The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

September 9, 2015 - 8:57am

By Eric Bailey, M.M. F. T.

Counsellor and Supervisor, Catholic Family Services

As a child I took seven years of piano lessons. Some people talk about the dedication it takes to study for seven years. Others focus on how much people learn in that amount of time. I am reminded of the difference between knowing something and being able to do something. I can look at a sheet of music and pick out what the notes are. I know the difference between treble clef and base clef but there are maybe two songs that I can play (and Chopsticks is not one of them). I know a lot about basic things around music and the piano. The problem is, there is a difference between knowing and doing.

There are so many things I know. I know that if I get a good sleep, I’ll be more productive the next day. If I eat healthy food, I will feel better physically. If I do some exercise, I will feel better. So why do I stay up late, eat junk food and sit on the couch? There is a difference between knowing and doing.

I have sat with families, individuals and couples and they tell me, “I should …” and they are right. They should do this; they should do that. They know. I can tell them “Have you thought about …” and usually I will get a “Yes, we’ve thought about it.” We know so much. We know that we are grumpy some days. We know that we need to step back from an argument or that we should not call each other names when fighting. We know that we need to spend more time with our children. We know that we are doing things that are making our lives more difficult. We know! There it is again, the difference between knowing and doing.

How do we move from knowing to doing? How do we get past the regret of knowing better but failing to do?

I have three steps to help us move from knowing to doing. It is not easy, or natural, but when it starts to take hold, we will suddenly realize we have moved from knowing to doing.


The first part of moving from knowing to doing is to practice. Sometimes instead of practice this could be called muscle memory. Practice is how we change our instincts. Hockey players practice. What they practice is what they do in the game. Actors practice their lines and their delivery so that on stage when the pressure is on, the lines just happen. If you want to behave differently in your relationships the only way to start the change is to practice what you are going to do differently.

One of the ways I have practiced is that I have imagined what I would do. I have imagined how to respond when a deer runs across the road. Oddly enough the couple of times that it has actually happened, I reacted very much like my practice thoughts. You want to respond differently, imagine it in your head. Imagine taking that deep breath to help you stay calm. Imagine what you need to do to not get into a fight, like you have before. The brain uses imagination the say way that it uses the actual events to create neurological connections. Imagining will help your brain start to create alternatives to the things you have always done before.

Another form of practice is to do the things you want to do when you are not in a pressure situation. Rather than try and learn new ways to talk with your partner when you are in the middle of an argument, practice these skills while you are having a normal conversation. Practice reflective listening; practice giving positive feedback; practice treating your partner with respect.

A third way to practice is to remind ourselves of how we want to act as the problem situation starts to develop. When I was in school and preparing for tests I would be thinking about the different information before I would go into the room. I would remind myself to look over the test first to see what is most important. I prepared myself for exams to some extent (I could have studied more!). Before we go into a situation that we know is going to be stressful, we can remind ourselves of our strategy to handle the situation.

Outside guidance

While you may know a lot already, having a counsellor or a friend who will ask you if you are practicing and will encourage you in your practice can give you a boost. Having outside guidance can help you see things that you are not noticing and can give you another way to consider the problem. As a counsellor, I help people with their marriages, I help people with their children, and I help people with their individual problems. There are times when I need to ask outside advice, when I need another opinion because I cannot see past my own way of thinking with my wife or with my children. We all need help once in a while. The saying, "it takes a village to raise a child" exists because we all need help. We cannot see everything. Ask for help.

 Sometimes someone outside the situation can remind us of the changes we are trying to make. They can provide a course correction as we slip into old habits and old patterns. As we live our daily lives we fall into routines. Ever make a New Year's resolution? Maybe you said, "I am going to get into shape." Then you buy a gym membership and working out daily for a couple weeks. Suddenly you notice that it has been a while since you worked out. Life got busy. You did what you are used to doing and your life change did not stick. A friend can help you. A friend can remind you. A friend can hold you accountable. Ask for help.

Letting the attempt be awkward

Whenever we try something new, when we try something different, it may feel awkward. It is okay for it to not feel natural. Let the attempt be awkward. We tell our children all the time to just try it, to give it some time because they are just learning. What if we took our own advice? When I first went to university I tried out for the football team. I had never played organized football before. In running the patterns, how you placed your feet mattered, and how many steps you took mattered. I went home after my first day and practiced these things until it felt natural. The next practice my routes were crisper and felt better. I was still way to slow to make the team but that is a whole different problem.

I remember hearing a speaker talk about the idea, "Fake it 'til you make it." This is the idea of doing what you know to do, until it feels natural. It will feel natural. You will change your instincts, your reactions. Nobody is good at new behaviours right away. It takes time, repetition and doing to help you feel comfortable with the new behaviours.

Every once in a while, I sit down at the piano. I put my fingers in the right place and look at the music in front of me. I might even start to plunk out one or two notes before I conclude once again, I know more than I am doing.

Maybe I should practice more often.


Living a Happy Life
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