Why we don’t do things

With the new year upon us, many people are setting their “new year’s resolutions” — usually an inordinately long set of goals that are cute and ornate, but unrealistic. Nevertheless, when you crack down on it, the reason we don’t keep our goals is not because the goals themselves are unrealistic (which is commonly the case) but because of one of two deeper reasons.

The story starts with excuses

If there is one almost universal talent that humans have it’s the ability to make excuses. Excuses are just that. Excuses are analogous to getting out of the drivers seat of one’s life and sitting in the back seat saying “I want someone else to drive my life for me; external people, external circumstances, anything” and from there we become our own back seat drivers. Excuses are one of the major manifestations of a reactive lifestyle.

Excuses can be varied and creative, but when you crunch down on them there are only really two reasons why we don’t do anything specific in our life. That my claim — only two. Any excuse that we make can be allotted into one of two slots:

Reason #1: A switch in priorities

A common excuse for not doing something is that we “don’t have time” — this is reactive language for something that, when expressed in proactive language is: “this is not high enough on my priority list”.

Rather than complaining that we don’t have time for something, we should simply and honestly express: “this is not high enough on my priority list at this point in time, because I have XYZ which is a higher priority”. In this sense we take the driver’s seat and indicate that we have consciously made the choice to let other matters take priority over this one goal.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with taking this approach. It’s much more effective than acting as if external circumstances control us. 

Example: One of my new year’s resolutions is to go to bed before 10:30 every night in order to get sufficient sleep. One night a sports program is one that will go on until 11:30 PM. In this circumstance it’s easy to justify my staying up late:”This is the finals I can’t miss it!”, “Just this once!”, or “Everyone will be talking about this tomorrow I must know” — but the reality is that I made a choice: I chose to prioritise the sports game over my bedtime goal for this night. I didn’t achieve this goal because I chose to not achieve it.

Example: Tonight a friend of mine has a birthday party that I won’t be attending because I’m taking my mom to the airport. I am not not going to my friend’s party because “I don’t have time”, and I’m not not going because “I have to take my mom to the airport” but rather:

“I have chosen to prioritise taking my mother to the airport over going to my friend’s birthday party” (Which is a very reasonable priority choice). But I am still in full control of my time. If I wanted to, I could hurt my relationship with my mother in exchange for being able to attend my friend’s birthday party. I am in control.

Many times our not achieving something is simply because it’s not a priority in our lives. If it were, we’d get it done.

But what about when we do have time? That leads us to reason #2:

Reason #2: A lack of discipline

In reason #1 we don’t do things because other potentially more important things had to take their place. Reason #2 is the opposite. Reason #2 is simply the summary of what happens when we do have time but don’t have the intrinsic drive, motivation or self-control to get something done. For most new year’s goals, this is why we don’t achieve them.

We simply lack discipline.

In reactive language this is: “I’m not going exercising today, it’s raining / too cold / I had bad sleep / whatever”, but in proactive and straightforward language it is: “I’m not going exercising today, because I lack the discipline to do so given the current circumstances” — this is not a harsh statement to yourself, it’s simply a statement of fact. I personally use this statement often:

Example: One of my personal life goals is to keep a daily journal. I’ve noticed that the quality of the journal entries is far better when the entry itself is done on the day that it happened — because I’m more able to recall details. However, at this point in time I do all 7 entries of a week on Sundays. This is not because I don’t have the time every day to do a quick journal entry, but because I lack the discipline to do daily journal entries. Admitting that the reason is because I lack discipline is interestingly empowering. I am taking the front seat of my life and being honest with myself. “I don’t write journal entries every day at the moment because I lack the discipline to do so, but I do 7 entries on Sundays as they are more relaxed”

If we don’t do something it’s good to say to ourselves “I didn’t get this done because at this point in time I lack the discipline to get it done” — being straightforward and honest with yourself in this fashion is empowering, it puts you in the driver’s seat of your life and puts on more accurate lenses to behold your reality. It also allows you to push yourself better to gain that discipline so that next time you say, instead: “I did it!”

To copy the previous sentence:

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with taking this approach. It’s much more effective than acting as if external circumstances control us. 

Referring back to the original statement about setting “over the top” goals, the reason we generally don’t achieve them is that the jump in discipline is too great for us at this point in time.

Applying this language in everyday settings

This model for reasons why things don’t get done is very useful for daily settings. When you don’t do something, answer honestly; was it because you chose for other things to take priority or was it due to a lack of discipline? In this way you are empowering yourself to move forward in achieving your goals.

Good luck with your new year’s resolutions!

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