Why We Don’t Do What We Know We Should Do (Article)

Why We Don’t Do What We Know We Should Do

By Michael Keiser

“I’ve really got to get to that soon.”  “I’ve got to work on that”.  “Boy, I really need to change that”.  What is it with us entrepreneurs?  Why do we act so contrary to our long term well-being and so often?  Why, when there are so many good reasons to change, do we sit idly by?  Our problem certainly isn’t lack of information.  There is plenty of solid information around finances, time management, getting rid of clutter, choosing the right lovers, taking care of ourselves, and fulfilling our goals.  You name it and there’s plenty of information to be found.  We often know what to do but we still don’t do it.  Actually, we sometimes knowingly do the opposite of what we know is best for ourselves.  We’ll choose to ignore or act in contradiction to our instincts and to reality.  It almost seems as if it is part of the human condition.  Our problem is not ignorance.  It’s action.  What keeps us from taking the right actions?

Understanding The Behaviors

This is a complex question.  There is no single answer as to why we don’t always act in our own best interest.  In trying to change a behavior, we must keep in mind a few very important factors.  First and foremost, changing a behavior is very hard.  This is why so few people are actually successful at it.  We can’t underestimate this.  Going from one set of behaviors to another is quite easy to talk about.  It’s another thing all together to actually make the change.  Also, sometimes insight is not enough.  We often act like knowing something is the same as doing it.  We feel as if seeking out the knowledge and understanding it is the same as actually altering the behavior.  We confuse talk with action.  At first glance, this may not seem logical.  But think about the number of times that you felt as if you were making progress on something simply because you read a book on it or attended a great seminar.  It’s likely more often than you’d like to consider.  Another stumbling block in acting in our own best interest is that some behaviors have become a fundamental dynamic of who we are.  So when someone tells us “just make more sales calls” for example, it’s not quite as simple as that.  Our brain often believes (without our conscious knowledge) that a particular behavior is serving us in some way and it becomes a long term habit.  And while we might not necessarily be engaged in negative behaviors, our avoidance behaviors will prevent us from doing what we should.  We will tell ourselves that we plan to make a change “as soon as things calm down”.  “I’ve got to get a few things off my plate.”  “It’s only going to take a couple of months.”  “By then things will be a lot more stable and I can really focus on these things I need to work on.”  “I fully plan to.  I just can’t right now”.  Sound familiar?
Behavior change is one of the most challenging aspects of being a successful entrepreneur.  The long term health of our business demands it.  Yet still we carry on as usual.  As much as we may not like to admit it, one of the main reasons that we fail to act in our best interest is that immediate pleasure exerts a stronger influence on us than the long term well being of our company.   We humans are not very good at delaying gratification or going through discomfort to reach a goal.  We find ways to rationalize not engaging in the right behaviors.  But the truth is, sometimes it just looks like way too much work.

Belief Systems

In my research, I’ve also found that a major cause of not doing what we know we should is one of beliefs.  Specifically, a lack of belief in ourselves and our abilities or a lack of belief in our products and services.  As I’ve interviewed many entrepreneurs who are stuck in a rut, I have found that a large percentage of them don’t actually believe that they are capable of getting the job done.  Past failings or mistakes often make us our own worst critics.  We never lose the memory of a past failing and it will rear its head from time to time, seemingly at a time where we need to take serious action or make a major decision.  This is another aspect that we are not always consciously aware of, but a lack of belief can cause a severe lack of action.  This often coincides with another cause of lack of action, a fear of the unknown.  We are great at talking to ourselves in such self-defeating ways.  “What if I screw it up again”?  “What if it sucks or doesn’t work”?  We may feel like we’re abandoning something when we need to make a change.  Fear and self-doubt are insidious.  They will gladly permeate our rational thoughts and lead us to a state of mental paralysis.


One of the biggest reasons that we don’t do what we know we should is that we don’t find any purpose or meaning in that which we need to do.  If we don’t have a compelling enough reason to take action, we don’t.  Even when we can find a million logical reasons why we should take action, if it has no meaning or purpose for us, we simply won’t do it.  This is especially true when that “thing” we need to do requires high effort and skill.  If it’s going to be difficult AND we don’t have a strong enough reason to act, the odds are very low that we will do that “thing”.  When we have strong enough purpose, we are far more likely to endure hardship to achieve our objectives.  Think of raising children, for example.  I don’t think there are many of us that, once our kids were a few years old, said to ourselves, “this is getting way too hard.  I can’t do this anymore.”  We endure.  We keep on keeping on.  Raising healthy, balanced children carries enough meaning and purpose for most parents that we do whatever we need to do.  If we’re not clear why or where our objectives came from, we run the risk of doing nothing.

Other Factors

I also observed that sometimes we don’t know how to implement the change or engage in the behavior that is required by our business.  We may just not know how to stop doing what we’re doing.  We may have the willingness, the desire, and the fortitude but we just don’t know what the best course of action is.  I’ve seen this phenomenon many times.  We’ve found that with the right guidance, ideas, and support, this is a relatively easy challenge to overcome.  Sometimes we just need to be pointed in the right direction and we can take it from there.
I’ve also noticed that the phenomena of laziness can be crippling to taking action.  Have you ever thought to yourself, “I know I should do that but I just don’t feel like it”?  The reason is that you are likely ok enough with the way things are.  “Sure, things could always be better but look how far we’ve come”.  If we’re sort of ok with how things are, even when they’re not perfect, we’re not likely to make many changes.  I’ve seen this most often when the objectives come from somewhere other than ourselves.  When it is outside forces exerting the pressure on us to change, the odds are far smaller of making a change than when the objectives are internal.  Even as adults, we still don’t really want anyone else telling us what to do, what is important, where we should focus, or why.  When we decide it for ourselves, we tend not to be quite as lazy about taking action.  Although, internal goals are still no guarantee of taking the right actions or avoiding laziness.
It’s also sometimes difficult to see ourselves doing what we need to do.  It may conflict with an existing view we have of ourselves.  We may see the necessary actions in conflict with our beliefs, ethics, and attitudes or capabilities.  I have found that, whenever we are willing to own the responsibility for our outcomes, it’s easier to see ourselves taking the necessary actions.  It’s too easy to blame outside forces, the economy, our competitors, and everyone else for our lack of action.  But once we’re ready to look internally and claim responsibility for outcomes, we are likely to take much stronger action.
Seeing as we human beings consider ourselves to be quite rational and in control of our own decision making, this next aspect of why we don’t act is a little tough to swallow for many of us.  As Dan Ariely would describe it, we are predictably irrational.  Dan has performed dozens of experiments around decision making and has discovered that our intuition will often fool us and that we mostly make decisions that have already been decided for us.  Most of our decisions don’t reside within us.  He makes a very strong case that we don’t really know our preferences very well which leaves us to be greatly influenced by external forces.  Even the most seemingly insignificant factor will affect our decision making.  He refers to it as cognitive illusions.  Without our knowing it, we will experience what is known as cognitive dissonance, or two conflicting forces in our brain that cause a state of mental paralysis.  This will strongly inhibit our ability to move forward or make a change in our behavior.  The only way to deal with this predictable irrationality is to be always aware of it and understand our cognitive limitations.  We always need to be questioning our own thinking, as imperfect as it may be.

What to do

When we do find ourselves in the predicament of not taking action when we know we should, it’s important for us to be extremely realistic and honest with ourselves.  We can begin by asking ourselves a few questions:

  •  What are the real reasons I have this objective in the first place?
  •  Is there any knowledge or skill that I’m lacking that will prevent me from accomplishing it?
  • What will accomplishing this objective mean for me and my business?
  • Are these objectives my own or did they come from somewhere else?Is this objective really necessary?

Having a powerful enough reason why we’re doing something helps us work through the pain and lack of instant gratification toward our longer term objective.
Next it’s important to examine your beliefs around the objective:

  • Are they rational?
  • Are they true?
  • Are they serving me in some way?
  • Where did my beliefs around this objective come from?
  • If it all goes wrong, will it really be all that bad?
  • Where is my thinking flawed around this subject?

Failure is all part of the entrepreneurial game.  I want you to get out there and fail, over and over.  Go screw things up.  I believe it was Winston Churchill that said, “success is being willing to go from one failure to another without a loss of enthusiasm”.  I think he was right.  It’s all part of the learning.  There is no possible way to avoid mistakes, failures, and some humiliation along the road to entrepreneurial success and mastery.  Many of us have developed the belief that failing is not ok.  If we’re not encountering failures and setbacks, then we’re not really up to anything all that spectacular.  It’s easy to be mediocre and safe.
If a lack of knowledge is an issue preventing you from taking action, go get it.  Find mentors, people that have done it.  Work with people that have already achieved your particular objective and find out how they did it.  We entrepreneurs often have a “go it alone” attitude.  But why bother continually reinventing the wheel?  We must always be learning, exploring, and researching our field if we want to master it.  The right support can make more difference than almost anything else you will ever do in your business.
To be successful in business, we sometimes just have to suck it up and engage in activities that we don’t like at all.  As entrepreneurs we’re all well aware of that.  But when we do have a case of the “lazies”, it’s imperative that we take a closer look at our objectives and get to the truth.  No excuses.  We need to understand why our objectives are so uncompelling that we are not willing to take action.  They may not hold enough meaning and purpose.  Meaning and purpose is not some new age philosophy.  According to Dan Pink, it is one of the top three motivators of human behavior.  For mastery, it is vital that we are engaged in something that holds meaning for us.  Otherwise, we won’t act.
Whenever you find yourself in a position of not taking action when you know you should, reflect on where that is coming from.  Ask yourself the right questions.  Find the right support and knowledge.  Take more time to understand your beliefs and cognitive illusions.  And get out there and fail.  You’ll love where it takes you.