Why You Know Better, but You Don’t Do Better
“Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied.”
- Dale Carnegie
I’m lactose intolerant. I’ll spare you the details of what exactly happens when I consume dairy, but it isn’t pretty. Yet, last week I waited in line at the McDrive for 20 minutes to get a McFlurry with M&M’s. I’d had a rough day and decided to “treat” myself with something tasty.
Can you guess what happened when I came home and downed that McFlurry in 30 seconds? It was ugly.
I am not the only one who knows better but doesn’t do better. I am surrounded by brilliant people who do the most stupid things. Not out of ignorance, oh no. We, humans, seem to be perfectly capable of knowing what is right for us — and then do the exact opposite.
We know we shouldn’t respond to the dramatic text our ex sends, but still, we mysteriously end up in shouting matches with them in the middle of the night.
We know life is more manageable after a good night of sleep, but we still watch just one more episode of that addictive tv show and then get angry when we can’t get out of bed the next morning.
We know healthy foods make us feel strong. And yet, the pizza delivery guy knows us by name. And even though every study proves working out releases the happiness neurotransmitter endorphin, we still rather relax in a way that doesn’t involve physical activity.
We know our jobs are sucking the life out of us, but we don’t do anything to change the situation.
So how come so many of us know better but don’t do better? Why is there such a massive gap between knowing and doing?
Behavior is a very complex interplay between genes and environment, and there isn’t one one-size-fits-all explanation for why it is so hard to do the thing. There are many obstacles you have to deal with when you change your behavior, here is how you can overcome four of the most common ones;
- Old habits die hard — our brains don’t like change.
- There is an information gap — we’re not sure how to do the right thing.
- Issues with executive functions — we need to improve our capacity.
- Issues with motivation — do we really want to do the right thing?
Old habits die hard — our brains don’t like change
We’re creatures of habit. Habits make our lives easier. When we don’t have to think about the small stuff, our brains can focus on more important things. The more often we repeat a behavior, the stronger and more efficient the neural network supporting that behavior becomes.
So if you hit snooze every morning, it’s not even a conscious decision anymore. When your ears signal to your brain that the alarm is going, your neurons fire so fast that your finger taps that snooze button before you even consciously hear the alarm.
That is why it is so hard to stop snoozing. Suddenly your brain has to fire different neurons for different behavior. These neural connections are weak and ineffective. So your brains do what they do best; hit that snooze button and hide under the covers for just five more minutes.
No matter how much you know that it is better to get out of bed immediately, your neural networks rather do what they always did.
How to overcome this:
Fortunately, we’re not just slaves to our neurons, and there is a thing called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity means that we can change our neural networks. We can make existing ones weaker and new ones stronger.
So every time you ignore that snooze button, you weaken the existing neural network. And every time you get out of bed immediately after hearing the alarm, your new neural network becomes stronger.
Doing the right thing becomes easier the more you do it. And if you keep doing it, it becomes a habit, and your neurons will fire with delight.
What I did:
I’ve known for a long time that I had to change my diet. I have IBS, and processed food is a major trigger. But picking healthy recipes, getting groceries, and spending my precious time cooking always felt like too much trouble. So when my neurons reached for another frozen meal in the supermarket, it was hard to stop them. Even faster was the neural network for ordering food online.
Just the thought of taking longer than 10 minutes to prepare a meal made my neurons howl dramatically. Fifteen months ago, I decided to take out a subscription to an expensive fresh food delivery service. I pick out three recipes every week and get the fresh ingredients delivered to my doorstep.
And it is fresh. Potatoes still have the dirt sticking to them. I have to wash, peel, cut, dice, and slice everything. The first couple of weeks, it took me forever to prepare a meal, and I always had to drag myself into the kitchen.
But now, fifteen months later, my brains have developed a robust neural network for fresh food prepping. So no matter how tired or depressed I am, I always prepare my meals, with my neurons firing and humming in unison. It took me a couple of weeks, but now, doing the right thing is easy. Ordering fast food makes my neurons — and gut — feel uncomfortable. So even though Dominoes may be tempting, in the end, I always choose fresh.
There is an information gap — we’re not sure how to do the right thing
There can be a gap between knowing and doing because we’re not clear on how to do the thing because we’re missing information.
We know eating healthy food is good for us. But what exactly does that look like? Do you need to eat lettuce all day, every day? Is sugar forbidden from now on? When is food exactly unhealthy?
We understand exercise is good for us. But what type of activity is right for your body? Do you need special equipment? Are you using it correctly? When should you feel or see results?
Doing better when you know better is difficult when you’re unsure what doing better exactly means.
It goes both ways: it is hard to stop doing the wrong thing when you’re not sure what you need to do that. What do you need to stop getting into fights with your ex? Do you need to change your phone number? Block theirs? Have a chat with a mediator?
How to overcome this:
The good news about this information gap obstacle is that you can solve it by educating yourself and making a plan.
Write down what you want to change and what you need to know or do to reach your goals.
Can’t you stop checking your phone? Maybe an app or a time lock container can help.
Want to escape your 9-to-5 but don’t know how? Start making calculations, look for alternative careers, and talk to people who managed to quit their jobs.
If simply “willing” ourselves to stop doing undesired behavior worked, we’d all be living our dream lives. You need to make a plan and find a strategy that works for you.
What I did:
I started smoking in my teens. At first, it was a casual-cool thing to do, but before I knew it, I was addicted. And happily in denial. I told myself I choose to smoke, and I could quit at any time.
The more people pointed out how unhealthy my smoking habit was, the more I believed I loved it. I made it part of my identity. I wasn’t one of those boring nagging health freaks; I was a fun rebel.
And this fun rebel was out of breath every time
she climbed stairs. I always smelled like smoke. My doctor warned me that the combination of being over 35, smoking, and using hormonal contraceptives increased my risk of getting cardiovascular diseases like blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. And because tobacco is heavily taxed in my country, I was going bankrupt too.
So when I was 32, I knew I had to kick the habit. I smoked my last cigarette, threw out my remaining packs, and swore never to smoke again. An hour later, I was going through my trash to recover my precious cigarettes.
I knew I had to stop smoking. I wanted to stop smoking. But simply not smoking seemed impossible.
My doctor helped me to make a plan. She prescribed me the drug Chantix, which reduced my cravings and the pleasure I got from smoking. She told me to join an online community for support. It also helped that my mother and sister stopped smoking too.
This plan worked. I had to quit taking Chantix because of the side effects, but my online community and my family gave me enough tools to resist my cigarettes. I smoked my last cigarette six years ago.
Issues with executive functions — we need to improve our capacity
The Understood Team describes very clearly on their website what executive functioning is:
Some people describe executive function as “the management system of the brain.” That’s because the skills involved let us set goals, plan, and get things done. When people struggle with executive function, it impacts them at home, in school, and in life.
There are three main areas of executive function. They are:
1. Working memory
2. Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking)
3. Inhibitory control (which includes self-control)
Executive function is responsible for many skills, including:
- Paying attention
- Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
- Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion
- Understanding different points of view
- Regulating emotions
- Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)
All people with ADHD or autism have issues with their executive functions. But it is not just the neurodivergent whose management system of the brain goes AWOL. We live in a society that makes it increasingly hard to focus on one thing. Every day our brains have to deal with an overload of information and options. No wonder we know how to do better but have issues with seeing things through.
How to overcome this:
For both neurotypicals and neurodivergent, it is possible to improve executive functions (EF). Studies show that a lot of our issues with EF are triggered by Westernized diets and physical inactivity. Therefore improving our EF can be done relatively simple by doing the following:
- Have a plant-based diet
- Prayer, Tai chi, or meditation
- Positive feelings and self-affirmation
- Visiting nature
There are also many strategic ways to strengthen your EF:
- Learn how to set attainable sub-goals
- Block access to short term-temptations
- Use peer monitoring
- Establish fixed daily routines
- Be aware of the short-term gain of task avoidance
Therapy can also improve your EF. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to strengthen EF in adults with ADHD.
A note of caution: neurodivergent people can definitely improve their EF but shouldn’t strive for neurotypical-like EF. Our brains are just wired differently. Don’t compare your progress with other people, but look at your improvement over time and see how your EF is better than a year ago.
What I did:
All my life, I have struggled with my EF. I always thought I was lazy or stupid because I couldn’t do things everybody else could. When I was 32, I was diagnosed with both autism and ADHD. The management system of my brain has always been hilariously understaffed and spectacularly unfit for its job.
The most significant change for me was accepting that my brain wasn’t “normal,” and my EF had special needs. I changed the job description for my management system, and I’ve been doing a lot better since.
I use different techniques to improve my EF, like limiting my screen time, putting my phone in another room when I’m writing, scheduling breaks instead of forcing myself to sit still for an hour, and doing deep breathing exercises while meditating.
I’ll never be “normal,” but changing my diet, exercising more, and using different strategies have improved my executive functions. And because of that, I’m less stressed and happier.
Issues with motivation— do we really want to do the right thing?
For years, I knew I should quit smoking. But I didn’t. When it is tough to do the right thing, it might be that you are not motivated enough.
In the study Why We Don’t “Just Do It,” Understanding the Intention-Behavior Gap in Lifestyle Medicine, Professor Mark D. Faries looks at why it is so hard for patients to adopt a healthy lifestyle. An essential factor in their success is motivation.
His study shows something we instinctively know: it is hard to do the right thing if we don’t really want to. This phenomenon is called the intention-behavior gap. Even though we have the best intentions, our behavior shows otherwise.
We all know fast food is unhealthy, but most of it is tasty AF and makes us feel good in the short-term, so we keep eating it — despite our intentions to eat healthily.
One key factor in narrowing the intention-behavior gap is motivation. The reason it is so easy for me to prepare healthy meals is I started to enjoy it. And after a couple of weeks, I noticed a significant improvement in my stamina, mood, and concentration.
The same goes for not smoking; I haven’t relapsed because I enjoy being a non-smoker. I am grateful for how much my overall health has improved since I quit, and I don’t want to jeopardize that by having just one cigarette.
How to overcome this:
You are a smart person, which is why you know that some of your behavior is unhelpful, and you want to change it. But if you can’t seem to do the right thing, it is time to take an honest and hard look at your motivation.
Do you want to do the right thing because you are supposed to or because you genuinely want it? What are you gaining by not doing the right thing? Why do you want to change your behavior?
Diving into these questions will help you discover and change your motivation. One way to modify your motivation is to get disturbed. Tony Robbins always says that you are not disturbed enough with your current situation if you're not changing.
Getting disturbed is easy. Sit down, close your eyes, and think about what happens if you don’t change your behavior. Exaggerate a little. What will your life look like in a year if you keep hanging out with your ex? How will you feel if you keep eating fast food? How much weight will you gain? What will your life look like in 10 years if you stay in your shitty job?
By thinking about this worst-case scenario, you will start to feel uneasy. And every time you want to fall back to your unhelpful behavior, all you have to think about is that feeling.
What I did:
Because my 9-to-5 isn’t making me happy, I have a side hustle, and I study psychology. And that is hard. After I’m done with my job, I want to collapse on the couch and do nothing. I don’t want to go upstairs to spend another two hours behind a screen.
I rationalize that I need rest and relaxation — which I do. But lying lethargically on the couch isn’t the same as relaxing. Procrastination isn’t the same as “taking time for myself.”
So I get disturbed. I want to lay on the couch? That’s fine. But that means I’ll have to postpone my exam, so getting my degree will take longer. This means I won’t be able to work as a psychologist, so I’ll have to stay in a field that doesn’t make me happy.
I don’t want to write? That’s fine. I can quit my side hustle any day and dick around on the Internet in my spare time. Get high scores in Candy Crush. But quitting my side hustle also means that money will be tight, and I’m fully dependent on my day job.
Closing my eyes and imagining that I’ll be having the same job in 5 years is enough to motivate me to go upstairs and turn on my computer. And once I sit there in my tiny cozy office and work on the future, I dream of, I enjoy what I do.
And that is how I successfully narrow the gap between knowing and doing:
- I build new neural networks
- I make a plan
- I strengthen my executive functions
- I stay motivated and enjoy the process
And now and then, I grab a McFlurry, hang on the couch, don’t exercise, and ignore my responsibilities. And don’t beat myself up for it. Because to err is human, and to forgive is divine.
Sources and further reading:
P. Gray & D. F. Bjorklund (2018). Psychology, eighth edition. Chapter 4: The Neural Control of Behavior. Worth Publishers
L. R. Squire & E. R. Kandel (2000). Memory — From Mind to Molecules. Scientific American Library
M. D. Faries (2016). Why We Don’t “Just Do It” Understanding the Intention-Behavior Gap in Lifestyle Medicine. American Journal of Lifestyle Magazine (5): 322–329.
S. E. Sprich et al. (2010) Description and Demonstration of CBT for ADHD in Adults. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice 17 (1): 9–15
Understood.org. What is Executive Function?
Psychologytoday.com. Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function
Psychologytoday.com. Self-regulation Failure (Part 1): Goal Setting and Monitoring