy is finite, there's only so much of it you have to use up. Good old Newton himself stated that it can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. So when your brain decides to fantasise about knitting, it takes away precious, limited energy that you need to actually knit that scarf.

The cycle goes something like this: 

  1. You get an idea that you should knit a scarf, you know how to knit a scarf or how to get started, 
  2. you dwell on it for a moment, you 'see' yourself twisting those needles and you feel the soft fabric on your laps as you brush against them, 
  3. your mind thinks you're actually knitting now (remember it can't tell the difference between knitting and thinking about knitting), 
  4. your mind is satisfied that you've done some knitting (because, see the previous step), 
  5. your mind convinces you that you should move on to something else, like crochet, 
  6. now you're thinking about crocheting, and back to step one you go. 

Rinse and repeat. Sound familiar?

This isn't great, obviously. But why am I dwelling on it, and more importantly, what can we do about it?

Last week I wrote about doing the things we want to do to express ourselves in creative ways that matter to us. But what good is that advice if a chasm separates the knowing land from the doing land? What good is it if the leap seems impossible? 

I'd like to suggest two ideas to bridge the gap, if not close it completely.

 The first idea is Temptation Bundling, a term coined by renowned psychologist Katherine Milkman. The idea is simple, take one thing you love to do, and combine it with something you need to do. James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits, also writes about it here.

An example of this, for me, is combining listening to podcasts with exercising. 

I love podcasts and audiobooks. I don't need incentives to listen to them. I could spend many hours of the day engaging with my favourite podcasts, and in fact I do. 

Exercising is a slightly different story. I know I need to move my body because most of the things I spend my time doing tend to be done in a sedentary position. I work at a desk, write at a desk, read in bed, play guitar on a stool or the sturdy arm of a sofa, and binge my favourite shows from the soft cushions of said sofa. A lot of my time is spent sitting, so I need to move my body to keep it – and my mind – healthy.

I've had a walking/running routine for years so I'm somewhat comfortable with the idea of exercising, but even then, it's a struggle to get out of bed most mornings to go on a walk. However, I know there'll be loads of podcasts I'll miss out on if I don't, so I willfully and happily engage in the joint activity of walking and listening to something interesting. As a bonus – a positive side effect if you will – the process jogs my creativity, and I end up writing fragments of my songs and stories while on these walks. Serendipity for the win!

The second idea is leveraging Commitment Devices, a term well known to psychologists and behavioural economists alike. The freakonomics dudes, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, have popularised in their writings and podcasts. The idea is also simple…

If I could offer my younger self some advice on forming and maintaining habits, I'd say “don't kid yourself dude, willpower is limited.” The current, present version of Ade may have a brilliant idea to start writing something new – the new song, the new story for instance – but future Ade almost always has other plans. He'd rather do anything but write. Enter commitment device, something that forces future Ade to conform to current Ade's initiative. This can be effective in bridging the gap between the thing that current Ade knows and the thing that future Ade should do

How could this work?

It could be as simple as going to bed in running clothes, so that the optimistic Ade from last night signals to tired, morning Ade that he needs to go out and exercise. It could also be announcing, on all the public forums and platforms, that Ade is going to write and publish weekly blog posts and newsletters. The dude that made the announcement was brimming with energy and optimism, no doubt, but whenever Monday morning is around the corner, that dude who's almost always tired, remembers the commitment that the previous dude has made on his behalf, and that spurs him on to write the blog and newsletter. 

This is getting a bit meta, so let's step back from the 3rd person references.

I've used the word 'simple' repeatedly in this post, but if it were simple, everyone would do it, and this post would be superfluous. 

The truth is, it's far from simple. If you try to apply any of the ideas above and you fail, please know that you're not alone. You probably will fail in the beginning, and that's okay. Trying is what it's all about. A big part of closing the knowing-doing gap is trying things and figuring out what works for you. It could be bundling different pairs of activities, or committing your future self to things using different devices.

If you've made it this far, well done, and thank you. I've got just one more question, one I'd like to leave you with: 

What will you try this week? 

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