I’ve been thinking lately about how we come to do things. It’s been especially top-of-mind for me as I’m writing a chapter of my new book that focuses on “Aspiration” — wanting things (specifically, in the case of the book, wanting to learn new skills or capabilities).
My focus hasn’t been on why we do things — lots of very smart people have been focusing on that over the past few years. Most recently, Dan Pink made a huge wave with “Drive,” his book that brought Self-Determination Theory to a wider audience. In SDT (as translated by Pink), what most motivates people is mastery, autonomy, and purpose. That is, we’re motivated to do things that we believe will bring us an opportunity to make choices (autonomy) to get good at something (mastery) that’s meaningful to us (purpose).
I agree. The question is, can we make ourselves want to do something that we don’t now want to do? We all spend a lot of time thinking about doing things and then not doing them: exercise more, be kinder to our spouses, save money, go back to school, find a better job… the list goes on and on. The reason we don’t do those things is — I believe — pretty simple. Even though we say we want to do them, we don’t do them because we want the alternatives more. We say we want to exercise — but we want to sit and watch TV more. We say we want to save money — but we want to spend it more. In order to do something, you have to want to do it more than the available alternatives.
So the important question is: can we make ourselves want to do something enough to actually do it? Fortunately, I believe the answer is yes. The secret is to discover how the thing that you’re not doing will provide you with benefits that are important to you — with mastery, autonomy and purpose — and to fully envision a future where you’re attaining those benefits as a result of having done the thing.
For example, let’s say that someone — let’s call her Alex — has been saying for years that she wants to exercise — but she continues not to exercise on any regular basis. I’m convinced it’s because she isn’t recognizing the benefits of exercise — not the theoretical, everybody-knows-them benefits, but the actual, personal benefits to her. She tries to “should” herself into exercising (I’m so lazy, I’ll just keep getting fat, I ought to be able to do this), but that doesn’t work. She reads articles about how good exercise is for your health, but that doesn’t work either.
Then, finally, one day Alex talks to a friend of hers who just started working out and is loving it, and one thing the friend says really resonates: “You know, I just needed to find the kind of exercise that works for me.” And Alex starts to think, Hmmm…I wonder what kind of exercise I’d like? Maybe something dance-based, like Zumba. I’ve always loved to dance. And then she thinks, If I did that, I bet I could get pretty good at it. And I would really love to feel strong and good in my body.
Voila: real, personal benefits. Autonomy (her own choice), mastery (getting good at it), purpose (feeling strong and good in her body) — and she’s envisioning the future where those benefits are true.
I suspect that Alex will now suddenly be much more likely to start exercising.
What aren’t you doing that you say you want to do? Think about how doing that thing might provide you with mastery, autonomy and purpose, and then imagine a future in which you’re getting those benefits. See what happens.…