Why Do We Do Things We Don't Want to Do?

The answer might surprise you.

Posted Aug 05, 2018

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Have you ever found yourself doing something you didn’t want to do? Maybe you’re working late (again) when you want to be at home having dinner with the family. Or perhaps you just snapped at your best friend and hurt their feelings when they were only trying to offer some friendly advice. You don’t want to be working late or snapping, but it's happening anyway.

The funny thing is, as provocative and just plain nutty as this might seem, we don’t do anything unless we want to do it. Bear with me, and I’ll see if I can explain:

Fundamentally, it is our nature to want. We want our body to be the right temperature, we want the right amount of oxygen in our blood, we want the right number of friends and close relationships, we want the right level of achievement, and so on.

At the end of the day, we are “wanting” creatures. Everything we do is connected to our wants. Sometimes we want things even when we don’t want to want them.

What is happening all around us clearly also plays a role in what we do. If your boss hadn’t given you that job to do at 4.43 p.m., you wouldn’t still be in the office at 6.37 p.m. And if your friend hadn’t offered his opinion on what choice you should make, you wouldn’t have bitten his head off.

While the influence of what is going on around us is undeniable, the particular goings-on that affect us, out of all that is occurring all the time, are determined by the wants we harbor inside. I’m working on this post while sitting in an airport lounge, so there’s lots and lots of “stuff” happening in every direction. None of that, however, is affecting what I’m doing while I’m thinking about the best words to type to communicate the ideas I’m developing.

I’ll say it again: Everything we do is connected to our wants.

Understanding the centrality of wants — or goals, expectations, dreams, values, yearnings, ambitions, intentions, hankerings, objectives, targets, hopes, aims, longings, attitudes, proclivities, missions, standards, motives, purposes, plans, specifications, benchmarks, aspirations, desires, needs, passions, inclinations, wishes, and cravings — will help you get more of what you want, or strive for, more often. It will also help you understand those times you might be perplexed, because you did something you were sure you didn’t want to do.

Trying to understand behavior without appreciating the role of wants can be confusing. Take driving a car: If you want to keep your car where it’s supposed to be on the road, you’ll need to turn the steering wheel to the right on some occasions, and to the left on others. That is, depending on the situation, we can do opposite things to achieve the same want.

An important thing to appreciate about wants is that wants are all about results, not actions. So, if you want to understand (there’s another want) why you acted in a particular way, think about the result, not the behavior. While you don’t necessarily want to be working late, you do want your boss to think you’re conscientious and dependable, and you do want your boss to consider you for promotion in the next few months. While you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings, you do want to make your own decisions about how you live your life, and you also want some peace and quiet to think through a tricky situation.

You don’t want to want to buy another packet of cigarettes, but here you are again, walking into the store on your way home from work, handing over the money, and looking forward to putting the cigarette to your lips as you fumble with the packaging. You don’t want to want other people’s approval, yet, for the umpteenth time, you find yourself standing in a group saying things you don’t really mean and soaking up the nods and smiles that are coming your way.

We have lots of wants. We are all, essentially, kaleidoscopes of wants. No particular pattern of wants is exactly the same as another. We have things we want and things we don’t want, and even things we want that we don’t want to want.

But wants don’t care whether you like them or not. Once they’ve snuggled into your nest of dreams, desires, goals, and expectations, they’ll just get on with the business of barking orders about the results they expect (from their unique perspective).  

Sometimes it’s even hard to describe what we want or why we acted in a particular way, but the existence of a want doesn’t depend on our ability to describe it or talk about it. People have wants before they learn to talk. Even if you can’t put into words why you did something, it is still the case that there’s a team of wants all busily going about the business of achieving the results they’re required to produce.

So if you ever have the experience of seemingly doing something you don’t want to do, think about what the result of your doing is. Sometimes it can take a bit of meandering through the back streets of your mind, but you’ll know it when you find it. The important want could even be an aspect of yourself that you don’t generally like admitting to. Maybe there are times when you do want to have things your way, regardless of the preferences of others. Or perhaps a little part of you does want to rebel, break rules, and defy the expectations of people who think they know you.

Whether you like them or not, and whether you’re aware of them or not, the wants that are part of you are always wanting. They can be ignored or restrained for a little while, but never indefinitely.

Spending time getting to know as many of your wants as you can and finding out the results they have in store for you can be intriguing and even fun. Most wants are insisting on their results, because they’re playing a part in the results of other wants that are higher in the chain of command. Or, a bit like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, you need them all to see the big picture. You are the big picture.

The further up that chain of command you can scramble, or the more pieces of the puzzle you can find, the more you will learn about yourself and all that is important to you. It’s a journey only you can take.

Go on! You know you want to.