Knowing is not doing because, as John Maxwell said, “The greatest gap in the world is the gap between knowing and doing.”
We all have “reasons” for why we procrastinate on our most important tasks. Our pencils aren’t sharp enough to write, the installed software isn’t quite adequate to code, the weather’s too windy to go out for a run, etc. It’s easy to see through these reasons for what they are—excuses.
But, above all, there’s a well-disguised and legitimate-sounding excuse masquerading as a great reason to delay action—acquiring knowledge. We delay action because we tell ourselves we’re still learning how to do. But at some point, that learning becomes a crutch, an excuse for us to not do.
The perfect headstand
Here’s an exercise for you.
Sit in a relaxing child’s pose position. Lift your head while moving your elbows in front of your knees. Wrap a hand around each elbow without lifting your elbows off the floor. Then release the hold on your elbows to bring your hands together and interlock the fingers to form a triangle.
Next, lift your hips up and forward so your head lands into the palm of your hands. Plant the balls of your feet into the ground and push so your knees extend up away from the ground and your body is lifted into the air. Then, after walking your feet slowly towards your face, lift them into the air naturally, shifting weight onto your elbows. Finally, extend lower legs up above the waist and point your toes.
There, you have it. A perfect headstand. If the instructions above are unclear, or if you’d like to watch a video, go online to find hundreds of step-by-step headstand demonstrations.
So, do you have the instructions down to a pat? Great! Now, try doing it.
Assuming you’ve never done a headstand before, aren’t a gymnast, and or not under twelve, here are some truths: learning the steps to do a headstand will take you no time, but the actual practice of standing on your head can take a while. A great while. And for us some of us, our entire lifetime.
In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.
The knowing is not doing phenomenon has a name. It’s called the “Knowledge Action Gap.”
Knowledge Action Gap
Every single one of us has experienced the knowledge action gap in one form or the other.
We read about the benefits of waking up early, we’re convinced it’s beneficial, we’ve read every hack there is to becoming a lark, and yet when we open our eyes to the world it’s 8 a.m. Again.
Here’s another example. We know it’s not a great idea to stay up too late on a Sunday night, yet we can’t help binge watch our favorite show and show up to work bleary-eyed on Monday.
Knowing is not doing. We spend a great deal of time learning about stuff, or how to do stuff, but very few of us rarely graduate to the next stage of actually doing the things we spent all the time learning. And there are a few key reasons for this:
Too busy learning
We attend seminars, listen to podcasts, read books about the benefits of meditation but never sit on the mat because, for one, we are too busy attending seminars, listening to podcasts, or reading books about the benefits of meditation. Where’s the time to actually meditate?
Too much learning
Too much learning can often result in analysis/paralysis and decision fatigue over what to do.
Behavioral economists and psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the paradox of choice. Anyone who’s been to a cereal aisle in the grocery store can empathize. So. Many. Boxes.
It’s easy to pick a cereal when you have three to choose from. But when your choice is from fifty different brands, you end up feeling unhappy and dissatisfied even after you make the choice because a part of your brain doubts whether you made the right choice.
Fear of rushing
As a species, we have a hard time staying still and are afraid we may act rashly, with little thought. Behavioral psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “action bias.”
There are situations where the wait and see approach works best and inaction may be the best action in such cases. But let’s not confuse movement with action. True action is about progress. Everything else is just noise.
Fear of failure
This is probably the big one that keeps most projects from seeing the light of the day. Most of us hold our aspirations and hopes too close to our chest and rarely say it out aloud, because we’re afraid of failing and the subsequent judgment, both from ourselves and others. However, the bigger failure is if we do nothing, especially if we spend our whole lives preparing to do something.
So how do we bridge the knowledge action gap and move from knowing to doing?
Thought to Action
If you talk about it, it’s a dream. If you envision it, it’s possible. If you schedule it, it’s real. Tony Robbins.
In 1963, the advertising section of The Rhodesia Herald, Central Africa’s biggest newspaper, ran the following advertisement under the Club Notices section.
Jumping at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow.
If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the Parachute Club had folks who loved adventure.
Sure, jumping out of a parachute before undergoing training may be a leap too far for many of us, but there is something to be said about learning by doing. It’s based on what the Buddhists refer to as “Direct experience.”
Let’s say you start a meditation session comfortably seated on a cushion. You are at peace, focusing on your breath moving in and out of your body, when a painful sensation in your ankle interrupts your concentration. And before you know it, your mind is transported to the past.
Two days ago, as you were on the phone with a friend dissecting another mutual friend’s personal life drama, you’d almost tripped on the sidewalk, straining your ankle.
Now, on the meditation cushion, your tingling ankle suddenly evokes a plethora of memories, thoughts, sensations, and emotions. You worry that the sprained ankle may interfere with your upcoming trip, you’re unsure if you need an X-ray, the details about your friend’s life drama make you anxious about your role in the matter. Soon your thoughts have spiraled out of control until eventually the alarm goes off, bringing you back to the present.
Mindfulness through direct experience is the antidote to this kind of mental vacillation. And one way to develop mindfulness is through the practice of meditation.
Mindfulness meditation, as a practice, emphasizes “direct experience”—the opposite of the experience described above.
In the above scenario, for starters, you resist labeling the feeling in your ankle as “pain”. You simply experience the sensation without the need to verbalize or contextualize it. If that’s too hard, you may refer to it with these generic labels: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Next, you avoid getting into story-telling mode. You shy away from narratives. There is no room for because, ands, or what-ifs. It is just what it is.
You attempt to stay in the present without bobbing between the past and future, to experience the nanosecond that’s happening to you right at the moment. This, in a nutshell, is what direct experience looks like, and it is exactly the principle we need to transition from knowledge to action.
Instead of overthinking, or over-analyzing what we’re supposed to do, we just need to do it. The learning happens by doing.
Ultimately, it’s what you do with what you know that matters. Otherwise, the knowing doesn’t really count.
Here are some tips to go from learning to action:
Bridging the gap
Be truly motivated: It’s impossible to get any momentum on a task if you aren’t keen on it in the first place.
Start small: Trying to do too much too soon is a recipe for failure. If you’re starting with an exercise regimen, aim for five, or even just one pushup a day instead of 50.
Be consistent: Taking action every day is more important towards progress in the long run.
If you’ve ever played golf and someone told you all you need is to have a closed clubface at impact to hook your shot, you’ll fully empathize with the phrase, “simple in theory, difficult in practice.”
Just because we have access to information doesn’t necessarily mean we will act on it. Knowing is not doing. It’s one thing to know what to do, but another thing entirely to have the willingness, courage, and perseverance to actually do it.
Ultimately though, as Steven Pressfield said,
We want to work, not prepare for work.