Doing What You Want

February 2016

I use the word “want” differently than most other people. Many people use it aspirationally, referring to something they would like to happen or something they wish would happen.

But by the time I’ve said that I want to do something, it means that I’ve actually envisioned a future in which it has happened, and I’ve decided that willing said future into existence will be totally worth it. For me, “to want to do something” is practically a synonym for “to plan to do something” - and once some set of actions have been christened as The Plan, my stubbornness takes hold. Things that are not part of The Plan (staying in bed) just aren’t going to happen, no matter how tempting the immediate tradeoff or how seemingly unpleasant the next step in The Plan is (long run in the rain on Saturday morning).

It’s often completely involuntary. I get some sort of mind worm that crawls around and then flips a light bulb that makes me think “wait a second - you know what would be really epic?” Before that instant, the thought hadn’t occurred to me, but after that instant, it’s now The Plan. The Plan is now What I Want To Do and sticking to that Plan is the path of least resistance.

This may seem like a very inflexible outlook, but there is room for changing the Plan, as long as the new Plan is objectively better. In this case “better” is defined as either more epic or requiring more discipline (e.g. we’re going to learn the principles of homesteading and do it in New Zealand, which incidentally meets both criteria.)

All of this, I’m told, makes me extremely non-akratic. A person who is very akratic has a big disconnect between what they say they want to do and what they find themselves doing. Beeminder is a way to combat akrasia, since you can literally force yourself to making progress towards a goal by risking money if you fail to do so. To deviate from the plan to train for a marathon, for example, will now cost you money because your former self decided that training for the marathon was what you actually wanted to do.

Beeminder, however, is still useful in that it’s one of many different ways in which I can formalize a Plan. Because the mere thought of failing at something is itself enough to get me to follow through, the monetary aspect of Beeminder is almost always superfluous. It’s the act of stating a goal and creating a page on the internet for it that gets it to stick, and many times that’s the best way to formalize the commitment.

Having a large and varied arsenal of ways to get yourself to do things is what I’ve found to be the most effective approach. Using a single technique for everything - Beeminder, for example, or always using a training calendar for exercise, or Trello or other software for a GTD system - often means falling into a routine, which is the exact opposite of what makes me feel human and alive.