Knowing vs. Doing

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. He asked me for advice related to a few gastrointestinal issues he had been having. After delving into some details which I won’t cover here, I suggested that he needs to go gluten and dairy free. He was not surprised. In fact, it’s as if he expected it. Then he asked me a million-dollar question: how do you bridge the gap between KNOWING and DOING?

When it comes to advising people of healthy lifestyle this seems to be the crux of the matter. Health professionals traditionally focus on facilitating the KNOWING part of the equation. More education. If only we tell people what’s good for them they will do the DOING bit. Good in theory. Doesn’t really work in practice. Every doctor/nutritionist/personal trainer/physiotherapist has at one point found themselves banging their head against the brick wall in frustration and exclaiming into the skies: “Why, oh why, do they just not do what I told them is good for them???”

Why doesn’t KNOWING immediately translate into DOING?

Imagine, you want to be able to play Moonlight Sonata on the piano. At your current level you can bang out “Mary had a little lamb” with some aplomb. But this is not impressing your mates anymore. They have sophisticated tastes. They want to hear Rachmaninov, or at very least, Beethoven. You do some research (hit the first 5 links on Google) into what it takes to play the Moonlight Sonata: you need to be able to read sheet music, you need to play with both hands and all 10 fingers (unlike your previous piano experiences), you need to have the finger sensitivity and speed, you need to play some bits in forte (loud) and some bits in piano (soft), etc. etc. You set a date: January 1 or a Monday (whichever comes first). You buy the sheet music, you watch several YouTube videos of famous piano performances of this piece, you announce it on Facebook to keep yourself accountable, you warn the neighbours, you are ready and motivated. You KNOW what to DO. As the day draws near you get excited with anticipation. You even have a few more binges of “Mary had a little lamb” prior to your new life of Moonlight Sonata. That’s okay. As of January 1, you will ONLY play Beethoven. Finally, it’s here. You sit down to play, take a big breath, raise your elbows and settle your fingers on the keys… Then you realise something is missing. It’s not going according to plan. IT’S ACTUALLY REALLY FUCKING HARD. You have not done this before. You have not practiced.

This is a pretty ridiculous example and I can just see you rolling your eyes. Of course, you need to practice to play the piano. To get to the expert level you need to practice a lot, mere knowledge is not enough. Most of us have an understanding that developing any skills requires deliberate practice, often over a number of years, moving you step by step towards the pinnacle or the mastery of your chosen skill. I would suggest that healthy lifestyle in the current environment is also a skill that requires deliberate PRACTICE.

The (simplified) conclusion of the famous study on violinists, chess grandmasters and athletes by Prof Ericsson was that expert performers in any field tend to accumulate around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in their chosen skill. Let’s say you have been eating cornflakes for breakfast for the last 30 years. That’s 7 days a week x 52 weeks x 30 years = 10,920 cereal breakfasts. Congratulations, you are an expert. Eating breakfast out of the box comes to you as easily as brushing your teeth. The DOING is easy. You have PRACTICED it to perfection.

Then one day you decide to start cooking eggs for breakfast to increase your morning nutrients to above zero, ensure satiety, and save money on the hanger-fueled morning tea frenzy at the bakery. You KNOW this is a more healthful choice than cornflakes. The knowledge and motivation will help you get started on Monday. But it won’t help you 2 weeks down the track when it is still hard. After 14 days of eating eggs for breakfast you are still practicing. You are an expert in cornflake-eating but you are still a complete novice when it comes to this egg thing. The skill is not there, it’s not automatic. Even after 3 rounds of Whole 30 (that’s 90 breakfasts!) you still have a long way to go.

So what’s in the gap between KNOWING and DOING? It’s PRACTICE. It’s hard, labourious, sometimes awkward. You are constantly learning what works and what doesn’t. Preparation makes it easier. Enjoying it (dopamine reinforcement of the new pathway) makes it easier. Changing your environment to enable the new skill makes it easier. Recognising that it will take you a long time to make it feel as effortless as pouring cereal into a bowl makes it easier.

Every time we do anything we practice. It makes sense to choose what we practice every day carefully.