The Secret to Behavior Change

Plant and water seeds but let them sprout on their own

A client of mine who is a senior leader at a large organization often speaks about what he calls the “knowing-doing gap.” During every big change, he believes, there is a point where everyone knows what the change is, why it’s needed, and even how to do it — but that doesn’t mean they do it. I think the knowing-doing gap is every bit as true for personal change as it is for organizational change.

As I’ve written before, an easy trap to fall into is thinking that intellectually understanding something is the same thing as doing it. Being an expert on meditation isn’t the same thing as meditating. If you are a coach, teacher, or manager, you can convince yourself that because you’ve explained something to your people over and over again and they “get it,” they’ll do it. Not always true.

Whether you are leading yourself or others, your job is to plant seeds. But the insight that allows those seeds to sprout has to happen on it’s own.

How can you go from knowing to doing? You need to set up the conditions for insight. People must come to change on their own. Generally this is about feeling both the motivation to do the thing and the motivation to continue doing it. Too much pressing — either on yourself or others — and there’s no space for this kind of genuine, felt insight to occur.

Here’s the ever-wise Thich Nhat Hanh:

“You cannot force [something] on others. You may force them to accept your idea, but then it is simply an idea, not a real insight. Insight is not an idea. The way to share your insight is to help create the conditions so that others [or you] can realize the insight — through their (or your) own experience, not just believing what you or someone else says. This takes skillfulness and patience.”

Whether you are leading yourself or others, your job is to plant seeds. But the insight that allows those seeds to sprout has to happen on it’s own. You can water those seeds with more information and by creating an environment conducive to insight, but insight itself can’t be forced.

For example, I can write and speak about meditation for hours and hours. But what keeps me coming back to the cushion is a much more visceral felt insight I had on a specific day during a specific session. That had to happen on it’s own time and occur in a place that logic doesn’t touch. My job was to create the conditions for it to happen (learning, practicing regularly, attending talks by wise teachers) and be patient (my insight happened after 6 months or regular practice…either forever or really quickly depending on who ask). But once the insight occured, I knew — really knew — the benefits of meditation.

The point is this: behavior change is hard. Our controlling, logical, human brains want to take the reigns and make it happen. But this is another example of when the best thing to do is get out of your (or your people’s) way. This doesn’t mean doing nothing. It means doing just enough. Not forcing the insight but creating the space for it to happen on it’s own. More and more I think that’s the job of a good coach; whether you are coaching yourself or someone else. Creating the space and conditions to let things happen.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and human nature. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly newsletter here.