I often hear people say they have certain goals they want to accomplish, and yet their behaviors say otherwise. For example, you say you want that promotion, yet you continue to arrive to work late and take extended lunch breaks. You say you want to become a lawyer, yet you are hanging out with your friends two days before a big exam. For those of you whose actions don’t agree with your goals, my question to you is this — do you really want it, do you kind of want it, or do you feel you’re supposed to want it?
I really want it.
I think there are very few things that we truly want. If we really wanted something, we would be willing to put up with the struggle and adversity associated with it. If I truly wanted to be healthy and get in shape, then I would go out for a run instead of watching TV. I would tolerate the soreness from exercise and eat blackberries instead of brownies because I am intrinsically driven and it means that much to me.
In economics, there is a term called opportunity cost which refers to the cost or sacrifice you make for choosing one option over another. When I choose blackberries over brownies, the opportunity cost would be the short-term enjoyment that I get from eating a brownie or a cookie. When you choose to work overtime, the opportunity cost would be everything else that you could be doing at that time (e.g., spending time with family or friends, exercising, watching TV).
When you really want something, you feel that the gain from pursuing that goal is greater than the opportunity cost associated with it. Alternatively, you may feel that the opportunity cost of not pursuing your goals is greater than the gain you would get from doing something else. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. At the end of the day, if you really want something, you’ll go out and try to make it happen.
I kind of want it.
I think a majority of people’s goals fall into this category. We kind of want it, but maybe not as much as we want other things. For example, I kind of want to be healthier, but honestly, I enjoy the comfort of my couch and TV more than I enjoy going out for a run. I’m also a foodie so I’d rather go for the brownies than the blackberries. I’d even rather work an extra hour or two at work than go out for a run. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you’re happy with just sitting on the couch rather than working out, then by all means, sit on the couch. Now here is when this becomes a problem:
- You choose to sit on the couch and watch TV rather than going out for a run, but then you also complain that you’re not as healthy as you want to be. Every choice we make has consequences associated with it — both good and bad. If we want to be happy with the choices that we make in our life, we need to accept that this is just a fact
- You do not even want to sit on the couch and watch TV, and at best, you feel indifferent when watching TV. However, you still would rather watch TV than go out for a run. When we are not 100% committed to a goal, we tend to procrastinate and do things that require less energy instead. The book, Finding Flow, introduces a concept called ‘activation energy’ which states that we require a certain amount of energy to start an activity. Activities that are easier in nature (e.g., watching TV) or activities that we really enjoy (e.g., sports, hanging out with friends) require less activation energy whereas activities that we do not enjoy as much (e.g., exercise) require more activation energy. Because we have only a finite amount of energy, we often will opt for activities that require less energy.
So, what can you do when you kind of want something but are not 100% committed?
- Just accept it. Like I said, if you’re happy watching TV instead of working out and do not mind being a little out of shape, then do it without any guilt. If you would rather read a book than go out with friends, that’s fine!
- Find a way to decrease the amount of activation energy required. You do not need as much activation energy when you are doing something you enjoy. For example, rather than going to the gym, I opt to play sports such as basketball and baseball because I enjoy them more. I forget I am exercising and focus on the competition and skills development aspect of it instead.
- Make things easier for yourself. This is similar to #2 as this also decreases activation energy. Identify the things that get in the way of where you want to be. Perhaps you’re not focused on studying because you can’t get off your phone. If that’s the case, give your friend your cellphone and make sure she doesn’t give it back to you for three hours.
- Do some soul-searching. Why do you even kind of want it? Why do you care about it at all? What’s driving you? What is the cost of not doing it? Why do you want that promotion — is it because of the prestige, the salary, or personal satisfaction? Whatever it is that even partially drives you, fixate on that part. If that is not a strong enough motivator, I would recommend reconsidering what you truly want.
- Reset your expectations. Everyone would love a mansion and three fancy cars, but not everyone is willing to put in 80 hour work weeks for 30 years to get it. If you want that mansion so bad, then put in the 80 hours a week and you will likely get it someday. However, if you want to have a nice work-life balance, live a family-oriented life, and work only 30 hours a week, then you might need to reset your expectations on that mansion. What is the opportunity cost of striving for that mansion?
I feel I am supposed to want it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people’s goals also fall into this category. You have these goals in mind that you think are yours, but they’re actually driven by external factors. For example, when you’re young, you are told by your parents that you need to become an engineer so that you can make a lot of money and live a lavish lifestyle. If you truly feel that way, great! Good for you. The problem is that many people do end up becoming engineers, making a lot of money, and living a lavish lifestyle, but that’s not what they really want. Alternatively, they keep trying and trying to become a successful engineer, but are unable to do it because their heart is not in it.
Just think of it, of how many of our goals and ambitions are driven by what other people tell us is appropriate and okay. So many people are miserable because they feel obligated to strive for things they don’t even care for. Here’s a simple tip that can make a big difference – if someone wants you to do something for yourself, but you do not want to do it, don’t do it. Think of how many people have a negative self-image of themselves because they are told to look a certain way. Think of how many people are pursuing careers they do not even like because they were told that is the only way to not end up on the street. My question to you is this – why? If you do not want to do something, and you are willing to accept the potential consequences that come from not doing it, then why are you putting pressure on yourself to do it?
As Gary Vaynerchuk often says, there is this negative stigma associated with grown adults living in their parents’ home. People are afraid of what their friends or high school buddies might think of it. Because of the fear of what other people might say, these people end up working at jobs they dislike or continue to live in debt rather than moving back home for a few years with their parents who they love. Stop caring about what other people think. We have enough clarity and motivation issues on our own. We do not need to also worry about others and what they think about the choices that we make or don’t make.
As I said, there are very few things that we truly want. However, there are many things that we kind of want, or things we think we should want. For the goals you are truly passionate about, I believe you will put in the effort and work to achieve those goals. For the goals that you kind of want, I think it comes down to reducing external barriers, finding ways to increase intrinsic motivation, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not it is worth pursuing that goal. With goals that are driven by others – just tune them out.