The Truth About Why We Don't Do What We Know We Should

I don’t claim to know the truth about too many things, but I am very convinced that you will agree with what I’m about to reveal to you as the truth, and be liberated and energized by it.  

Why don’t we do what we know we should do? Before I give you the answer, I’d like you to think of one aspect of your career or life that is not going as well as you want it to. Are there some things you know you should be doing to achieve your goal but you are not? Of course! It happens to the best of us. It could be that you want to get in shape. You know you should eat better and exercise more, but you aren’t doing it. Or it could be that you want to restore a relationship. You know you need to apologize, but you have been putting it off. Why do you think that is? If you’re like me, you can probably think of many reasons for not doing what you know needs to be done. I have been writing for years but kept putting off publishing my book because… I had a full-time job, I was busy, I didn’t know how to go about publishing a book, and believe me, the list goes on.  

Bear with me as I set the stage to reveal the truth that will set you free. Think of the reasons why you are not in action on what you know you should do. Obviously, I have no idea what your reasons are, but I can say with certainty that they have nothing to do with you not doing what you know you should. Let me prove it to you.

An Anecdote

During my 2 to 3 day workshops, I make it a point to give the participants some optional homework to be completed overnight. The homework is not difficult but it does require some time and involvement from family, friends, or acquaintances, which makes it a bit tough to accomplish on short notice. The next morning I ask those who completed the homework to share their experience and I ask those who didn’t to let us know why they didn’t do the homework. Invariably, people give me reasons like, “I was tired” or, “I had a birthday party to go to,” or, “I didn’t have anyone to complete my homework with,” and so on. Then I ask them if they could or would have completed the homework if I had promised to give them $10K for doing it. The response is always a resounding “YES!” 

Then I reveal the truth. (Are you ready?) The truth is that we always first make a choice whether or not we are going to do something and then attach a reason to it. The reasons we bring up, and sometimes wholeheartedly believe to be the real obstacle that prevented us from taking action, are never the real reasons.

We always first make a choice whether or not we are going to do something and then attach a reason to it.

In the case of my optional homework, the only right answer is that the person chose not to do the homework. Period! They consciously or subconsciously weighed all the considerations and chose not to do it. It may be true that they made their choice because they preferred to go to the party instead of doing the homework, but to say the party was the reason is to assign blame to an external factor, whereas to own the choice would be to practice accountability for our choices and have the courage to take what we get.  

Why This Truth is so Profoundly Important

As we dwell on the reasons we cite for not being in action, we begin to believe them to be the main barriers. We are then deluded into trying to influence people and circumstances outside of ourselves that we have no control over, in an attempt to liberate ourselves and get in action. We find ourselves exhausted and disempowered and living a someday life.  We hope that someday we won't be so busy or that someday we will have a more understanding boss, ... so we can get in action, and perpetuate the notion that we are in bondage to our circumstances.  On the flip side, there is freedom in acknowledging that we are free moral agents who get to make choices and accept the consequences of our choices. This very acknowledgement liberates us to stop pretending we are committed to causes that we truly don't care about and channel our energy and enthusiasm toward relentlessly and unconditionally going after those things that we are truly committed to.

A Personal Example

I have an exercise program and on many days I don’t follow it. I set the clock to wake up and work out in the morning but I snooze it several times until it’s too late, so I end up skipping the workout and just going to work. I could come up with reasons like, “I had very little sleep because I got in late,” or, “It’s too cold outside,” or a number of reasons which are factually correct but have nothing to do with my choice.  Alternatively, I could fess up and tell the truth, which is, “I preferred to sleep in rather than get up and work out!” In other words, when I snooze, I am more committed to getting more sleep than getting more exercise. The former involves a pretense that is draining and the latter creates a clearing in which I can be truthful and put the past behind me and make a different choice with no guilt or shame. 

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, we often feel compelled to offer up reasons for our choices as a way to manage our relationships. For instance, it may not go over very well if you tell your boss that you chose not to go to his/her meeting and offer no explanation. I understand that and I would encourage you to handle your communications in a way that fits the quality of your relationships. I once told someone who reported to me that I was not interested in his opinion because I had made a decision already and we were going to go with it. I could do that without damaging the relationship in the least bit because we had fulfilled the pre-requisite for that kind of straight talk, which was a mutually respectful relationship. Until you get there, you must manage the delivery of your message. What’s most important is not how you justify your choices to others, it is what you repeatedly say to yourself about what's holding you back that will either have you spinning your wheels, or will get you to powerfully and unapologetically choose your path.

What to Do Now?

This week, begin to examine how you relate to what’s stopping you from taking the actions that you know you should take. When you notice that you are associating the reason with something outside of yourself, consider that it is never the size of our challenges and always the size of our commitment that determines whether we remain in action or not. Be straight about your level of commitment to the outcome you say you want to create and either own up to not being committed and stop blaming yourself for not being in action, or renew your commitment and get in action. 

It is never the size of our challenges and always the size of our commitment that determines whether we remain in action or not.