Knowing is Easy — Doing is Much More Difficult (Maybe “The” Lesson of Switch)

“Knowledge does not change behavior.”
(Jerry Sternin, working for Save the Children).
Quoted in Switch: How To Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath.

I have really been struck with the lessons that I learned — or maybe, the truths that were reinforced – in Switch. In fact, to borrow a phrase from Susan Scott’s Fierce Leadership, nearly everything that I learn, from anywhere/everywhere, really is simply a matter of the “fricking obvious.”

What the Heath brothers tell us is that habit/automatic pilot is “easy.” It’s going off of automatic pilot that is very, very difficult. Here’s a quote from the book:

Self-control is an exhaustible resource… Much of our daily behavior is more automatic than supervised, and that’s a good thing because the supervised behavior is the hard stuff. It’s draining.
We burn up self-control in a wide variety of situations: managing the impression we’re making on others; coping with fears; controlling our spending; and many, many others.
When people try to change things, they’re tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic, and changing those behaviors requires careful supervision by the Rider. The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control.
Change is hard because people wear themselves out… What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.

And they also say, in their imagery of the Rider (who thinks rationally – “If I understand this intellectually, I will change”) and the Elephant (who thinks “emotionally” – “I have to feel like changing”), that “knowledge does not change behavior.” This is truly “fricking obvious.” Everyone knows that we should floss our teeth every day. Every supervisor knows that he/she should catch an employee doing something right, reinforce positive behavior more than criticize what needs to be changed; every smoker knows that smoking is bad for their health. The “knowing” is already a done deal. But the change, the switch itself, the doing, the actual changing, is so very, very difficult.

It is such a universal reality that there is a name for this problem: the “knowing-doing” gap. Check out this article from Fast Company in 2000, Why Can’t We Get Anything Done? by Alan M. Webber. It refers substantially to the book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. (Here is Bob Morris’ review of this book).  And here is the first of sixteen rules from the article:

Rule #1. Doing something actually requires … doing something!

The Heath brothers say that to succeed at the doing – in other words, to actually make the switch/embrace and implement the change — you have to stack the deck in favor of change.

Make small steps. Overload “convenience.” In the book, they recommend that you actually put 1% milk in your refrigerator, and never put whole milk in your refrigerator. We drink what is conveniently available. Again from the book:

How do you get Americans to start drinking low-fat milk? You make sure it shows up in their refrigerators… People will drink whatever is around the house… you don’t need to change drinking behavior. You need to change purchasing behavior.

So, if you don’t floss your teeth, buy a small convenience store supply of floss. Put some by your bed, some in your bathroom, some atop your coffee maker, some by your computer, some in your car. Let floss stare at you every where you turn, and then actually floss. Make it convenient — take a small step until it becomes automatic.  When it becomes automatic, you have then actually changed; you have arrived at switch.

Find and use such convenience triggers with everything you are trying to change — at work, at home, everywhere.

Knowing is relatively easy. It is the doing that is so tough.

Start doing!

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