Part 1: An introduction to knowing and not doing
How is it that you can know exactly what to do and yet you still don’t do it?
Years can slip by in the state of knowing and not doing. Decades can. Lifetimes can.
Knowing and not doing is a state humans often dwell in. It can take the form of career or relationship stagnation, as well as arising at the everyday micro level of clearing out those drawers or uninstalling Instagram. Humans are great at deferring things—and the amount of insight we have into why we shouldn’t often seems not to make a lot of difference.
Evolved to do nothing
The insight/action gap—a specific variant on the general category of procrastination—might seem like a grand mystery about human nature: How could it be that creatures like us could so often know so much and do so very little? But if you want a grand answer, you probably don’t have to go much beyond the simple evolutionary pressure that says: I’m alive, it’s all good, change nothing. Changing things costs resources, and any use of resources could turn out to be a waste. Changing things often involves increased risk, or just less easily estimable risk. And so the thought/action gap naturally opens up.
Thinking and doing don’t cost the same. Minds get easily sucked into hyperactive patterns of imagining possible actions, and that hyperactivity tendency exists because it can be helpful for keeping us alive, without costing too much. Thinking “too much” often pays off, especially when the thinking involves mindreading about the possible actions other people (e.g. mates, competitors) might be about to take. Stopping before actual action is a useful default imperative in a context where resources are few and survival is precarious.
Obviously, that’s not us now. Excess resource availability at the individual level arguably now causes more problems than scarcity in post-industrial societies, and mortality isn’t mostly the problem, misery is. Risk is more amorphous now (because we care about more things that aren’t just life versus death), and safety nets may be slightly more prevalent than in our evolutionary past. So it makes sense that this long-evolved prior, “change nothing”, wouldn’t be serving us very well anymore.
So that’s a grand answer for you. What about less grand answers? Beyond the basics of that energy-saving “do nothing” default, I think the micro-answer, or rather the aggregate of them, is really the point here. In general, action or no action comes down to finely weighted probabilities.
The knife edge of pros and cons
Let’s take the example of a difficult relationship. You have years’ worth of accumulated insight into the problems. Maybe the insights have been multiplied and refined by therapy, individually and/or together. Over many weeks and months and years, you let things stay more or less as they were because you were prioritizing other things, or didn’t know quite where to start, or felt scared to. Just think of the millions of micro-weightings that have contributed, over the years, to helping inaction and no-change win out, even just infinitesimally, over the actions that could have genuinely either meaningfully improved the relationship or liberatingly ended it.
This kind of pattern doesn’t instil itself only in our personal lives; careers can be full of it too. Last summer I resigned from my university job designing and running a writing programme for grad students and postdocs, after three years of work that was radically underpaid and undervalued. I should have resigned sooner; probably I should have realized at the very beginning that the contractual terms were inappropriate.
I didn’t do nothing all those three years. Around the end of year 2, I applied to have the post regraded to a higher salary band, and was refused with some empty words about how much my work was in fact valued. That was deeply frustrating, but obviously I still spent a year not-resigning. I also spent that year not doing other things that would have been sensible for paving the way to what came after.
The things that kept me there doing almost nothing to change the situation weren’t total idiocy on my part; the brakes to change were effective precisely because they were partly good reasons for keeping on doing the same thing. How much I was learning from doing the work was a case in point. It was great to get the chance to design a whole writing programme from scratch and to refine it by witnessing how it helped and didn’t help the students and researchers it served. But it would also have been appropriate to do maybe a year’s learning under those contractual conditions, and then take my learning somewhere it would be more meaningfully valued by an employer or institutional client. What made sense initially stopped making sense long before I did anything to reflect that fact.
Another misleadingly good reason that kept me not taking action was the knowledge of being helpful to a large number of other people—the students and postdocs who without this programme would have had as little formal support for building structures and confidence for their academic writing as their predecessors. It was really hard suspecting (rightly, as it turned out) that the post wouldn’t be refilled and that a lot of what I was doing would just not happen if I left—and that therefore a couple of hundred people per year would be worse off, if I decided that my time was worth more than this. A very common structure for inaction is convincing ourselves that other people matter more than we do—even though when we’re getting exploited, that probably means other people are too (e.g. the next person who does this job). This instinct is closely related to the one that says “my problems aren’t bad enough to take seriously” (which I discuss in the eating disorder context here) and “here’s good enough” (explored via the concept of optimizing for what we care about but getting trapped in deceptive “locally optimal solutions” here).
Coming back to the evolutionary bias against risk—the inaction wasn’t really about risk in any tangible sense. The pay was so low that even a tiny amount of extra coaching or other work would easily fill the shortfall, and the CV/prestige points had been earned long ago. But I suppose there was still a vague lurking sense of “but I don’t know what else changing this will change”—a defaulting to “at least I know how life is with this in it”.
Bridging the gap
So, what finally made me do it? Actually, a major spur was listening to my mother and stepfather talking about upping the hourly rate for their personal assistant, cleaner, and gardener, and realizing that all of them were already earning more than I was. Maybe that doesn’t reflect brilliantly on me, but the realization that 10 years of higher education and another 10 of postdoctoral research plus academic training experience had—if I let this situation continue—basically increased my earning capacity by zero was a serious moment of “OK, this can’t carry on”.
In the end, everything crystallized around the little phrase “opportunity cost”. I had a sharper and sharper awareness of all the things I couldn’t do—things that earned more money than this, and things that were not at all about the money—because of the time and energy I was giving to this. It was less and less ignorable how many hours a week (all tracked on my timesheet) were sunk into this, not for no reward, but for personal (both emotional and material) rewards that felt increasingly out of whack with the degree of value that was being derived by the people I was helping, and by the material recompense it was translated into. This was the institution’s fault, and essentially I spent three years trying to persuade a venerable university that writing support for humanities scholars needs taking seriously. I failed, as most people (though not all) have failed at most things (though not all) they’ve tried to change in this university. It was time to cut loose, well before that third summer—but by then at the very latest.
And so I sent my resignation email to my manager, and there was sadness in that ending. I felt angry that I had to stop doing something that was so useful to so many students just because the pay and prospects were so poor. I felt a little tearful when I ran the final writing event and was unable to tell the participants what would be happening after I’d left. I felt fairly cynical about the prospects of this being a protest resignation that actually does something—though I put a lot of work into that email, and I think it got through a little bit.
There was also great relief, and a sense of power, in doing this thing that had for so long needed doing—but had needed doing urgently only for my own sake. My last day at work happened to be my mother’s 70th birthday, so it was nice to echo her threshold crossing with my own version.
It took me a few more months to really start seizing the opportunities that a tiring, complex, though personally rewarding job had been robbing me of, but in the end I began to.
Do I wish I’d done all this a year sooner? Maybe. I think I really needed to get certain that this was the only sensible option—and it’s frightening how long it can often take us to conclude we really are sure enough.
It’s not about not-knowing
Anyway, the point is, there are all kinds of factors that keep us accepting things we shouldn’t—and ignorance is often the least of them. In this case, certainly, I can’t blame ignorance. I signed that contract in my right mind (though distorted by many years of being on similarly bad university salaries); I submitted the timesheets and the payment totals every month; I knew (roughly) what the resignation process was. The basic structure of knowing what to do and why and not doing it was in place throughout.
So, there was no magic to any of this, and no mystery about it at the time, really. There were just all the crucial prosaic everyday details that feed into answering the question: Does this thing that isn’t working very well get dislodged now, or does it survive another month, year, or decade?
In the second half of this post, I’ll offer you eight structural reasons why the insight/action gap comes into being. And, to try to stave off the irony of trying to merely understand the insight/action gap better, for each I’ll also give a suggestion for how to actually bridge it.
You can read on here. Or if you’re pausing here, I invite you to pay gentle attention to when and how you’re getting sucked into thinking and talking versus translating this into acting.