Why reading all those self-help articles hasn’t changed your life.

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Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

There are certain aspects of your life you want to change, right? Things that could use improvement? Maybe you’d like to change something that’s been bothering you for months or even years?

I mean, none of us is perfect. Everyone has something that they want to change about themselves. Maybe you want to be a better public speaker so you read a bunch of books on the topic. Or, maybe you want to get into the best shape of your life so you followed and read a fitness blog. Or, maybe you want to be more grateful so you read all you could find about the science of gratefulness.

The problem is that despite all that reading you did and all the knowledge you gained, nothing changed. Your life stayed the same.

You didn’t become a better public speaker. You didn’t get into the best shape of your life. You didn’t suddenly appreciate everything you have.

What’s going on? What are we missing?

According to Laurie Santos at Yale University, knowledge isn’t enough to cause behavior change.

Why does this matter? Because until you understand how the mind changes, you will continue to do the wrong things to try to change it.

The G.I. Joe Fallacy

If you ever watched the 80s cartoon G.I. Joe you might remember the public service announcement at the end of each episode. The message was intended to teach or reaffirm important lessons to kids, like, look both ways before you cross the street.

Then, G.I. Joe would say “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” This message gives the impression that just knowing something, like the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street, is enough to change behavior.

However, Santos and her colleague Tamar Gendler coined the fallacy G.I. Joe Fallacy precisely because what they’ve found is that knowledge is not enough to change behavior. Most of us think that knowledge is enough but we’re wrong.

To illustrate the point, Santos uses the Müller-Lyer illusion seen below.

Which line appears to be longer, A or B?

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Source: https://www.focuscollegiate.com/gi-joe-fallacy/

Most of us perceive B to be longer than A. In truth, however, they are both the same length.

Now that you know this, look again. Do they now appear to be the same length?

No, the illusion remains despite our knowledge that our perception is wrong.

This is the essence of the G.I. Joe Fallacy — we think that knowledge will change our perception of reality but it doesn’t. We are still stuck seeing what we previously saw.

In short, knowledge is not enough.

But, now that we know this, what can we do about it?

Beyond knowledge

First, I should say what you already know: knowledge is useful — we need it to direct our change. But, if knowledge isn’t enough, how do we change?

The key is to use it.

That probably sounds painfully obvious, but most of us never get to that point. Once we consume information, we stop.

Think of how many books and articles you’ve read in the past year. Think of all the information you consumed. How much of it do you actually use regularly?

If you’re like most of us, probably very little, if any at all. All that information is just sitting in your mind, doing nothing. This is exactly why nothing ever changes. And, importantly, this is why knowledge isn’t enough.

If you want your life to change you need to change something about your behavior.

What does this mean? It means that if you want something to change you have to act — you need to do something.

Do you want to get better at public speaking? Then practice all those techniques you learned from all those books.

Do you want to get into better shape? Then practice all those techniques you learned from that blog.

Stop waiting for all that knowledge to do the work for you because it won’t and can’t. Stop wasting your time waiting for the impossible.

Instead, remind yourself that knowing isn’t enough. But not just once or twice. Remind yourself until thinking about it has become a habit.

The power of habits

What most of us don’t recognize is how much power habits have over our lives. More often than not, we mindlessly go about our days doing the same things over and over.

Most of your habits were created without any intention or purpose. Many of them are relics from your childhood. Others you’d never choose if you had the option.

If you want to change a part of your routine, you’re going to need to create the space for a new habit and then take steps toward making it a reality.

For example, you might know that eating less sugary snacks would make you healthier, but that knowledge is doing nothing for you if you still buy and then eat all those snacks.

Instead of waiting for your knowledge to do the work, do the work yourself. Your behavior won’t align with your knowledge until you make it align.

So, whatever your goal is, create a roadmap to it. That roadmap, ideally, would consist of the tiniest possible steps that, if taken over time, will lead you to your goal.

Change is possible, it’s just not easy

Everyone knows that change is hard. But it’s certainly not impossible. We all have seen countless examples of people changing their lives.

The key is recognizing that everything is a habit — even how you think. If you want the G.I. Joe Fallacy that knowledge is not enough to have an impact on your behavior, you need to find a way to frequently and regularly remind yourself of this message until it’s become second nature. Then, when you come upon other knowledge that could benefit you, you’ll remember that just knowing it isn’t enough, which may prompt you to act.

In the end, if you don’t use the knowledge you’ve gained, if you don’t figure out how to integrate it into how you live your life, nothing will change. Or, if things do change, the change will be haphazard and not necessarily for the best.

If you want to intentionally direct the changes in your life, recognize knowledge for what it is — a guiding star.

You can use knowledge to set your course, but you need to take the steps.

Thanks for reading!

This article was inspired by Laurie Santos’ Coursera course The Science of Well-Being.

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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