When a client comes to me with concerns about an inability to get themselves to do something, I often ask them what they think the problem is. The answers vary, but some of the most popular include self-sabotage, a lack of motivation, poor time management habits, physical exhaustion, and mental overwhelm.
If any of those answers were true, the solutions would be straightforward – we could “align their parts” to create inner congruence, fire them up with our favorite motivational strategy, teach them the time management habits of highly effective people, and encourage them to take more naps and/or learn to meditate.
But in my experience, the real solution is inevitably simpler:
When someone is consistently not doing what they say they want to do, it’s because they don’t really want to do it.
Why would we set a goal to do something we don’t really want to do?
Actually, we have all sorts of reasons. We might do it because we think that we should, or because we think it’s a necessary precondition to getting something we want. We might think we have to because it’s what someone else wants us to do. But one of the most common reasons is because we like what we think working on it would do for us or achieving it would mean about us.
Here’s the simplest way I know to tell if what you’re currently working on is a personality-driven ego project or an inspiration-led “soul goal”:
Are you really looking forward to it, or are you really looking forward to telling people about it?
For example, about fifteen years ago, I was cast opposite the lovely Tracy-Ann Oberman in a BBC radio adaptation of the Hemingway classic A Farewell to Arms. While I didn’t know it then, that was the beginning of the end of my acting career.
As best I could tell, it was an excellent production and my performance was well received. But it was also the first time I ever noticed that much as I loved telling people I was playing a leading role at the BBC, I was actually slightly dreading showing up and doing the job.
I’ve found a similar dynamic at play when people come to me to say they want to write a book. If I ask them how many pages they’ve written so far or how many chapters they’ve completed, they explain that they haven’t actually started yet but once they take a course, finish shaping their proposal/get an agent/get a publisher/win the lottery/fly to Mars, they’ll be ready to begin.
It doesn’t take much probing to reveal that they don’t really want to write; they want to “be a writer”. That is, they have fallen in love with the idea of being a writer without being in love with the act of writing.
Now, just because you discover something is just an ego project doesn’t mean you have to give it up – it just means you don’t have to worry about it. If it happens, great – it’s fun to puff up your ego from time to time. But if it doesn’t come off, it’s no big deal, because you didn’t really want to do it in the first place.
On the other hand if you realize you’ve got a fully fledged soul goal on your hand, you don’t have to worry about that either – the very fact that you really want to do it virtually ensures that you will.
As I wrote shortly after my BBC experience:
If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. If you do want to, you don’t have to, But you could (because you can). And if you can and you want to, you probably will!