Woman drowning
Illustration: Guy Billout
Ugh! I'm so full, I can't breathe!" says Rose as she finishes her cheeseburger. "And I've got to lose weight. ... I think I'll have the crème brûlée." Across the table, her oncologist friend, Linda, lights up, handling the stress of treating cancer patients by smoking like a chimney. Meanwhile Barb is complaining about her 27-year-old son, Randy. "If he doesn't get a job and move out soon," she says, "I don't know what I'll do." Rose and Linda know what Barb will do—she'll keep cooking and cleaning for Randy until she dies of old age.

In their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton discuss why our actions often don't match our ideals, and what we can do about it. Although the authors' research is drawn from the corporate world, I read the book as a self-help guide, looking for ways to stop perpetuating behavior I know is bad for me: postponing work, playing addictive computer games, eating hotel minibar food that hardens my arteries and costs more than its weight in enriched uranium. If you're a cognitive dissonance sufferer like Rose, Linda, Barbara, and me, try these dos and don'ts that I've adapted from Messrs. Pfeffer and Sutton for closing the knowing-doing gap:

Don't Substitute Talk For Action

Mike calls me every few weeks to say, "I need to talk to you about my girlfriend. I've been talking to a lot of her friends, and we should talk about what they've been talking about. Maybe she and I should come talk to you together."

Talk, talk, talk. Mike is tolerating his awful relationship by creating storms of verbiage that make him think he and his girlfriend are making progress, even though they aren't. He's not alone. Substituting talk for action is perhaps the most common way we fall into the knowing-doing gap. Many corporate teams spend so much time creating strategies and mission statements, they don't actually implement anything. The same goes for individuals. We plan, consider, discuss, brood—and count the word-spinning hours as "action." We think we're working toward our goals when in fact we're spinning our wheels.

Do Hit Your Mute Button

If you're not sure whether you're in danger of talking your dreams to death, try something for me. Today, whenever you mutter your usual reminders about cleaning the closet, learning to tango, or finding a new job/boyfriend/oven thermometer, make a note of it on a piece of paper. At the end of the day, read over your list and ask yourself, "Did I do anything that created a measurable change toward each goal?" If not, you're substituting words for action. You can close the knowing-doing gap only by focusing on observable change—not plans, comments, or excuses. You don't have to build Rome in a day; small tweaks are more sustainable, and thus more effective, than attempts at total revolution.


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