The Knowing-Doing Gap

Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap
Translating Great Ideas
into Everyday Actions

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

There is a tremendous gap today between knowing and doing. We know so much more than we do. Isn’t that true for you? We know more about healthy eating and exercising than we put in practice. We know more about listening, being patient, validating, being affirmative, and other relationship skills than we do, especially when we’re under pressure and feel stress. If we were to measure our level of actual performance against our level of knowledge, we always under-perform. We always over-know. This is normal and as it should be. Yet sometimes the lag in the transfer of knowledge to action becomes too much of a gap. How big is the gap in your life? How much of a gap can you endure?

Why is this? What causes this? What can we do about closing the gap?

Let What’s In the Mind Be in the Muscles

I first became aware of this Knowing-Doing Gap when I was involved in the research for the wealth building training. As I researched the literature of the field, almost everything was written in terms of principles, statements that generalized the basic knowledge of the field into summary declarations. As I read the literature of the field and came across wonderful insights, I would think, “Great ideas!” “Yes, great ideas. If only we could get ourselves to practice them.”

A little later I was reading about the importance of building up capital for investment, and that the beginning stage of any wealth building system involves the use of capital. You can’t get money to work for you if you don’t have some capital to work with. Then, almost accidentally, I took one of those great wealth building principles, one that was so simple and yet so profound and spoke it out loud. “Capital is built by saving a small percentage of one’s income on a regular basis.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out!” I thought in the back of my mind as I repeated the insightful statement out loud. And that meta-comment about the great idea reminded me. I already had this knowledge in my brain. But was I acting on it? Was I actually using and implementing this knowledge? No. So why not? What was stopping me from doing what I know? Knowing was already in place, what stopped it from activating my motor programs so that I could actually use that knowledge and turn that knowledge into power? What was creating the Knowing-Doing Gap?

“Maybe I don’t believe it?” I thought. “No, but I do. I do believe it.”

“But do I really?” I wondered? So speaking out loud again, I used the words,

“I believe that capital is built by saving a small percentage of my income on a regular basis.”

Saying that felt different from saying the first statement. It felt more personal. And it felt like it was more in my muscles and not only in my mind. So I said it again and again each time imagining that I was saying it to someone or a group and doing so in a way that was fully congruent and believable. And as I did, the words began to change. The words become even more personal and the feeling of the statement began to feel more integrated into my body.

“I believe that capital is built by saving a small percentage of my income on a regular basis.”

“I believe that I can build capital by saving a small percentage of my income on a regular basis.”

“I believe I will build capital as I save at least a small percentage of my income every week.”

It was funny how saying these words seemed to make the ideas more and more real within my neurology. But then again, that’s what a belief is. Unlike a general idea or principle, it is a command to my nervous system. I also knew that repetition activates neurology and runs neuro-pathways and so I repeated the belief statement several more times. When I finally heard myself use the term “will” as in, “I will build capital…” I realized that I was now uttering some more and other than a just a belief, I was uttering a decision. It was at that moment that I consciously turned the statement into a volitional statement of choice.

“From this day forward I will build capital as I save at least 10% of my income every week.”

Saying it like that seemed to invoke even more feelings. So I tried it on with different phrases indicating that the idea was of my own personal choice and volition:

“From this day forward I choose to build capital for my own personal wealth building plan as I save at least 10% of my income every week.”

“From this day forward I will refuse to put off building capital for my own personal wealth building plan and I will save at least 10% of my income every week.”

Saying this seemed to involve my feelings and neurology even more. It then dawned on me what I was doing. I was turning an abstraction principle into a belief into a decision and into actual neurological feelings. So I wondered, What am I feeling?

“Planning my wealth building plan by building capital for investment by saving a little bit every week makes me feel a little anxious about things … and excited … and curious … and hopeful … and confident …”

At first the emotional awareness came slow, but as I got into it, feelings began to rush in and as they did I felt a neurological push from within to do something. Ah, I had activated my motor programs with sufficient neurological energy that I now felt as if it was time to act.

I questioned myself, So what is one thing I could do today that would really give some reality to this idea?

“Well, I could write this down as my weekly goal.”

And what is one other thing I could do?

“I could ask a friend to hold me accountable to this by giving him permission to ask me about it.”

With this, I suddenly I realized that I had come down the levels of the mind with what I was doing. I had started by recognizing a great idea or concept of some piece of knowledge in my head and I have transformed that knowledge so that it took the form of a belief, then of a decision, a feeling, and finally into an action, into a muscular response. In this way, the bare-bones of the Mind-to-Muscle Pattern was born. Since then I have used the pattern to mind-to-muscle all kinds of great ideas in my head so that they become muscle memory in my body–my way of being in the world.

The Mind-to-Muscle Pattern utilizes the power of language to represent step-by-step the levels of the mind that offers us a bridge from a concept down to belief, decision, state, and finally to action. But the process doesn’t end there. We then begin cycling through the process over and over. This taps into and utilizes the power of repetition to habituate a new way of operating. As a neuro-semantic pattern, we activate more and more of the body as we bring a conceptual state down and translate it into other words so that it can operate at the lower levels. That’s why the linguistic phrases almost always change as we bring the idea down.

And by looping back up and adding in other meta-levels (identification, expectation, pleasure, outcome, intentionality, etc.), we set up a spiraling of the mind so that it embeds the everyday actions inside of multiple frames of meaning.

How We Extend the Gap between Knowing-Doing

Conceptual knowledge fills our minds with great ideas. Most of us know lots of truly great and inspiring ideas, ideas that are transformative, awe-inspiring, and fabulous. And in those moments when we spend time with such ideas, we live in a very different world. But then we come back to reality. And more often than not, we leave the life transforming ideas in the world of mind and do not bring them back with us to our everyday realities.

Why did we do this? Why do we not enrich our lives with them?

It seems so obvious that great ideas, insightful plans and intentions, and larger level perspectives ought to be transferred into our everyday thinking so that we enhance our performance level. So what prevents us from translating them into our neurological patterns? What holds us back from letting such in-form our way of being in the world?

Actually, lots of things.

Some of them have to do with operating from a confused map, a map that tricks us.  It comes from confusing true action with deceptive substitutions that only give the impression of doing.  We take a pre-action and consider it an actual action.  Some of the things that clog up the gap between Knowing and Doing have to      do with giving in to the inhibition of fear.  We become afraid and so inhibited from acting.  We freeze up, we become paralyzed.  Then there are the taboos that forbid and prevent us from taking action.  There are the structures or lack of structures that increase the gap-systems that don’t allow the translation from Knowing to Doing.  And finally there are more personal things like failing to be action oriented, excuses, etc.

Other things that extend the gap between knowing and doing have to do with giving in to the inhibition of fear. We become afraid and so we feel inhibited from taking acting. We freeze up, we become paralyzed. In this case, we know but we cannot do. Another frame is getting in the way. The fear evokes a higher frame about the knowing. We set a fear frame that says, “Danger. Too risky. Avoid.” It is that frame that makes what we know further and further from what we do.

People who suffer from this one think that if they only know more. So they buy another book, attend another training, sign up for another course, consult with another coach, etc. But this also broadens the knowing-doing gap. As they are learning more, they are still not doing. The problem is not in knowing and so the solution will not be in more learning. The problem is the fear frame. The refusal to face the fear and just do it. The problem is the refusal to take an intelligent and calculated risk.

Then there are the taboos that forbid and prevent us from taking action. There are the structures, or lack of structures, that increase the gap–systems that don’t allow the translation from knowing to doing. Do you have a structure set up for acting on your knowledge about exercise, fitness, eating right, saving money, etc.? You don’t? Then no wonder the gap keeps widening between knowing and doing! And finally there are more personal things like failing to be action oriented, excuses, etc.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (2000) have identified the following:

Pseudo-action Deceptions:

1) Thinking that knowing is sufficient for success.

2) Thinking that talking (meetings, committees, reports, etc.) is action.

3) Thinking that measuring things is action or contributes to performance.

4) Thinking that making a decision is the same as taking action.

5) Thinking that planning is the same as action.

Clogging the Gap by giving in to the Inhibitions of Fear:

1) Fearing complexity, lack of clarity about what specifically to do.

2) Fearing risk, mistakes, errors, and imperfection.

3) Fearing competition, focusing on what others are doing and trying to get ahead.

4) Fearing the new, the different, the unpredictable, falling back on precedence (standard operating procedures) and so mindlessly defaulting to what you’ve always done.

Taboos that prevent and forbid action:

“Don’t make a fool of yourself.”

“Don’t risk making a mistake, it’s too dangerous.”

“Don’t be imperfect.”

Lack of structure for action:

No structure for following up.

No structure for rewarding learning from mistakes.

No structure for rewarding risk taking.

Personal items predisposing us from taking action:

Not being action oriented in our person, being inactive and passive.

Making excuses and letting excuses stop us.

Discounting small actions.

Deceived by Pseudo-Actions

Question: When is an action not really an “action?”

Answer: When the action does not actually lead to performance.

Many people extend the Knowing-Doing Gap by thinking that studying, reading, and learning alone is sufficient. It is not. Yet another book, workshop, training, or tape set will not in itself change anything. That will only fill the head with more knowledge. And it may very well be the best knowledge in the field. Yet, if you do not act on it, it will have the same effect as if your head was filled with the most worthless non-sense and useless information. Waiting until you “know it all” or have an “expert knowledge level” is one of the worst deceptions.

We have to get out there and make mistakes.

Yet, fear of making a mistake is yet another key way that many people widen the Knowing-and-Doing gap. They know but won’t do because they fear messing up, making a mistake, risking failure, etc. So they excuse themselves from the most basic form of learning, “trial and error” learning. Do something, experiment, see what happens. Did it work or not? Take the “or not” in a matter-of-fact way. It’s just information, just feedback. No big deal.

If you want to really worsen the Knowing-Doing gap and make the gap bigger and bigger, scare yourself with horror stories about the terribleness of making a mistake. Fill your mind-and-body full of fear and dread and terror at risking a mistake. That will prevent things in your mind from getting into your muscles.

Confusing talk with doing is another major way that we fill our heads with more and more and weaken our performance muscles from actually doing anything.

“Well, we convened a meeting and talked about it!”

“Of course, we did something, we formed a committee to discuss the problem.”

“Do something about it? We definitely did something, we spent $20,000 on this report about it!”

To these responses, another response comes to mind, namely, “Duh?!”

Talk is not doing.

Talk may prepare us for doing. Talk may empower us to formulate our plans and motivate us, but talk in and of itself is not doing. Companies that have a culture of talking about things can get so off-target with this that they even become highly skilled in creating great overheads, awesome PowerPoint presentations, memorable pieces of literature (the reports), and really believe that they are doing something about a problem. They are not. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (2000) write about this attitude:

“The purpose of the sessions wasn’t really to learn from other parts of the organization,. Instead, the agenda was to impress your colleagues with the quality of the presentation you were giving. We’re not in the business of making over-heads! This firm is just one of many we have seen in which leaders act as if having something in their mission or values statement meant that it must be true.” (p. 40)

Nor is measuring things.

The U.S. Post Office is a great example of measuring things and assuming that “measuring” is actually doing something that makes a difference. I have a friend who is a supervisor who measures the feet of mail that has to be sorted each day, who follows delivery people on their routes from time to time to measure how long it takes them, how they park their vehicle, how many feet from one place to another, etc. She knows that none of this matters in the long run. None gives better service. None improves quality. She does it as forced regulation to satisfy Union fears that the employees will work too hard or not be compensated enough.

Why do they do it? To satisfy regulations. And because it is easier to measure time, space, weight, volume, and other tangible things than the things that really count: sense of responsibility, friendliness, helpfulness, attitude, cooperation, willingness to pitch in and help even if its not your project, etc.

Measuring things is an action, but most of the things that really count can’t be measured. And if they can be measured, they cannot be measured with precision. This is where fear comes in again. Because systems of interactive parts are complex and involve multiple contributing causes, we often become inhibited in action because we fear the complex. We fear not knowing for sure what we are doing.

Turn your abstract philosophical language into action-oriented language. As you do, you will be saying the same thing, but saying it with a sensory-based simplicity so that you know with crystal clarity what to do.


Because the knowing-doing gap prevents the actual implementation and undermines top-quality performance, we are making the business of closing the Knowledge-Doing gap a primary focus in Neuro-Semantics. Already we have identified and develop several patterns that help to translate knowledge into real life actions. These include:

Mind-to-Muscle Pattern
Dragon Slaying
Personal Genius
Excuse Blow-Out Pattern
The Efficiency Pattern

Currently we are exploring other processes that will allow us to develop a frame of mind that makes embodying knowledge part of our “way of being in the world.” That’s what we do. We find knowledge that makes a difference, knowledge that maps a piece of expertise, and we incorporate it so that it informs our very motor programs. It becomes what we do. No more excuses, we just get things done. No more inertia, no more procrastination, no more taking counsel of irrational fears–just effective action.

Do you have any knowledge that has un-tapped power and potential just waiting to be released?

Would you like to release it so that it becomes the engine in your performances?

Would you like to know yourself as an efficient person who takes effective action?

The future does not lie in the hands of those who think, plan, imagine, dream, and hope but don’t do. It lies in the hands and feet of those who do.


Pfeffer, Jeffrey; Sutton, Robert.  (2000).  The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action.   San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., Psychologist, International Trainer, and Entrepreneur who lives in the Rocky Mountains. Developer of the Meta-States Model and co-founder with Dr. Bodenhamer of Neuro-Semantics. (P.O. Box 8; Clifton, CO. 81520; 970 523-7877; fax: 970 523-5790),