Care for the environment? Closing the knowing-doing gap: the power of your environment

Forests, People, Environment @ Botanic GardensPhoto from CoolInsights on Flickr under Creative Commons

I experienced my first SXSW this March.  What a fascinating collection of programming and people.  One of the programming tracks I deliberately pursued, on the back of my own experiments with Jawbone UP,  was the self-tracking / quantified self.  The big question that most sessions converged on was that of behavioural change.  How do you actually get people to change?  I mean, we can already track all sorts of things, but how does it actually effect behaviour sustainably?  Otherwise, it risks being just geekiness and naval-gazing.

Of course, having been around the personal development industry for near-on a decade now, the question of behavioural change – or what is sometimes referred to as the knowing-doing gap – is far from new.  Tony Robbins popularised the phrase ‘people often know what to do but they don’t do what they know’.  And he’s right.  And any development programme taking your hard-earned money generally needs to justify itself not just in terms of being ‘an experience’ but how it will help you change ongoing.

Having focussed much of my inquiry in recent years on awareness frameworks (such as the enneagram and integral) and how best to apply them, I thought it would be good time to refresh my thinking on best practice for putting into action what we know is in our highest interest.  Honestly, it is also an area I am wanting to improve on.  In some of my Conscious Change Agent workshops I have people self-rate which part of ‘conscious / change agent’ comes more naturally to them (self-awareness or making change in the world).  It has had me reflect that while I have made some pretty cool stuff happen in the world, I think I am far from maxing out there, as I have historically had a pattern of starting more things than I finish.  Bluntly, I reckon there is some stuff which Robbins has down which I have never fully integrated.

So, let’s get down and dirty on minding the gap.  When I studied personality in social psychology at Cambridge University, the experiment that was routinely held up was one where a group of previously identified ‘trait honest’ children are given the chance to cheat in an exam.  Basically, nearly all do, regardless of how ‘honest’ they are deemed to be.  Which give us the so-called ‘situationist’ critique of personality.  I might know you as hard-working because I see you in a library or coffee shop and you are always working in a focussed way.  But if I saw you instead at home and struggling to tune out the noise and call of other people, the TV and household chores, I might see you as a someone who is easily distracted.  That is, the situation plays a huge part in how our traits show up.  The conclusion?  If you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.  Choose your environments carefully as they hugely affect how you show up.

Ah yes, you have heard it before no doubt, originally an admonishment from Yogananda, the environment is stronger than the will.  Do you believe it?  How does it make you feel?  Well, assuming it is at least partially true, what does it mean for our purposes?  It means that environment selection and creation is one of the most important things you can put your attention on.  Not least because the ability to shape our environment, if you believe Marx, is a frontrunner in the list of uniquely human capacities (so it’s your birthright!) But, I would contend, it’s also the quality of how you show up, how much you get done and how much you feel fulfilled.  Oh, and by the way, given how many of you have some part of your working lives at home, this has just become even more important.  Otherwise, you end up washing dishes when you want to be working and mending clothes when you should be cranking down your highly-prioritized to-do list.  But you already knew that 🙂

So, you are now wondering to yourself, what are the best environments to be placing myself in and creating?  That’s a super question and one which has many levels to it.  Here are a few of them.

Level 1 – location, location, location.  Are you living in a place where you feel like you can be seen, expressed, alive and appreciated?  In your core, where you feel yourself. That includes the right city, town or village, as well as the right living circumstances.  Having spent 3 great months living in Boulder, Colorado, I went back to the UK asking the question ‘where is Boulder in the UK?’ (ie – where is somewhere which has an entrepreneurial vibe, conscious eating and lifestyle, high level of consciousness and a progressive outlook).  I did enjoy 3 months living in Brighton, but ended up concluding Boulder isn’t in the UK!   You’ll have your answer, but I think there is a high value in being in a place where you chime with the dominant vibe, or at least a strong subcultural vibe.  Otherwise, at best you forget parts of who you are and at worst you forget who you really are.  Sure many of us have had that experience, right?

Level 2 – MBOO!  F*ck’s that?  No, it’s not a way of engaging sulken toddlers.  It’s an acronym for Maintaining your Base Of Operations.  Say what?  It means to putting in place and maintaining whatever you need to attend to (important) things in your life.  If you want to shoot a video every day, do you have a space and time to do that?  If you want to pray every day, do you have a space and time to do that?  People who are strong on self-preserving energy get this naturally – for the rest of us, we have to learn how to attend to this.  Continually.

Level 3 – people.  I remember how much I overlooked this when I started building my first business (Future Foundations).  I moved back up to my native Norwich to cut overheads when I was getting my business going.  I was living and working alone from my flat, the phone wasn’t ringing and email was far from busy.  As someone who is not naturally structured, my schedule was all over the place and I had no people interaction routinely in my life.  Sad as it sounds, I used to look forward to going to Morrisons (budget supermarket) for my shopping (not a favourite life activity) just so I could get a sense of normalcy and say hello to someone.  But, better than gleaning advice from the people working the deli counter at Morrisons (as much as they have included greats in their ranks such as my great buddy Dan of Best Thought who worked there during his school years), a better strategy is to build co-minds, mentors and accountability partners in your life.  Jonathan Fields does a good job of covering this under ‘Support’ in this blog post.

Mike Litman, creator of Unleash The Greatness, used to say in his uniquely fanatical way, ‘people create habits and habits create futures’.  We’ll come onto habits and rituals in a future part on this topic, but the same could be applied to environments” ‘people inhabit environments and environments inhabit futures’.

I used to have a heated debate with a friend about the value of gym membership, which he regarded as rip off (which has even more edge when said with his Northern English twang).  He reckoned that it was much better value to buy a few dumbells for yourself.  Of course, monetarily, if you are only using a few dumbells, he was exactly right (though I find it pretty frustrating not to have the exact right weight for each exercise as I think it encourages you to over- or under-extend, but anyways).  But what his analysis was missing was the real potential power of the gym, the power of environment – the power of having a specific place, you get to at a specific time which has a strong MBOO (see above) energy – it’s set up only with one purpose in mind, your working out.  And more than that, it’s the power of a people environment – a concentration of everyone’s attention on one area of activity.  Plus, who doesn’t push themselves that little bit harder for that last rep when you have just seen someone absolutely struggle to crank one more lift?  It’s social comparison theory working FOR you.

So, the inquiry I will leave you with is this.  Which areas of your life suffer from not having a proper base of operation?   Which things in your life fail the Ben Franklin’s test (on his virtue #3 of Order) – Let all your things have their place;  let each part of your business have its time.  Conversely, what environments are you consistently placing yourself in which support you to do what you know?  The knowing-doing gap is not a global phenomenon.  It exists in certain areas and places of your life.  Time to rein in on the most pressing of these.  80/20 it, changing one environment at a time.   Oh, and if you are prone to workaholism, you might notice that there are only certain places or people with whom you really allow yourself to relax.  Know them, and get them in them in the diary.  Right, I’m off to give my spine some much-needed movement on the tennis court…


Stay present, stay passionate,

About Jack Butler

Jack Butler is a social entrepreneur, coach, workshop leader and speaker. His latest venture provides full spectrum human development through coaching, programmes and other development resources for leaders and entrepreneurs. He founded Future Foundations (, a leading youth personal development training organization. He is a professional member of the International Enneagram Association and a former fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jack was the IAB 2007 Young Entrepreneur of the Year runner-up and took a double first class degree in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge. Jack spends his time between London and Brighton in the UK and Boulder, CO and the Bay Area in the US. In his spare time, he enjoys physical challenges (3 Peaks Challenge 2010, Tresco Marathon 2006) and supporting The Simultaneous Policy Organisation ( He is a Partner in Passion and Purpose of the Grubb Guild, a voracious reader of personal, cultural and spiritual development, and likes to inquire, journal, travel and write.
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