The knowledge-action gap

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Recently I realized that knowledge is useless. I’ll tell you a little story of how I came to that conclusion. In January I was on this site called Goodreads. It’s a database of books. I use it to keep track of books I want to read, or research books that I’m interested in. When I was looking something up, I noticed a feature called the “2018 Reading Challenge”. I had decided to read more, so this was an opportunity. You could enter a number of books to read during the year. The idea was then to log each book to reach the commitment. 
I wasn’t reading a lot, so I decided to enter 20 books. It felt like a bold statement. As soon as I entered my commitment, I started seeing other’s reading challenges. One user, who by her picture appeared to be a teenage girl, had entered 60 books. In a moment of weakness, I re-committed — I entered 40 books. I doubled the amount in an attempt to seem like a reader.

I’ve managed to keep up to this challenge. At the time of writing this, I have read 45 books, 43 of them non-fiction (I have nothing against fiction, but I have focused on learning since becoming an entrepreneur).
A few books ago I was reading the Entrepreneurial Roller Coaster by Darren Hardy. I was loving it until he told a story of meeting a fan. He told Darren of how much he was reading to improve as an entrepreneur. Darren first commended the fan. But then he realized reading is irrelevant to improving: it is actions that matter. This hit me quite hard after I had read 30 books in 6 months. It’s an obvious conclusion, but it blindsided me. I realized something — I needed a system. Devouring books wasn’t going to be enough.

Why knowledge is important

All right, I concede, knowledge isn’t useless. Even if it’s just information bouncing around in your head. My mom used to tell me that knowledge is weightless. It might not help at any given moment, but it rarely hurts. 
One positive effect of reading a lot of connected subjects is a network effect. The brain is a network of neurons, which strengthen upon repetition. 
Even when you’re reading books on different topics, they’ll touch upon similar ideas. This creates repetition, which improves retention.

It becomes a stronger network of information. You get a deeper understanding of the entire field. You see how things are connected.

Knowledge becomes part of the filter through which we view the world. For me, this happened subconsciously during this experiment. I found myself explaining things that I didn’t realize I knew. It was like I was possessed by a nerdy ghost.

My main system for remembering what I read is revisiting summaries of the books I’ve read. In a perfect world, I would take proper notes while reading. However, some books I read in an audio format on the go — this makes notetaking hard. I do the next best thing: finding summaries online. For most non-fiction books, someone has already gone through the trouble of taking notes. I find these summaries and keep them in Evernote. Then I make a habit of reading them as soon as I’ve finished the book. I keep reading them regularly, with increasing time in between.

A system for change

But information on its own is limited. It might be interesting in itself. It can make you more interesting in conversation. You can use it in ways to improve or create things. But often, the things we learn won’t automatically make us behave in a way that’s consistent with those lessons. I call this the knowledge-action gap. If we want information to have an effect in our lives we need a way to close that gap; we need a system. That system is habits.

Imagine how many decision you make every day. Ride the bike or take the bus? Coffee or tea? Taking the stairs or the elevator? Think about all of the separate actions required to get to work. These are just the obvious examples. The fact is we make thousands of subconscious decisions. It happens through habits.

Habits automate much of our daily behavior. We don’t have to think about most of the things we do. This saves a lot of effort.

Habits are made up of a trigger, like smelling food. An action like, like eating the food. And a reward, like the taste of the food.

Habits are made up of a trigger, like smelling food. An action like, like eating the food. And a reward, like the taste of the food.

What does this have to do with knowledge? In my opinion, the most powerful way to create change through knowledge is shaping it into habits. Books can teach us all kinds of things, but the lessons won’t stick on their own. So when you’ve learned of an idea, principle or heuristic that you find valuable, see if you can find a way to make it a habit. What trigger can set it off? What behavior/way of thinking should that trigger produce? What reward should be coupled with that behavior?

For example, when I first read of the idea of a fundamental attribution error — I saw it as a valuable idea. A fundamental attribution error (FAE) is our bias towards how other people behave in contrast to ourselves. When someone else behaves in some way, we attribute it to how that person is. When we act similarly, we attribute it to external factors. We’re unreasonably judgemental most of the time — except towards ourselves. This is a useful idea — a way to reveal our own bias and free ourselves of judgment and frustration. But this knowledge won’t magically make me a better person. But if I make it into an everyday habit — it might. Whenever I feel a frustration creeping up against a stranger (the trigger), I remember FAE and assume the best of the person (the behavior/action). Then, I get a warm feeling inside — I’m a beautiful person (the reward). Creating habits is a lot of work. You have to inject some awareness in your life and, habits only form through repetition. But if you commit to it, anything is possible.

Axl Andersson