by Paul Matthews

What makes you want to do something?

A simple answer to this question is that we wish to avoid pain or gain pleasure. We either move away from something we don’t want or we move towards something we do want.

Even Aristotle wrote about the anticipated consequence in comparison to current circumstances as being the source of the stimulus to avoid or pursue.

If we perceive the consequences as big pain, we will move away strongly; that is, we will be strongly motivated to do something to avoid the pain. If we perceive it as a small pain, we may decide to do nothing about it: the effort to change matters just doesn’t seem worth it, so we will tolerate the situation, even though it niggles. And by the way, doing nothing is still an activity; it is still ‘doing’.

If we see the pleasure consequences as big, we will move towards them strongly. If we think we won’t get much pleasure from the activity at all, we may choose not to even bother doing it. In other words, the effort expended to do it is not worth the anticipated return of pleasure.

Internally, we do an unconscious return-on-investment calculation, based on consequences, to decide what we want to do and how strongly we want to do it in comparison to remaining in our present circumstances. This means that one day we may be motivated to do something and on another day, if our present circumstances have changed for the better, the same thing may not be so attractive.


Notice that the consequential pain or pleasure is not being felt in the moment. It is anticipated in the future. We are guessing what will happen in the future, based on our previous experiences and our beliefs about how the world around us works.

There are two immediately evident problems here:

  1. Our guess about the nature of the consequences could be wrong, in which case our motivation level will be ‘set’ wrong
  2. We are so convinced that our guess is right that we ensure the consequences turn out that way. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so we miss out on what might have happened instead.

Think of some time in the past when you really did not want to do something, but did it anyway and, to your surprise, thoroughly enjoyed it. An example might be going to a dinner party you didn’t want to attend.

Think of another time when you succeeded at something unexpectedly. What was your motivation level to try it again compared with trying it the first time?

Key questions

So what we need is a simple method to verify our guess about the consequences of an activity. Usually, when we consider consequences, we do so from a single perspective, which limits our understanding of them and our ability to predict them well. Here are four questions you can ask about any activity to consider the consequences more fully:

  1. What would happen if I did the activity?
  2. What would not happen if I did the activity?
  3. What would happen if I did not do the activity?
  4. What would not happen if I did not do the activity?

Consider any future activity and write down a score (between one and 100) for the strength of your motivation to do it.

Now write down the answers to the four questions above. You may get several answers to each question.

Arrange the answers into two groupings: Pleasure and Pain. You could even score each answer for its impact and then add up the scores.

Now re-assess the strength of your motivation in the light of this new information.

What changed?

Do this again for several more future activities.

These questions may seem a little strange at first, like folding your arms the opposite way to normal or writing with your other hand. The reason is that, up to now, you were probably considering the activity in a limited way, using only one of these questions.

Levels of consequence

Notice that as you think of consequences, you can probe a bit more to another level by asking ‘And if that happened, what would I get or avoid as a result of that?’

Ultimately, if you keep asking this question you will discover that all the things that you want to do are about achieving happiness. The ultimate consequence is happiness. Even if we are seeking to avoid something that we consider painful, we are working on the assumption that we need absence of pain to be happy.


Go back to the consequences you wrote down for the exercise above and now ask, several times, what you would get or avoid as the result of each consequence.

Have you noticed that when we think of what we want for ourselves, we have a litany of things that we want to do or be or have, and also probably a list of things we don’t want. Achieving this cocktail of things is how we seek happiness. When we wish for the best for another person, we often simply say ‘I just want them to be happy.’ It is as if we already know that this is the ultimate outcome.

People are different

Our assessment of the consequences of an activity is a very personal thing. It is based on our experience. We might consider the consequences of an activity to be really good, while another person might consider the consequences of the same activity to be really bad.

Key point

Just because you have a high level of motivation to do something, it does not follow that everyone else will, or should, have an equivalent level of motivation to do that activity.

To illustrate this, think about a skier standing on their skis at the top of a slope. A good skier could look at the steep slope in gleeful anticipation of an exhilarating run. A less experienced skier might look at the slope with trepidation and fear. Same slope, but very different perceptions of consequences, depending on past experience.

When considering any activity, your perception of the consequences will always be different to that of someone else. Always. The differences could be great, as with the skiers, or small, but they will be there. This means that different people will set their motivation level to do a specific task differently.