I have a deeply hidden and articulate desire for something beyond the daily life.

Virginia Woolf

Knowing what you want in life is important – it helps set direction. But many times, it’s difficult to ask ourselves the question, “what do I want in life?” – mostly because it’s not a question that has a simple solution, but also because we’re afraid of the work that comes with knowing the answer.

There’s a rather simple way to figure out what drives you in life, and it begins with a three-step process. First, identify a behavior you can assess (it can be patterns of behavior you notice in life, or simply keeping track of different behaviors throughout the day). Then, categorize it into one of four types of behaviors. Finally, figure out what fuels that behavior.

Step one: Identify behaviors to assess

Maybe you’ve noticed a pattern (not working out, hitting the snooze button, taking the stairs instead of the elevator… assess both positive and negative behaviors from your day). Or, you can randomly choose multiple behaviors throughout the day. Identify behaviors you want to assess, then go to step two.

Step two: Four types of behaviors

Your behaviors can be placed into one of four categories:

  1. Response-Action
  2. Response-Inaction
  3. Initiated-Action
  4. Initiated-Inaction

Any behavior that I can see from you is either a response or initiated. For example, if I ask you to throw me an apple and you pick up a waxy, red one from the counter and throw it my way, it’s a behavior in response to what I’ve asked.

If you decided to get up during a meeting to use the restroom, that’s an initiated response. Your behavior didn’t stem as a response to someone else’s (external) behavior.

In addition, behavior can be categorized as action or inaction. You can choose to do something or choose not to. A choice not to do something is a behavior as much as choosing to do something is. When you choose to do the laundry, you’re engaging in action. But having the thought that you need to do laundry and deciding to play the guitar instead is an inaction (not doing laundry).

Both action and inaction provide feedback – your behaviors are a reflection of your thoughts, and your thoughts are a reflection of your desires.

Some examples of each:

Response-action is moving over on the train because the person that plopped down next to you has no sense of boundaries and encroaches into your personal space. Pattern: Response-action implies reacting to life.

Response-inaction is stepping over the homeless person on 14th Street to get to your destination instead of taking the time to either speak to him or placing some change into his canister. Pattern: Response-inaction implies there’s something you’re afraid of.

Initiated-action is getting up at 5AM before your 5:15 alarm goes off instead of laying around until you hear the alarm. Pattern: Initiated-action implies you’re a go-getter.

Initiated-inaction is remembering that you need to take out the garbage but choosing to stay on the couch instead (you had a really long day). Pattern: Initiated-inaction implies you don’t really know what you want.

Step three: What fuels the behavior

Finally, figure out what fuels the behavior. Every behavior either moves you away from pain, or towards a reward.

For example, if you went out for drinks with friends the night prior and you hit the snooze button the next morning, you probably want more sleep (towards a reward – more sleep). However, if you hit the snooze button because you really dislike your job, you want to move away from pain – your horrible job.

For every behavior that moves you away from pain, there is a behavior that moves you towards a reward instead – which gives you the opportunity to create change.

For example, if after assessing why you keep hitting the snooze button you realize you’re moving away from pain, you can either choose to get a new job, or stay in the one makes you miserable.

Example scenario

Sam started a new job two weeks ago; his colleagues have asked him to join them for drinks three times now, but he has turned down their offer to join them all three times. This behavior is a response-inaction: he’s responding to their offer to join them by choosing not to go. When Sam asks himself the question, why don’t I take them up on their offer to spend time outside of work with them?, he realizes he’s done this at his last job too. Response-inaction implies there is something he’s afraid of. What is he afraid of? It turns out, in his first job out of college, colleagues he spent time with threw him under the bus when his team lost a major contract.

What fuels his behavior? He tells himself that he doesn’t want to waste time standing around with people at a bar because it would take away from his time to watch t.v. at home instead. His behaviors are moving him away from pain, which makes sense given his past experience. What behavior would move him towards a reward? If the reward he wants is quality time with friends, he can choose to spend time with colleagues that he’s not on the same team with at work, for example.

In this scenario, Sam is driven to move away from pain which means he’s focused on reacting to life. He’s also afraid of being thrown under the bus again (which begins a victim mentality). As a result of this exercise, Sam can actively choose to move towards what he wants (friends outside of work or outside of his direct team).

What do your behaviors say about what you really want in life?

Live with intention. Lead with inspiration.