The Knowing & Doing Gap

Phil Hendry15/09/2021

Knowing what’s right. And doing it.
Or knowing what’s wrong. And avoiding it.

What is it?

(And why is it so important?)

  • Cigarettes are bad for you. The packaging doesn’t hold any punches, the cost rises evermore to put people off. And yet people still smoke.
  • The Scottish Government has implemented a sugar tax and an alcohol curfew to combat the problems of obesity and anti-social behaviour. But how many times do we still see discarded junk food packaging and empty bottles after the weekend is over?
  • We know that throwing away food is bad. And yet it was last reported that the UK wastes approximately 4.5 million tonnes of food each year. *

We know it’s bad but why do we still do it? It’s all down to the knowing/doing gap.

The what?

Keeping it short and sweet, it’s the difference between what we know is the right thing to do, and how many of us actually do it!
Two professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, examined this aspect of human behaviour in their book entitled ‘The Knowing/Doing Gap, but their research focused on this within a business setting.
Knowing and doing what is right affects our everyday choices.
Our morals, our values, our health. Even our finances!
It’s something we as financial advisers see fairly regularly when getting to know a new client.

Really? How so?

Glad you asked; here are some examples…


My own personal vice is running shoes. I do run a lot but I have more running shoes than actual shoes. More running shoes than casual trainers. I think I may have more shoes combined than my wife does. Granted, you are supposed to replace them after so many hundreds of miles but I can’t but help look at online offers, asking myself do I actually need to buy another pair?

And if I asked you about unnecessary spending habits, I don’t think it would take any of us long to think of some example of spending money on things that we know wont provide any meaningful long term enjoyment, but are a sure way to put a dent in our bank balance.

Saving and Investing

Most of us know that saving up to make a purchase (holiday, first home or wedding) makes perfect sense, but feeding into the point above, do we follow through?
We also know that investing, statistically, is a no brainer (…assuming we have set financial goals and the time scales are appropriate). But some of us can’t push ourselves to do it.  Or on the other side of the coin, we know that markets can be very volatile and risky if overly concentrated in certain things, but the recent good times stop us from taking profits or diversifying away some risk.

Debt & Borrowing

To get credit, we must first accrue debt. Now we know that lots of credit card debt is not sensible, but we rack it up anyway. Spread the cost over a few installments. Buy it now and pay it back later.
After all, why wait when we can get it now? But that’s a bad mindset and one you don’t want to pass on.

procrastinating dog

Regrets. Feeling ‘ruff’. Who knows?

On the flipside, there are those of us who are so scared of getting into debt, that when there is genuine merit through a business venture or buying an asset, we miss opportunities.
There are obviously more instances than this, but no doubt these core four resonate. I appreciate this is useless without providing some sort of counter to these, so here they are:


1. Don’t forget the why

Start to build a bigger context and narrative around your decisions.  All of the above can seem like isolated decisions to make, but put in a broader context of facilitating the life you want with your family, or building the business you aspire to, for example. This helps frame your decisions in a way so that they don’t conflict with why money will be important to you going forward.

2. Accountability

Whether its your spouse or someone within your own circle, having someone who understands what you really want to happen in the longer term, and can help keep you honest on decisions which conflict with this, can be huge.  Just knowing you have their support can be a real boost.


word tiles

Sadly, not a Scrabble-approved layout…

3. Stop talking. Start doing

“I’ll start tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow our team will start working together, but better.”

How many times has our inner monologue convinced us that today wasn’t the day but that a fresh day would mean a new start? How many of us have sat through team-building away days with management that won’t learn? We spend a lot of time saying what we will do, and planning how we will do it rather than actually doing so!

Make small tweaks and build up from there. If for example, you want to save money by buying lunch less often, start by doing it one day a week. Committing to doing a small behaviourial tweak is more manageable than if you try to do it all in one go, get disillusioned and then break the habit.

Building willpower, I’m sorry to say will take time. More so to create a positive mindset so that a good habit will form, rather than a bad one. Resist the urge for instant gratification and work on fixing yourself.

4. Work it out. No, really…

We always see the successful end result on social or the news – case in point being Team GB athletes at the recent Tokyo Games. But rarely do we see the steps it took to either get that medal. The long hours, the same diet day in and day out, the lack of a social life… sacrifices have to be made.

Oh yes, if I train hard then I can become an athlete like them..”, you think.
Great – you’ve got the positive mental attitude (PMA)  but remember that there are more steps to it than that!

5. Keep calm & carry ‘omm’

Change can be a scary thing – you’re out of your comfort zone and in your head, anything can happen. And usually, it’s the worst case scenario.
But learn to recognise the monsters under the bed. When you’re scared, uncomfortable or anxious about your finances, do you want to go out and spend spend spend or would you choose to address those fears, and talk to a financial adviser?


It’s human nature to avoid the issue and make it worse. But let’s stop thinking about the negative and think about all the positives.

What really matters

Knowing-doing gaps occur when businesses fail to grasp the metrics that matter (clockwatching employees, rather than productivity or customer satisfaction) and the same goes for us an individuals.

So before you click to order that next impulse buy you really don’t need…
Before you do anything, look at what you’re trying to do…
And make the end goal or result your true measure of success.

And if you see any running shoe bargains, please let me know…!




*UK households waste 4.5m tonnes of food each year