Sunday 3 February 2019

What do I want to do?

I was challenged lately by the question: How do I know what I want to do?  If I really wanted to do {X}, I'd be doing it by now! So maybe I don't really want to, I just think or pretend that I want to?...

I thought this an interesting question, because it resonated with a lot of my own experience.  If I decide and intend to do something and then don't do it, what precisely is that about?

Of course, it's an age old problem: St Paul writes about it 2000 years ago: For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.

But I think it too simple to conclude, as my challenger was tempted to do, that a failure to follow through on an intention indicates that I didn't really want to do it.  I think that compresses and conflates a lot of things.

One example, from my experience, is getting out of bed at 6.30 on a cold, wet morning to go for a run. There was a time when, despite my intention to run every day, I would actually re-set the alarm and have another hour in bed.  Now, I don't.

But to say that I no longer want to do that is inaccurate: quite often it is a very appealing prospect: at that moment in time, I think it would be true to say that I want (at least in part) to stay in bed. So what has changed?

One way to look at this is to think about short and long term desires; there have been studies (eg Duckworth and Seligman) suggesting the ability to delay gratification is a strong predictor of success. Thus I prioritise my longer term desire to stay fit and healthy over my short term desire to stay warm and comfortable.

But my formulation is somewhat different. I like to think of it in terms not of what I want to do (which seems to me always to risk the short term or expedient answer, in the heat of battle - or indeed the warmth of bed) but rather, who do I want to be (or become).

By framing it that way, I can acknowledge that what I want to do may be to stay warm and comfortable; but the person I want to become is someone who not only stays fit and healthy, but also has mastery over his short term desires, and can honour commitments that he makes to himself (such as going for a run every morning).

For me, that has real power, as my fundamental philosophy means that I think it is frequently important to prioritise being over doing. To put that another way, I would prefer that what I do is driven by who I aspire to be; rather than who I become being driven by the actions I take (in pursuit of short term desires).

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