Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

I Have to Do It or I Want to Do It?

External motivation can undermine willpower.

I’ve got to get this done. I’m going to try and do that tomorrow. Both of these statements signal upcoming problems for really getting things done.

I was working with a group of student leaders from residence (“res fellows”) earlier this week. We were talking about my favorite subject, procrastination, because they work with other students in residence where procrastination is common, if not an epidemic of sorts.

I asked students to share “procrastination stories,” theirs or from someone they know. Apart from the hesitation of making these personal revelations, there was no shortage of perspectives. Everyone knew the pain of this self-defeating delay.

Thankfully, an outgoing young woman spoke up first. Her story kept us busy in discussion for quite awhile. When I asked this student what she thinks when she faces a lab report, she said, “I gotta get that done.”

I then asked the other students what she might have thought as an alternative. The first reply was, “She could have said, ‘I want to get that done.’” There may be an important difference here.

I say that there “may be” an important difference here, because these phrasing differences don’t always mean the same thing to every person. However, generally, the difference between these two statements reflects the source of motivation. When I “gotta get something done,” it’s often because I’m expected to, it’s expected of me, and the motivation is external to me. When I “want to get something done,” we see this more as an internal motivation.

External motivation requires self-control to be successful. We have to exert our will to get down and work at the task as intended. We can do it, but it will cost us. The exertion of self-control depletes us (see earlier posts on how willpower is like a muscle and the research on ego-depletion if you want to know more about this).

When motivation is more internal, we still require self-regulation to act as intended, but this self-regulation is seen to be more invigorating, less depleting. We’re working more from intrinsic interest, or at least more internalized interest in the task at hand. It’s not that we’re forcing ourselves, and we do have to expend effort and focus our energies, but we’re interested and fueled by the work.

What do you say to yourself about tasks at hand? Can you feel the difference?

Do you ever say, I’ll try and get that done? As I said to students at the workshop this week, the most direct response I ever heard to this notion of “trying to get things done” was when I was part of day-long speaking engagement with Patch Adams. When I asked Patch about procrastination, he just laughed at the notion, and he said, “Did you try to put your pants on this morning or did you put them on?” What’s this “I’m going to try to do stuff? It’s nonsense!”

Exactly. What are we saying to ourselves except that we’re not fully committed. Of course, there are times when extenuating circumstances may prevent us from acting, but I’m not talking about this form of delay. I’m speaking to those moments of voluntary delay where we know we have the time to do something, that it’s in our best interest to do it, but we still say, “Yeah, I’ll try to get that done today.” Our motivation is still external, and we know it will take the exertion of self-control to get it down, and we don’t want to.

As I’ve written before, this is the deep-seated self-deception that is all part of procrastination. To overcome it, we have to be honest with ourselves.

Patch agrees and he added a little bit more in his reply (as I summarized in my previous post): "You've got to know what you want. This is central to acting on your intentions. When you know what you want, you realize that all there is left then is time management. You'll manage your time to achieve your goals because you clearly know what you're trying to achieve in your life."

Mindfulness helps here. In fact, mindfulness is a cornerstone of increasing one’s awareness of emotions, thoughts and where we direct our attention. Without mindful attention, we can continue to self deceive. The sad truth is that without mindful attention to our lives it really amounts to “trying to live today” as if we were really autonomous beings who knew what they want, not victims of our habits, when in reality, that’s all we are – creatures of our habits. Habits of thought. Habits of emotion. Behavioral habits of needless delay. To break these habits, we have to make conscious choices.

It is a choice we make in language, and it’s a choice in in our perspective. Do I have to do it, or do I want to do it?

Another perpsective - a "low-threshold" starting place

Returning to my student’s example about her lab report, my perspective about how she might rethink her work was different from the first student response. Although I do agree that there is an important difference between “I have to do” and “I want to do,” I had a low-threshold alternative to offer.

Instead of thinking, “I gotta get that done,” I asked her to rephrase it to “I’m going to get started on that.” You know my mantra by now – just get started. Often we find that our motivation changes from a "have to” to a "want to” when we get started. Our attitude follows our behavior without us having to pretend that we really want to do it (as another student pointed out during our discussion, she could never say “I want to do it” because I know that would be a lie).

In the end, I do agree with Patch in saying that our most effective action is based on an alignment of our self with our tasks, where our actions are clearly seen as part of our autonomous choice - what we want to do. Along the way to this goal, it’s in our best interest to avoid relying on external motivation, because you’ll simply exhaust ourselves through the exertion of self-control.

There is another way where you fight much less with yourself and the task at hand. Just get started. Don’t over-think it. Don’t identify with the emotions you’re feeling. These will pass. Just get doing something on the task. This is the route to task completion and self-change.