If you’re like me, there’s at least one behavior you want to start, stop, or improve. You make a plan, start the process with some excitement, and rely on willpower to carry you across the finish line to the “better” behavior you’ve chosen.
Keep reading to find out why this process often fails and how to fix it.
Even though you know what to do, you don’t actually do it consistently. It’s not your fault that you fall through the know-doing gap. Nor that your willpower seems MIA.
Crossing the Gap
“For many of us, we simply seem to be drowning in a sea of good intentions. Whether it’s about implementing a new way of working, recruiting new skills for our team, getting fitter, saving more money or simply slowing down,” writes Margot Andersen in Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap.
When we rely on willpower to get us from knowing to doing, it’s easy to see it as a personal failing when we aren’t able to make desired changes. We tell ourselves the story that if we just had more will and discipline then we’d be more successful. Trust me … It’s not your fault.
Here’s the problem: willpower is not only limited but “Will and discipline are wildly overrated,” writes Tony Schwartz in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance. Our one reservoir of willpower is depleted “by any act of conscious self-regulation — whether that’s resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or doing anything else that requires effort.” Basically, all the big and little decisions you make from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep.
The more we need to use our mind, “the less minding power we have,” to make choices, states Keller and Papasan in The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. This leads to decision fatigue and explains why you find yourself in front of the TV consuming mac and cheese and wine at 7 p.m. when you committed to eating a healthy dinner just 12 hours before. You have used up your mental energy making numerous decisions throughout the day and don’t have the energy needed to plan and cook a healthy dinner. Again, not your fault.
Without a doubt, you can make changes that last, but they depend less on using your conscious mind and more on co-opting the more primitive part of your brain where habits form. As you repeat and routinize behaviors, they increasingly recur without conscious effort and less energy expenditure. And “The less conscious willpower we have to expend to make things happen, the more effective we become,” writes Schwartz.
One of the best ways to help your brain get a running start on changing behavior is setting yourself up for success through preparation. If you want to see through your intention to eat a healthy dinner, prep healthy foods or meals on the weekends. If you want to walk at least 20 minutes a day, put everything you need (shoes, clothes, headphones, etc.) in one place where you can just grab them and go. Make it easier on yourself by preparing when your mental energy is high to guard against relying on willpower when it’s already depleted.
Whatever change you want to make, ask the question “what will it take for me to literally act on this desire?” What are the specific details I need to plan to bridge the gap between knowing and doing?