Why do we do the opposite of what we want to do?

Why do we do the opposite of what we want to do?

We have all the intention of getting a task done, and yet, we delay getting started or interrupt the work to do something else. Our behaviour may baffle us – we want to do good work. Why do we do the opposite of what we want to do? It may be because we are not sure about how to proceed, or we are worried about possible negative consequences. Sometimes we think there is only one right way to do it, or we believe that we shouldn’t make mistakes.

When thinking like this, we can feel discouraged, making it less likely that we will persevere with our efforts to complete the task. This can trigger frustration, and negative thoughts, about our ability to do things well.

When we worry that we may not reach a high standard, we may inadvertently create obstacles that prevent us from making progress. Although we may not be fully aware of it, we may end up doing the opposite of what we want to do to protect our self-image.

We are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept. If we have not done well because we started too late, or had a problem that prevented us from making progress, we rationalise our behaviour by explaining it to ourselves and others that there are reasons that prevented us from working as expected (Baumeister, 1996).

We would rather have some explanation for not working than taking the risk of putting in a lot of effort and then finding out that we made a mistake, or failed. Why would we tend to do this? It could be because we don’t like having doubts about our ability to work up to a high standard. Another common tendency is to avoid the task because we anticipate it being difficult and hard work. From an evolutionary perspective, we have been designed to want to avoid difficulty and discomfort.

Turning things around & getting things done

Changing the focus: To motivate ourselves to make progress with a task, we need to make an active choice to do it. Then, we need to prioritise it so that we can then focus our attention on what we need to do.  We can start by changing our focus from the difficulties, to focusing on the benefits of getting it done (Young, 2017). 

Avoiding comparisons: We all work in different ways, and we do not have a full picture of their circumstances. So, it is better to focus on what we are doing, monitor our progress, and identify how we can improve our work. It is useful to remind ourselves that with practice and continued effort, we develop our skills and gain experience.  

Focusing on practice: We develop our skills through deliberate practice, and by reaching beyond our comfort zone. As we focus on what is of value to us, we develop our intrinsic motivation – doing things because we enjoy the sense of achieving that comes from the effort we put into the task. 

Reflecting on progress: By reflecting on our progress, we can derive positive feelings, and this contributes to building our confidence and sense of self-worth. By focusing on our values, and identifying what is meaningful, we are more likely to choose to dedicate time and effort to complete a task (Deci & Ryan, 2000).  

Viewing mistakes as part of how we learn: We can identify what we need to change by paying attention to what went wrong. We can ask ourselves what is stopping us from persevering with our efforts to complete the task. Just by taking a moment to reflect, and review our work, we can identify what is preventing us from getting started or continuing with the task Once you notice what we are thinking, we can redirect our attention to what is meaningful to us and what can give us a sense of achievement.            

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” (Mark Twain)

‘Failure is success in progress.” (Albert Einstein)



Baumeister, R. F. (1996) “Self-regulation and ego threats. Motivated cognition, self-deception, and destructive goal setting“. In The Psychology of Action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. 

Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. & Ryan, F. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation.  New York: Penguin Books.

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.


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