Why We Don't Always Do What We Want

by Jess Whittlestone
Originally Published: 

“I told myself I’d eat healthily this week…but then someone brought chocolate cake to work, and who can resist chocolate cake?”

“I was going to go for a run…but it’s cold and rainy outside, and watching TV is just so much more appealing right now. “

“I should really get started on that report…but one more day won’t make much difference, right?”

Most of us can empathize with thoughts like the above. We all have things we know we should do but struggle to motivate ourselves to actually get done, whether it’s going to the gym, quitting smoking or making that phone call you’ve been putting off for weeks. It’s so common that we might not stop to think about why it happens. Why can’t we just do the things we want to do?

When we fail to do what we want

It seems strange that we can both genuinely want to do something and fail to actually do it. And yet, this seems to happen all the time: We form good intentions that we somehow can’t translate into action. The technical term for this paradoxical failure of will is akrasia. Every time you procrastinate, or resolve to do something only to later break that resolve without good reason, you’re being akratic.

What causes akrasia? Are we just lazy? Not exactly.

Akrasia generally occurs with activities that have a delayed benefit—like exercising, eating well, or working on your thesis months before it’s due. Running regularly will help you get fitter in the long run (no pun intended), but you’re unlikely to notice much difference after just one run. Working on your thesis now will reduce the amount of stress you’re under when the deadline approaches, but it doesn’t seem to provide much of an immediate reward.

Often there’s also an immediate cost to the positive activity, or there’s something else you could be doing that’s more immediately rewarding. Going for a run might benefit you later, but it also means braving the wind and rain now. Instead, you could relax inside and watch TV, which sounds much better right now. Rather than work on your thesis, you could go out with your (similarly akratic) friends. It’s hard to be motivated by consequences that will happen far in the future. In the battle between immediate and delayed benefits, the short-term often wins out. Research in the psychology of motivation shows that the more delayed the consequences, the less likely people are to do something to bring about those results.


A battle between two selves

Another useful way to think about this problem is to think of “present-you” and “future-you” as if they were two different people. (Have you ever felt like there are two voices in your head, an angel and a devil, battling between what you should do and what you want to do? You might be closer to the truth here than you think.)

At noon, “present-you” wants to go running this evening, but “this-evening-you” would probably prefer to sit inside watching TV. It’s as if we hear the angel more when we’re thinking about what we’ll do in the future, but then the devil sneaks in at the last minute—when it comes to actually doing the thing. Research from psychology and economics shows we tend to have what are called “time-inconsistent preferences.” In one study, two groups of people were asked if they would rather receive an apple or a chocolate bar as a snack. One group was asked which snack they would like to be given now, and the other group was asked what they would like to be given later. People in the “now” group tended to choose the chocolate bar, whereas people in the “later” group tended to choose the apple.

The good news: You’re not lazy

The good news is that failing to follow through on your intentions doesn’t mean you’re lazy. The bad news is that motivating yourself to do things when the benefits aren’t immediate is just fundamentally difficult. In part two of this series, I’ll talk about how you can intervene to solve this problem: how to create your own rewards and incentivize yourself to do what you really want to do.

Photo: pranavbhatt/flickr

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