I was recently presenting a leadership series to train a group on how to best manage their time, priorities, and attention. In the middle of the presentation, one of the leaders piped, perhaps feeling frustrated. They said: “We understand this already.” It was a valid point; I had no doubt that most of them did already understand the strategies I was telling them about. So, I asked, “Then what’s keeping you from implementing them?”
Of course, that answer isn’t as clear, but I couldn’t have asked for a better segway into my next point of the presentation: There tends to be a gap between knowing better and doing better, and the truth is, many people fall into that space (including me on many occasions). That’s because bridging the gap between knowledge and action is a literal case of “easier said than done.”
Remember this: while you may have accumulated a wealth of knowledge over the years, the next step – arguably the most important one – is to take that know-how, hold yourself (and others) accountable, and turn it into action. Part of the reason it’s so challenging is that the formula for success is highly personal.
Following these steps may help you discover your own personal formula. From there, like everything worthwhile, it takes discipline and practice.
First, reflect on the change you need to make and why you need to make it. We often encounter people who feel as if they are too busy for this kind of reflection, but if you skip this step as a leader, it can have an unintentional negative impact on your team and anyone who relies on you.
It’s also important to reflect on your progress and acknowledge the difference your new behavior makes. Dedicate time to consider why you changed and whether it was effective. Ask yourself whether or not you would do it differently if given the chance for a do-over. The reality is that most of our habits, professional and otherwise, become solidified over time. They’re more routine than anything else. Unfortunately, this can blind us to better methods.
Consider the word “accountability.” It refers to a long-term commitment to yourself and others – a sort of contract or conversation about where you are and where you’re going. It’s not a one-off project, a simple set of tasks, or a confession when things go wrong. It’s initiative and strategic follow-through. Yet, somehow, people tend to lack consistency when it comes time to turn words into action. To make it easier to follow through, consider being specific about the language you use and the commitments you make.
This step is a three-parter because it’s not enough to point at the problem. Once you identify the source of the challenge, dig in a bit. Ask yourself why it’s an issue. It’s important to look at your own accountability here. Almost always, you have options you are not leveraging to address the challenge. For example, if you don’t have time to address your most important projects, examine what is taking up your time instead.
It’s important, of course, to identify the source of an issue, but without a plan in place to solve the problem… Well, you won’t get very far. Set a very specific outcome that represents progress and then brainstorm strategies to achieve it. Being clear about your objective and how you plan to reach it is paramount. In our example above, say you’ve figured out that last minute requests are taking all your time (and energy!). In that case, your plan might look a little something like this:
This plan should not live inside your head. Write it down. Share it with others, especially those that can help you stay accountable and support your progress. It’s important for everyone to be on the same page and moving in one direction.
Creating a series of smaller goals is a great way to recognize the distance between “here” and “there.” You’ve got a long road ahead, and by breaking up your journey into bite-sized actionable steps, you improve your odds of reaching the finish line.
It’s also a useful way of tracking progress. You can measure your success against whether or not you’ve attempted to knock out each goal. For example, if your goal is to become better at yoga, you wouldn’t measure your success by the new muscle you gain each day – results tend to take a little longer. You would track your success in the number of days you actually practiced.
Also, plan for setbacks because they’re inevitable. Each micro-goal might come with a series of “if-then” scenarios. When trouble shows up, you’ll be ready to meet it.
If you have clear expectations and know what you aim to accomplish, feedback goes much more smoothly. Here’s what you need to ask: Have you met your micro-goals? Have you reached your objective? Is there any way you could have done it better? If so, how? Seek out specific, objective answers to these questions from people you trust and whose opinions you respect. It may be hard to hear at first, but it’s well worth the effort.
In some ways, the process of bridging the gap between knowledge and action is a lot like trying to eat a healthier diet. Most of us have a general knowledge of which foods we should and shouldn’t eat, but knowing better isn’t the same as doing better, and doing better isn’t always easy.
Start by choosing new habits, and as you move through them, be deliberate, thoughtful, and reflective. You won’t always be able to follow the rules 100% of the time, but each time you course-correct, it becomes a little easier to keep your feet on the path.