Do You Want to Do It? Or to Have Done It?

By Nat Eliason in Psychology

Next time you say something like:

“I want to learn to play piano”

“I want to write a book”

“I want to get more muscular”

Ask yourself an important question:

Do you really want to do that? Or do you want to have done that?

There is a vast world of things out there you could do. You could become a pilot, learn to speak Spanish, start a website. But many of them aren’t really things that you want to do, they’re things that you want to have done.

Maybe it’s so you can say you did them to other people on dates and in interviews. Maybe it’s because they’re things you feel like you should have done. Maybe it’s that you’ve been meaning to do it for years. Whatever the justification, if it’s just something you want to have done, odds are you won’t go through with it or have the motivation to stick to it.

But, why not?

The problem comes back to not enjoying the process. When you spend your time focused on a goal that you’re pursuing because of external motivation, it’s hard to push through the rough parts. Everything you do consistently is going to have rough parts, but you’ll only push through them if you’re enjoying the “doing” along the way and aren’t just shooting for the goal because you think you should.

This is one of the reasons people struggle to lose weight and keep it off. They don’t want to lose weight, they want to have lost weight. The truth is that losing weight is not fun, no one wants to do it, but feeling healthy and energized feels fucking awesome and I want to do that all day. And, it turns out, that part of how you do that is to maintain a healthy weight.

You can get stuck in a similar problem with professional goals. People say they want to do some outcome (write a book, start a company, etc.) but in many of those cases, they just want to have done it. There are tons of people who really really want to have written a book; very few putting pen to paper.

So, before you take on another project, this is a useful heuristic. If you want to have done something, but don’t particularly want to do the process that it involves, you need to abandon it or figure out how to refocus. If you’re not driven to do it in your free time, there’s not much use in beating your head against the wall to reach some result you think you want or think you should hit.

On the flipside, if you think you want to have done something but aren’t sure if you enjoy the doing yet, trying it can give you a good sense of whether or not you’re likely to stick to it. If the doing part is fun, then it makes sense to have a “have done” goal.

And, if there’s a “have done” that you legitimately know you should do (e.g. get to a healthy weight) then the question is how do you create a “doing,” a process, that you enjoy that will get you there.

Footnotes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.