Why do people say they want to do something but then never do it?
June 13, 2022 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes I feel like I'm an anomaly when it comes to following through on my goals. Whenever I say I want to do something I put in effort into doing it. Maybe I'm exaggerating, and I don't always follow through, but even so I feel like I do and people always tell me that I'm very consistent on following up with what I want to do.

To be clearer this sort of stuff kind of annoys me as well because often people make promises, and then they don't keep them, but I know if the situation was reversed and I had to make a promise I'd follow through on it.

Some examples:

A friend wants to go to NYC, so I say yes sure. Well now we're close to the date, and we need to get all the planning done (I offered to do that beforehand), but then the costs come up, and now they're looking for every other way in which to get out of that plan. Maybe they should've just said they don't want to go, I'd prefer if they just did that instead of lying to themselves and saying what sounds convenient at the time.

I know a guy who got his PhD not so long ago. He is a postdoc at some lab, he wants to be a professor. He's been told that this is not possible yet, not in the US (where he wants to be a professor), that he needs to do more research and publish more things. So his bosses offered to help him, they put him in charge of directing five students to publish to top venues in computer science. It's a difficult task, one that requires sacrifice, dedication and ambition. From what other people tell him, he doesn't really seem like he wants to do it. He's never at the lab, he wastes a lot of time procrastinating and apparently all the students that work with him dislike him.

There are also a couple of people I know that claim they want to be entrepreneurs. So they were given a huge opportunity to work with people involved in that, but they seem uninterested as well. The people they are working with look for people like them to connect people interested in that and to form teams to take on the ventures that they have. However, these people I know seem to not care about it.

So, I don't understand. Why say you want to do something if you won't follow through on it? Why bother? What's the point? Why not just save yourself the trouble and not make promises that you know you won't keep?
posted by Tarsonis10 to Human Relations (44 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: With each of your examples it sounds like there’s a disconnect between what people want and what is being offered.

In the NYC trip, your friend started looking for a way out after seeing costs. Likely they realized they couldn’t afford it but saying that outright is embarrassing.

The person who wants to be a professor may not have good supervisory skills and may actually want a lifestyle/work focus that isn’t compatible with the route being provided. Or he may be stuck on a technical issue he doesn’t know how to overcome. Or he may dislike his research direction but doesn’t feel able to refocus. Procrastination is typically an emotional response to lack of direction and not knowing what to do next.

Your final example sounds like it involves working for someone else on their projects which is exactly what a lot of people interested in entrepreneurship want to avoid. It’s not clear why “go work for this person” is perceived as a great entrepreneurship activity.

I guess you’ve never been in a situation where a great opportunity turned out to be not what it appeared, or not actually aligned with your goals or values, or just not feasible for financial or logistical reasons, but it happens all the time and isn’t about “people not following through” but people coping with the imperfect world and its intersection with their actual desires, needs, and capabilities.
posted by jeoc at 7:28 AM on June 13, 2022 [39 favorites]

Best answer: Are you interested in reframing your thoughts about this? Maybe you can start by brainstorming: what are some reasons you can imagine people saying they want to do something and then not doing it? I can help get you started:
  • They changed their minds
  • They discovered that they don't actually enjoy it as much as they thought.
  • They want to do it but don't have enough time or energy to make it happen
  • They want to be a person who does it, but in practice have other priorities
  • They start out with a lot of energy, but then find that their energy is required by something else you don't have insight into
  • They want the validation of being a famous painter but then discover that they actually hate painting SO MUCH and take a while to come to terms with it
  • They want to please their parents by becoming a doctor but also faint at the sight of blood and decide to become, IDK, a Fuller Brush salesperson
If you're generally curious, maybe start telling some stories about what situations might cause this . What would it be like to have competing priorities or learn something new about yourself?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:30 AM on June 13, 2022 [42 favorites]

know a guy who got his PhD not so long ago. He is a postdoc at some lab, he wants to be a professor. He's been told that this is not possible yet, not in the US (where he wants to be a professor), that he needs to do more research and publish more things. So his bosses offered to help him, they put him in charge of directing five students to publish to top venues in computer science. It's a difficult task, one that requires sacrifice, dedication and ambition. From what other people tell him, he doesn't really seem like he wants to do it. He's never at the lab, he wastes a lot of time procrastinating and apparently all the students that work with him dislike him

Momentum being blocked/being told you can’t do something over and over for various reasons or other external influences can absolutely kill motivation/passion toward a goal. This is more common than you think in academia, and why so many people drop out. Eventually people realize the goal of being a research professor is less likely than winning the lottery.

In the case of the NY friend, they might be consuming news on Covid risks and feel adverse to travel even if it is otherwise exciting to them. Sometimes that cognitive dissonance hard to articulate.

Most people don’t really want to burn themselves out or fight and claw to obtain a goal when the only reward they have from doing so thus far is more fighting for the goal.
posted by Cyber666 at 7:31 AM on June 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

Maybe you (or they) are confusing goals, dreams, hopes, wants, needs, etc.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:34 AM on June 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

I actually don't think the first answer is irrelevant at all! It's a perfect meta-example. A way to become less judgmental is to generate empathy for others without worrying about what they SHOULD do. You indicated an interest in doing just that, and then you haven't done it. That's a perfect opportunity to think about why you are not doing the thing you said you wanted to do -- what's getting in your way? Maybe that is what gets in other peoples' ways.

Also, consider that this thing you value about yourself -- your followthrough -- is maybe not actually valued as much by other people! Clearly your one friend values being able to pay his bills more than following through on a commitment to travel. That's an easy one to observe (for me anyway) without having a value-laden reaction. A reasonable person could make both choices.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:34 AM on June 13, 2022 [56 favorites]

Have you read about the fundamental attribution error?

You're attributing to people's character things that are much more likely to be attributable to their circumstances here. And you're cutting yourself slack -- oh, maybe you don't always follow through, but usually you do so that's okay -- that you aren't cutting them.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:39 AM on June 13, 2022 [40 favorites]

I understand the phenomenon you are describing. I've seen this as well and also been frustrated by it. I think if you're the sort of person who makes these sort of cold assessments, who follows through on things you say you want to do, it can be hard to get into the mind of people who do not...though it's also worth being honest with yourself. At least in my case, in certain domains I'm very very very good (almost too good) at following through, but in others, less so.

Regardless, I think the real answer to this question is that it is unanswerable...it is a part of the human condition. You could dive into social science literature on this and try to understand it, but to me, the real issue is how you relate to these people. It sounds like you have a bit of contempt for them...I don't mean that unkindly, as this is certainly something I have felt at various points in the past. Contempt is a very nasty emotion, though.

To me this is a question best answered with art, honestly. To me, literature and music speak directly to this. Why are humans the way they are? Why do people seem to endlessly do what seem like stupid things? Why are they so different from me? This probably isn't the answer you want to hear, but really, there is no answer. The answer is simply...that's how people are. You may not be like that, but most people are. If you want to have meaningful relationships with people, you really only have two options...one, is understand that you can't have unreasonable standards for people. Two, you set the standards you want, and you cut off relationships with people who don't meet it. I have done both. You can also of course work to sort of try and maintain healthy and reasonable standards, because nobody is perfect, but what one person may lack in followthrough on their professional commitments, they may make up in other areas...perhaps someone is a little flaky when it comes to following through on one type of thing, but when shit hits the fan, they will be there for you. It's something you sort of have to calibrate over time.

I will give you an example from my own life, just to say I am truly speaking from experience...I have learned 3 languages to a high level as an adult--and quite quickly. This required a level of prioritization that most people are simply not willing to make. Of course, there are ways to do it differently, I'm not saying I did it the only way you can...but if you want to learn a language, esp as an adult, you definitely have to put a lot of work into it, and if you want to get to a very high level, usually it means real, sustained dedication over a long period of time.

Lots and lots (and I mean lots and lots and lots) of people feel like they "need" to learn a language...for this or that reason. Because their spouse speaks spanish, because their parents speak chinese, because they like anime, because english would help them get ahead. In 99% of cases, they will speak endlessly about how much they want to learn language x, but they will do absolutely nothing to actually get there. As someone who has put an inordinate amount of effort to get there, it can be pretty easy to feel superior, and to feel contempt for them. I am not saying this is one of my better qualities, I'm just saying it is what it is. When a friend says "I really should learn spanish..." for the nth time in n years, it's hard not to be like...do you really care about this thing??

So, what have I done with those feelings? One, I've tried really really hard to just...let it go. That superiority and contempt isn't doing anything good for me. I see it as an exercise in empathy. I also try to remove myself from situations that will trigger these emotions (the major one being language learning subreddits). I also try to reframe the thing that is frustrating me. I think in most cases, people's expressed preferences are often an indirect indicator of what their true preferences are...but sometimes understanding what we really want is really really hard. Sometimes people don't even know! Or they know, but they don't want to admit it. It can be really hard to admit "I should speak spanish, but I just don't care." Or "I want to get ahead in my career, but I just don't care." These are things that can draw a lot of social judgement, so instead people sort of hem and haw and create excuses etc. So I try to be as understanding I can, and just compartmentalize the rest. When somebody says they want to lose weight or get fitter, often what they mean is...they want to be healthier, or feel better about thesmelves, or feel more comfortable in society, etc. I'm not saying that people wouoldn't be best served by actually putting some effort behind their goals, but well...refer to the literature comment above. If people were so simple, they wouldn't be people. In all their good and bad.

Alllll that said...I personally would find the vacation thing pretty frustrating. Going on vacation with friends is really tricky, especially if money is an issue for one of the people. I find the tendency for people to aspirationally say "oh we should definitely do x" when they do not actually mean they want to do x very frustrating, and in general, I have cultivated friends that do not do this. In this case, whether or not I would maintain a friendship with this person depends on factors that I don't have, but I think the tldr is like...did they not tell you because they are perhaps embarrassed at not being able to afford this trip? Because I think that's understandable, even if, again, frustrating. People can be weird about money, it can be a big source of shame and difficulty for people. Also, and again I don't have all the details...given it sounds like you are pretty judgemental (esp if you had a question in the past about trying to be less judgemental), it could be the case that people in your life...don't necessarily feel comfortable giving you all of the details? Again, that's a reach, I don't know what is actually going on...but if a friend says they want to travle with you but actually has money problems...maybe they are a flake, but also, maybe they don't feel comfortable talking about money stuff with you b/c they think you will judge them. I don't know! That said, I've tried hard to cultivate friends that are pretty sincere in the things they want to do, at least where they involve me. Because look...nobody is a robot. People will discuss their hopes and dreams and desires and won't always follow through. We aren't robots. I have domains where I'm very good at this (language) but others where I'm very bad (exercise).

I dunno, that was rambling. I get where you are coming from. But I think this is a problem that is 80% you working on yourself, 15% reevaluating your relationships/cultivate relationships with people who do not make you feel contempt for them (but the 80% is key b/c you may very well be overly prone to contempt), adn 5% people being frustrating.
posted by wooh at 7:40 AM on June 13, 2022 [9 favorites]

Sometimes people like to make plans in the same way that they like to think about what if they won the lottery - the planning and dreaming is fun in itself while the actual thing might be stressful, disappointing, so unlikely as to be ridiculous, etc.

It sounds like the answer you want is "people don't follow through because they lack discipline and are not as good as me, a person who has lots of self discipline", but that is both extremely unlikely to be true and not a really metafilter answer.
posted by Frowner at 7:40 AM on June 13, 2022 [20 favorites]

"Well, why did you say you wanted to learn to be less judgmental five months ago and now you're here asking this?"


yikes, I saw this exchange and now I regret wasting time on an answer.
posted by wooh at 7:41 AM on June 13, 2022 [13 favorites]

I mean, you wanted to be less judgemental of people a few months ago. Why not follow through on that?
posted by extramundane at 7:43 AM on June 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Good answers. Maybe I don't get it though, and perhaps I'm a lot more direct about the things I want to do and the ones I don't, but still there is some stuff that I don't quite understand:

1. Even if there is something you don't want to do, sometimes you need to do it to get what you want. This is very common and life is full of compromises like that.
2. If you know you're overpromising then I don't understand what reasoning there is to do that, it seems like this is pointless and will lead to unnecessary problems with other people.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 7:56 AM on June 13, 2022

Can you not think of situations where someone is pressured to agree to something they're not interested in?

If that's truly foreign to you, I really don't know what to say.
posted by sagc at 7:58 AM on June 13, 2022 [15 favorites]

Also, the intensity of people's speech acts can vary for all sorts of reasons - who you're with, what day it is, what other news you've gotten - that don't actually track their deepest, 100% truest level of desire for the thing they're talking about.

Also, I do wonder about how this is coming across to other people, and how accepting you are of human foibles? Most people are aware that some things are unpleasant and that they have to do them anyway - they likely just have a different calculus of what they want and how much unpleasantness they're willing to endure. If you're at all pointing out that "life is full of compromises like that", I can see why people would be cagey about their actual reasons for things with you.
posted by sagc at 8:03 AM on June 13, 2022 [6 favorites]

I don't know your question history, so apologies if you've already addressed this at some point, but, is it possible you are neurodivergent in a way, such that you struggle with social cues and unspoken norms?

I ask because all of the examples you gave make intuitive sense to me as being just kind of how people are, that everyone sort of knows but nobody admits. People want to smooth things out during conversations; they want to appear ambitious and flexible and open to travel, they want to appear carefree and unconcerned with costs. They don't want to sound boring. They don't want to sound stupid. They want to impress people.

As such, they do a lot of things that they don't really want to do, and say a lot of things that they only sort of mean. I'm not talking about lying or faking exactly; it's more like...people respond to plans about the future with their most optimistic selves. Then reality intrudes. People respond to social conversations with their most brilliant, ambitious and sparkling selves. But nobody is that person 24/7.

Right now, in my actual life, I am trying to figure out how to reply to a friend about potential vacation plans. I do want to go! I love her, and the plans sound very fun. In the past when she brought it up, I've been very enthusiastic because it would be a great time and my most optimistic self said, "we'll just make it work!"

But a few months later, I know that I have a million things going on, my mother's health is fragile, etc. etc., and this probably isn't a practical thing for me. My optimistic self is sometimes wrong about how much money, time, and energy that Future Me will have available.

Sure it would be "better," as in, "more logically perfect," to just know this and say "no" right off the bat any time someone proposes a fun or ambitious future plan. But then my friends would feel rejected, I'd develop a reputation as a wet blanket, and eventually I wouldn't get invited to stuff. And I'd never get to feel excited or like my most fun and spontaneous self, either.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:08 AM on June 13, 2022 [33 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, I do wonder about how this is coming across to other people, and how accepting you are of human foibles? Most people are aware that some things are unpleasant and that they have to do them anyway - they likely just have a different calculus of what they want and how much unpleasantness they're willing to endure. If you're at all pointing out that "life is full of compromises like that", I can see why people would be cagey about their actual reasons for things with you.

I don't really go around telling people about these things. It just seems to me that, often, people are very contradictory. I won't lie to you though. When people do these things it does annoy me greatly, and yeah sometimes it does color my opinions of them.
posted by Tarsonis10 at 8:10 AM on June 13, 2022

The trip thing and the PhD example aren't useful for your question, at all. They are just things you are irritated by.

There are a million contingencies for why your friend didn't follow up, but one rather straightforward possibility is they did want to go, but then you started in about the costs and overzealous travel details and then changed their mind. Like "this sounds unpleasant, I now no longer want to go."

There is zero evidence that the PhD doesn't want to be a professor. You are just saying other people say he's not working hard. Okay. Give him a couple years on the job market.

You could look at the construction of your very own question - you asserted that you wanted an answer, but failed to provide the necessary framework and context to get an answer. Why did you do that?
posted by RajahKing at 8:12 AM on June 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If you know you're overpromising then I don't understand what reasoning there is to do that, it seems like this is pointless and will lead to unnecessary problems with other people.

I don't think people think of themselves as overpromising. I think they really believe that this time they will do whatever it was they said they would do. If you truly never overestimate your abilities or find you simply cannot do something to achieve a goal even though you really want to, then you are an unusual and very lucky person. The short answer is that people are imperfect.

That said, I find I can't be friends with people who chronically overpromise. I used to be friends with someone who cancelled plans all the time - she just didn't see it as a big deal, while I felt that if I agreed to meet her for lunch or a movie, I was going to do that unless something like an unexpected illness came up. I would arrange my schedule around our plans, and then she would feel it was fine to decide she wanted to do something else instead. You are getting a lot of judgement here, but I consider chronically canceling plans rude, and it's not something I can deal with. (I will say I thought it was hilarious when she was upset because a whole bunch of her relatives decided at the last minute that they couldn't make it to her wedding after all - I'm not always a nice person.)
posted by FencingGal at 8:14 AM on June 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

It just seems to me that, often, people are very contradictory.

I mean...yes? We are? Almost all of us? Almost all the time? There's like, millions of novels and operas and an entire history of cinema that attest to this.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:14 AM on June 13, 2022 [32 favorites]

Best answer: At its root, this was something talked about by philosophers as least as far back as Socrates. You might find quite a rich vein of writing and thinking by looking up akrasia.

Some think that there isn't such a thing (including Socrates). That everyone inherently does what they think is best but that maybe they're not honest about what they think is best.

So someone might not really want to be an entrepreneur but know they are expected to say that they are. Logically then, they don't follow through when given the opportunity they don't want.

There's a strong current of that in contemporary economics in the form of the idea of "revealed preferences". The idea here is that I might say that I prefer to lose weight than to eat that burger but that my actions reveal my real preference was the burger all along.

Yet another approach from economics, in particular when near term sacrifices must be made in order to achieve longer term goals, is the idea of discounting. Especially hyperbolic discounting. This is the process by which things which are near in time seem better than things which are far in the future.

A third is that people are paralysed by over-analysis and this can manifest as inertia. Your procrastinating post-doc is probably completely paralysed by not knowing what to do next.

Fourth, people can like "the idea" of something more than the actual thing. I really liked the abstract idea of being "a scientist" but rapidly realised that being a real academic in modern academia was absolutely not for me. Again, many people like the idea of being an entrepreneur but many aspects of starting your own business are stressful and many people don't like it at all.

Fifth, people can want the end result but not want to put the work in. “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights.” Related to this is that they don't have the resources: e.g. they do want to go to New York but hadn't realised the cost.

Sixth, people can use aspirations as part of social lubrication. The same way I don't really mean to ask what someone's weekend was like, they never meant to go.
posted by atrazine at 8:19 AM on June 13, 2022 [18 favorites]

Because the world is not made up of just ourselves as the starring role with other people/institutions/etc as a perfectly scripted supporting cast.

Your friend wants to go to NYC. But with COVID, employer issues, gas prices, supply chain shortages, things are VERY expensive right now, perhaps more expensive than what your friend imagined when they mused that you both should go to NYC. It may be more than they can afford. It's not a defect in character to change your mind after seeing that costs are more expensive. It's very harsh in that situation to say your friend is "lying to themselves" and reading your question, I would feel anxious in telling you right out that I can't afford that trip.

Since 2012, I wanted to spend Christmas 2022 in Hawaii. It was a goal for me, with a dedicated savings account and all, but for many very good reasons, we made the decision not to go. It's certainly not because I didn't want it enough. It's not a character flaw.

Perhaps you're fortunate enough that you've been able to accomplish every single thing you've wanted to do in your life, but despite anything you believe, it's because the circumstances worked out in your favor. And by circumstances, I mean systems/economies/other people's mindsets were properly aligned at that time.

Your postdoc friend might have just had a long time relationship dissolve, or might have a feeling they're being used at their current position and they're not going to get anything out of it anyway so why bother? Your entrepreneurial friend might be peeing blood for some reason and terrified, or just thinking, "maybe a 8-5 cubicle job isn't all that bad because I'll have time to take up the harmonica again."

People are complex. Life is complex. Life in the 2020s is the most fraught and complex time I have ever lived through. Try and show a little bit of grace to others, because you do not know what they're actually living through.
posted by kimberussell at 8:21 AM on June 13, 2022 [28 favorites]

If you are the type of friend who reacts badly when plans get canceled, that might result in some friends procrastinating on the task of letting you know they need to cancel - because people often put off doing things they anticipate will be unpleasant.

1. Even if there is something you don't want to do, sometimes you need to do it to get what you want. This is very common and life is full of compromises like that.

Sure, but in none of the examples you've given are people refusing to make compromises. In the first NYC travel example, assuming this would involve a flight, airplane tickets have shot up in price for the summer, nation-wide. Perhaps the compromise this friend prefers is to put off the trip once prices have normalized. Or, depending where you are located, once COVID numbers have dropped. With the PhD friend, graduate school is literally one long multi-year compromise of essentially becoming an apprentice with the hopes of being a professor eventually - especially since the pandemic, universities are hiring less - it is likely your friend realizes that now there is a good chance he can't compromise himself into a job. I found your last example a little vague, but perhaps your friends don't want to work for those specific people for some reason? Not all things presented as "opportunities" are actually opportunities.

In short, it seems like you have a tendency to assume that if someone sets an intention to do A, and then doesn't do it, that automatically means they have bad follow through, and not that some later contingency got in the way.

2. If you know you're overpromising then I don't understand what reasoning there is to do that, it seems like this is pointless and will lead to unnecessary problems with other people.

So I'll grant you that there are people who promise things all of the time that they flake on, often because they make no effort to make things happen. They'll say something like "I want to see NYC!" but then will never do any travel planning, or "I'd like to become a good baker!" and then they never so much as buy ingredients. As pointed out upthread, some people enjoy having fantasies like this...I mean, I think most people do to some extent. Another reason is that it's possible for people to desire things that are not intuitive to them - lots of people want to become "more physically active" but are unsure of how to begin. I'm not so sure why this angers you in instances where it doesn't impact you directly (your last two examples). When it does impact you, it's worth considering whether a friend actually overpromised to you in the moment, or whether it later became an overpromise because conditions changed (i.e. flight costs went up, COVID numbers went up, etc.)
posted by coffeecat at 8:26 AM on June 13, 2022 [11 favorites]

To not abuse the edit button: if you are asking this question because you happen to be noticing this happening more around you, this is absolutely related to the pandemic, an event that threw a giant wrench of uncertainty into everyone's best laid plans, not just once, but over and over and over again. From the initial shock of sudden death around us (particularly for those of us in cities that were highly impacted), to various waves, to changing governmental directives/mitigation, to schools closing, opening, closing, and opening again, to whole industries shutting down indefinitely, to many career paths still weakened (including academia), the last 2+ years have given most people good reason(s) to throw up their hands and say "I give up" for all sorts of intentions they once held. And more generally, most people feel "burned out" which certainly can impact one's ability to follow through.
posted by coffeecat at 8:38 AM on June 13, 2022 [7 favorites]

Because many of us want to be the type of person who has done thing X, but we don’t want to do (or are not capable of) the steps required to become that person.

The classic example is being a writer. Lots of people would like to be able to say “I am a writer”. Far fewer people want to sit down alone every day spewing words onto paper/computer, day after day, month after month, even on the days you know that what you’re writing is crap, and to do that repeatedly for as long as it takes to be considered a writer.

Goals are often abstract and simple-sounding; the steps achieved to require them are complex and difficult and sometimes require us to be people we simply are not. Going to NY is three words and sounds great. Organising travel and accommodation and paying lots of money is tiring and boring and expensive and maybe requires both executive function skills and money that your friend doesn’t have.

Becoming a professor is three words and sounds like a great thing to do. Supervising five other people and all their quirks and issues, and publishing a large body of work, sounds very demanding and maybe requires effort that your friend doesn’t want make, or skills they don’t have.

Being less judgemental is three words that sounds like a laudable goal that will make you and the people around you happier. But repeatedly dismantling your usual responses to others’ behaviour in a way that will lead you to becoming less judgemental, is hard work, as you’re discovering.
posted by penguin pie at 8:45 AM on June 13, 2022 [17 favorites]

Best answer: When people say "I want to do something", they rarely mean "at any cost". I find that fairly reasonable. Usually there's some sort of cost-benefit-caculation running in the background of people's mind when they're deciding on actions, and as long as that ratio is favourable they'll stick to the plan, and if any of those factors changes (they learn that the benefits might be less ample or more unlikely, or that the costs will be higher than initially assumed), they reconsider. The opposite tendency could quickly veer into sunk-cost fallacy, which is, as the name suggests, also not the height of rationality.

In your example it's perfectly easy to see why someone might be initially mistaken about the costs involved in the New York trip. There's record inflation right now! A lot of people now suddenly find themselves in a situation where they can't afford things that used to be within their budget. I imagine a lot of plans are falling through at the moment. So very often, this sort of reconsiderations can be explained by changing external circumstances.

And some people are more vulnerable to changing external circumstances than others, because they have less slack/less margin of error to begin with. If you're financially comfortable, inflation won't change your cost-benefit calculations that much, but if your budget was already tight, that can be the straw that breaks the camels back. So often ability to stick to plans is less about your self-discpline, and determination, and knowing your priorities, etc. and rather more about having a sufficiently stable life, with reserves to cushion against unforseen obstacles. For instance, as a student, teachers would always praise me for being reliable - but it's certainly easier to be a reliable kid if your parents are also reliable people...

But I agree, it can also be a bit of a question of temperament. Some people just seem to habitually underestimate the costs and effort involved in stuff. Knowing what you want is a bit easier (and certainly more fun to think about) than knowing what you're willing to give up for it. Benefits are often readily apparent, but the full extent of the costs can already require a bit of insight into the field. It can take a while until that sort of person gains enough knowledge about whatever they're aiming for to finally decide that it's not a priority after all, and officially gives up on the project. That obviously sucks for anyone they might have strung along until that point. I honestly find that type of person very hard to work with and avoid it, if I have a choice. If they're friends, I adjust my expectations and try to make them perfectly optional components of any plan with the slightest amount of stakes, certainly never load-carrying pillars.

More often however, these sort of declarations of overly lofty goals are really not any of my business, so why would they concern me? What's it to you whether that friend ever becomes a professor or not? He probably doesn't expect you to do anything about it. He's probably just sharing that dream with you, because day-dreaming is fun, and sharing dreams can be a form of bonding. If he fails, because he's not terribly realistic about the efforts required, that's sad for him, but really no problem for you. Don't be a concern-troll!

I also like to see myself as a person who follows through on stuff, so I've become a bit cagey about my loftier, less realistic goals - also because I don't care for being judged whether or not I'm investing the correct amount of effort. That seems to be true for a lot of my acquaintances as well, maybe a natural part of growing up for a lot of people, and so we don't talk about our hopes and dreams as much any more, and in a way that's also a bit sad and dull. Nowadays, I need to know a person fairly well before I open the hopes and dreams- box.

So I guess the good news here is that you might come across as quite a bit less judgmental in person than you actually are! Fake it till you make it!
posted by sohalt at 8:46 AM on June 13, 2022 [17 favorites]

I guess I just find myself wondering whether you have never changed your mind at all, about anything, or at least about anything significant. If you've never wanted two contradictory things at once (for example, to sleep in, but also to keep your job), or you've never started down a path and decided it didn't really work for you, then you truly are an outlier as a personality.

But I kind of doubt that's the case. I would guess that from the outside, your life looks more or less just like the lives you're criticizing. It's just that to you, all of your moves and paths have been consistent, because you have 100% access to your interiority. You can see all of the steps from A to B to C, why you did this instead of that, why you went here instead of there.

Because you can't see that for other people, their actions look random and inconsistent to you. But just like you, they have an interior A -> B -> C that actually makes perfect sense. The key for you is to start assuming that is the case, even if you can't see it. Basically: know that people make sense to themselves. Not always, not perfectly, but usually, and mostly. They aren't obligated to make sense to you.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:18 AM on June 13, 2022 [35 favorites]

There are a million reasons why, but I believe a huge part of it is an instinctive, protective social mechanism that ensures that humans don't making big impulsive commitments or changes, don't just go along with whatever ideas are presented to them, etc. It takes a lot for someone to make a decision and fully commit themselves to it, and I believe that is a very good thing. I'd rather have a bunch of wishy-washy people around me than those who single-mindedly follow whatever whims or social/professional/religious/idealogical pressures they are exposed to or pressured into.
posted by asimplemouse at 9:26 AM on June 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Last year I dated someone for a few months. They had a lot of good traits but then would make a lot of promises, big and small, and almost never follow through. They felt guilt but couldn't or wouldn't change and clearly it didn't last. I think it was due to their insecurity and idealized self versus reality, and all that comes with it. I was really kind but I also insist upon accountability, and a pattern is a pattern. I reflected a lot on trust in my interpersonal relationships, and how I'm lucky to mostly have friends, family, and colleagues who are incredibly reliable. In a way, it's a privilege because I've lived in places where things are so unstable that promises are very hard to keep; that said, there's an understanding and people aren't making big promises unless it's some weird date that won't go anywhere long-term. I mean, people do that all the time in online dating wherever and then ghost. In that initial conversation, they are saying what they want to believe and/or what the other person to believe because they are insecure and/or afraid of being impolite. Or they change their minds! Sometimes this behavior is manipulative and sometimes it's just weak. Either way, no thanks.

For most people in a place like North America or Europe, it's really more of a value that one was raised with and/or chooses. A lot of people are just full of bullshit and the dream is what matters, not the follow through. I, too, am very serious about making promises and achieving my goals. I'd try to focus your energy on friends who share this value because they're definitely out there, albeit sometimes harder to find.

Also, here are some articles I read on the topic when I was in your shoes.
posted by smorgasbord at 9:31 AM on June 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

Every decision comes with a cost and a bonus. Sometimes you feel desire for the bonus but the cost is too great so you decide not to take the action. If I could eat chocolate cake and ice cream at every meal without experiencing any negative side effects, I might do that. I want the cake. I don’t eat the cake, because I choose not to experience the costs. That doesn’t mean I don’t want the cake. I still want the cake.

Your friend wants to go to NY. They may not be able to afford the money or time.

Your friend wants to be a professor, presumably so that he can work on research in the area of his interest. He may not be able to sustain the social and interpersonal effort involved in the professional opportunity that has been afforded to him, which seems to involve a great deal of supervision and mentorship, which is patently NOT the same thing as working in his area of research.

Your friends want to be successful entrepreneurs. They may not want to take on the financial risk and long hours involved in being a successful entrepreneur.

I’m honestly baffled as to why this is difficult to understand. It’s easy to want an end product and not want to go through the sacrifices necessary to achieve it.
posted by bq at 9:35 AM on June 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: 1. Even if there is something you don't want to do, sometimes you need to do it to get what you want.

A lot of people may want to be something or other, but not like, AT ALL, the stuff they'd have to do to get there. For a dumb example, I may want a boyfriend but I absolutely can't stand to online date. It sounds like I'd be putting myself through hell and a lot of shitty dudes trying to find a needle in a haystack. I do not enjoy dating at all, there is nothing about that process I'd consider to be not awful. I'd be putting myself through doing something I can't stand for the vague possibility that I MIGHT find someone. People also tell me I should start my own business, but the idea of running a business makes my heart sink to the floor. I know darned well I "should" do it (or learn Spanish, or whatever...there's a long list of shoulds), but sometimes you're supposed to want to do a thing but you don't really want to do it. Entrepreneurship is definitely one of those things that a lot of people say they want to do but don't really want to do. I had a whole "we should start a business" GROUP that never actually did it, because business stuff is tedious and nervewracking and you have to focus on that a whole lot more than the stuff you actually wanted to do in the first place.

If what you want to do requires you to climb Mount Everest and you hate the cold, mountains, climbing, foreign travel, etc., you probably aren't going to be THAT motivated to climb that mountain if you hate everything you gotta do to get it. I'm guessing PhD guy doesn't really want to do the work to become a professor, he just wishes he could be one without doing the work. A lot of people wanna be rock stars or whatever but don't want to put the work in, so they don't.

Regarding the friend with the trip, just cancel it already. I used to know someone who literally canceled on a longtime planned road trip the morning of the trip because she just didn't feel like going. I also note that covid now complicates trip going and I canceled on going on a trip myself this year because I could not deal with making longterm plans in advance and having no idea how anything was going to be at the time of the actual trip.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:46 AM on June 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am more like you. Many of my friends are more like the people you describe. So some of this is just learning to manage expectations and understand that people use language in different sorts of ways. I may be neurodivergent, but not wildly so. That said if I say I will do a thing, that is a commitment, a promise, whatever. I am on that track unless I make a clear decision to do otherwise. But for other people, this is not always the case. Saying they will do a thing is more of a hope, wish or dream. They intend to (I believe) most of the time, but they don't always have a clear path and can get derailed. More to the point, I think for them saying something like this out loud isn't INTENDED to be a compact, or an agreement, it's just talking to be talking. So some of this is me adjusting what I think is happening when someone says, for example "Yeah let's hang out soon" (which for me would start me looking at dates and figuring out how to make it work) or "I'll meet you at the bar" (which for me is a plan and if they did not show I'd presume I was being blown off). So, to your questions.

1. Even if there is something you don't want to do, sometimes you need to do it to get what you want. This is very common and life is full of compromises like that.

Sure, but people have different levels of being able to motivate themselves to do things they don't want to. Sometimes this can be for mental health reasons (depression can serious mess with motivation), sometimes it can be memory reasons ("Oh did I say I was going to do that? Totally don't remember") and sometimes it's just that the consequences, even though they seem to be ones better avoided, are just not as bad to the person experiencing them as they might feel to, say, me. And sometimes people plain old change their mind, but may be in the middle of a plan already in progress and are not great at communicating that. Your NYC-plan friend may be an indirect communicator (i.e. wants to sort of show why they can't go but not let you down but specifically saying they can't go leaving you to sort of pick up on those communications and shift to a different plan) and is basically telling you in their way that they can't/won't go.

2. If you know you're overpromising then I don't understand what reasoning there is to do that, it seems like this is pointless and will lead to unnecessary problems with other people.

Sometimes people don't really look at these things in advance, they're living in the moment, or in the past, and are either not planning or can't plan. It's really a skill that some people are better at than others. I tend to believe--because I tend to believe most people are doing their best--that a lot of people don't overpromise on purpose, they just aren't good future-modelers.

My partner is a wonderful man and has a great attitude about life. At the same time, he likes to sort of spitball and dream, whereas I only like to talk about things out loud that I am really seriously considering. So when he would be like "Man I'd love to go to London someday" I feel honor-bound to tell him that a trip like that doesn't sound like something I'd want to do in the near timeframe. Like, I don't want him to rope me into his dream if I don't think I can be a part of it. On the other hand, he's just talking and me being like "Just FYI, no" is kind of a wet blanket situation. I have a hard time judging what is a plan and what is a wish, and maybe you do too?
posted by jessamyn at 10:12 AM on June 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You are clearly a planner and a black-and-white thinker, as evidenced by your many questions about your course of study, moving to Canada, which city to settle in, your future career path, etc. Once you decide on a thing, you research the shit out of it, and you make it happen.

That is one way to exist in this world, but there are many other ways. As someone else said above, people are complex. There are lots of people who are more go-with-the-flow, "Surprise me! and "Ah, well, things changed so I'm trying something else." That is not wrong, just different. I wonder also, if you are treating a statement as a promise, whereas they may just be spitballing or fantasizing about a future state. Some folks only verbalize something when they've already spent a lot of time thinking about it and it's basically a done deal - sounds like this is your style. Others, though, let any thought at all come out of their mouths, so this is more stream-of-consciousness. If you assume the latter group has a similar style as you, then this might seem like a lot of flip-flopping, whereas they may just be trying different ideas out loud.

Commitment and follow-through are clearly important values for you, but all humans have different sets and ranking of values. So someone else may value flexibility over commitment. Again, not a problem per se, just a different way of being.

In my view, the answer to your question is about different values and how those values influence our way of being.
posted by tinydancer at 10:20 AM on June 13, 2022 [12 favorites]

1. Even if there is something you don't want to do, sometimes you need to do it to get what you want. This is very common and life is full of compromises like that.

Sometimes that "thing you don't want to do" isn't happening in a vacuum. Not everyone has perfect control of their executive functions, not everyone has the emotional support they need to succeed against something difficult. Some people experience life tragedies, chronic illnesses and disabilities, that you are unaware of.
There are calculations with variables you have no idea about. Those variables can change without warning.

2. If you know you're overpromising then I don't understand what reasoning there is to do that, it seems like this is pointless and will lead to unnecessary problems with other people.

Why do you assume they are knowingly over-promising?
How do you know it isn't in fact very helpful for them practically or emotionally to delay something with an over-promise?
Also what you call a promise could be many other things. Your examples sound like talking about a possible trip with no solid plan and taking it for a promise, a friend who is experiencing a very difficult time in a very messed up sector (academia), and some people who had some big dreams. Dreams are not plans or even goals.

These are all things I've had to learn myself. I take things seriously, I take things literally. But I also have a chronic illness that makes me change plans, fall short of goals, my amount of wanting or discipline are meaningless when I'm flaring up. It's my private info though, so I don't share it with every person who may experiencing my "lack of follow through". It's just the way it is. So I can't hold anyone to the standard I used to, because I realize they could be going through ANYTHING, just like me.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 10:23 AM on June 13, 2022 [11 favorites]

Best answer: In my own experience both pathological demand avoidance and less severe demand avoidance is something that a wide variety of individuals exhibit to greater or lesser degrees. It appears to correlate to ASD and ADHD though I've anecdotally observed this type of avoidant behavior in people below diagnostic thresholds. Certainly I have seen it in myself and others and -- like other types of executive function differences -- it most certainly effects effort put forth towards even very strongly stated commitments.

Is it possible that this behavior you find so puzzling stems, at least in some individuals, from cognitive, executive, or developmental difference from yourself?
posted by majick at 10:45 AM on June 13, 2022 [6 favorites]

When I was a young adult I believed that follow-through was a trait of maturity and would do anything to follow through on what I had said.

Those were stupid times. I cost myself friendships, money, health, and business because I put follow-through ahead of all of those things. I intentionally turned a blind eye to changing circumstances and information that told me my original idea was problematic.

That behavior was not mature. It wasn't rational. If a pit opens in front of you, you don't keep walking just because you said you would, you stop. (Or you're Wile E. Coyote and you're a hapless wretch played for laughs.)

It's much more rational, much more mature, to adjust your plans to the world in motion.

And I gotta be honest here, achieving every single thing you set your mind to sounds horribly boring. You can't just play on Easy mode all the time. Sometimes you've got to play on Hard if you want to accomplish things worth doing.

And show some respect for all of the people who play on Hard all the time. By the nature of the world they were born into, they have no choice.
posted by Ookseer at 11:34 AM on June 13, 2022 [28 favorites]

What strikes me most from your examples is that only one directly impacts your life: the trip to New York. I can see why this bothers you.

But whether friend who wants to be a professor, or friend who talks about becoming an entrepreneur actually follow through does not directly impact your life, right? Unless you gave them a loan or something.

I think for your own sake, stop ruminating about lifeplans of others and whether they, in your opinion, go about it the right way. In my opinion, this serves no purpose except to alienate you from your friends, even if you do not tell them.
Also, not getting preoccupied with their choices should lessen the perception that you live among people who don't follow through. They did not give you a promise to become a professor. I suggest you benignly ignore these stories, for your own peace of mind.

I suggest, instead focus on actions/broken promises that affect you directly.
In the case of the planned trip together, now that directly affects you. It is disappointing and worth talking to your friend about.
posted by 15L06 at 12:32 PM on June 13, 2022 [10 favorites]

There are plenty of things I want to do, but I can’t do all of them. Certainly I can’t do all of them at once - if I really committed myself to doing X it would reduce my time and resources to do Y and Z. I might still say I want to do X in casual conversation, but that doesn’t mean it’s my top priority. When it comes down to making a decision for real I might choose Y or Z.

Context is everything, but I think most people understand “I want to do X” as being distinct from “I intend to do X” or “I am promising to do X.” I think that one’s on you - you’re reading commitment into a passing idle statement about what someone would love to do in a perfect world with infinite resources and no other commitments.

Actual overpromising is a different thing and really does suck. But for the most part I think it’s best to assume people made their promises in good faith based on what they thought they’d be able to do. They just got it wrong. It happens.

If it keeps happening with the same person you know you’ve got someone who is bad at estimating their own capabilities and you should adjust your expectations of them accordingly.
posted by Stacey at 12:43 PM on June 13, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I empathize with what you've written here, as well as the responses.

Talk is cheap, actions usually aren't...but that doesn't mean that other people are wrong or bad for doing things their way.

I think I might be a little similar to you, some friends and acquaintances have commented on my consistency and follow-through, unsolicited.

Honestly, I think it's kind of nice that the world is this way, with so many people frequently not following through. This is where the adage "Ninety percent of success is just showing up" comes from. Sometimes people think that I'm special or extraordinary just for showing up like I said I would. I try to be careful about what I agree to because it keeps *my* head tidier, then I try have follow-up discussions with people in my life who have different patterns/might communicate differently.
posted by leemleem at 12:48 PM on June 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Several of your examples could easily be explained by people having their own idea of a route towards achieving their goal that is different than what you think is best.

People I know who struggle with follow through seem to struggle with one or more things (speaking as someone who lacks followthrough in some aspects of their life):

-Lack of self-awareness (i.e.: “I’ve been unable to do X for the past 10 years, but I bet I’ll be better at that sort of thing this winter.”)
-Expressing a wish to do something feels better than actually doing it
-Fear of failure making it hard to get started
-A difficulty understanding/believing that statements are taken seriously by others (sometimes this ends up self-fulfilling)
-A difficulty imagining the individual steps required to accomplish something
-My misreading the germ of an idea as a fully-considered plan
-Hopelessness—the academia example in particular may at this stage may feel like a wish to win the lottery.
-Disability (what looks like laziness may be a chronic physical illness, ADHD, depression, etc)
-Changing their mind
-Living in somewhat precarious circumstances—health, family, finances—can prevent all kinds of things at all kinds of time scales.
-Not wanting to hurt my feelings or saying “no”

Lately I have been trying to be more conscientious about not promising things I can’t deliver on. Life is less fun and exciting, frankly, even though I think it’s the better course of action. It’s fun to dream! It’s fun to feel like a hero! It’s hard to disappoint people to their face all the time!
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:52 PM on June 13, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'll just echo Ookseer that I used to follow through diligently on a whole whack of things - to the point that I ended up staying in a wrong job for years because I kept wanting to follow through on/meet commitments on just one more thing. I now give myself permission to change my mind.

I do try not to cancel things at the last minute although parenting really changed the calculus on that - for a few years I said no to everything non-child related in case my baby was sick or something and that was pretty awful for me.

In some ways reliability requires privilege - control over your time, transportation, money, etc. If you work in a job with last-minute shifts for example, that can make you unreliable.

I personally have sometimes been less tolerant of my friends when there's something I need to face. In the past I was probably less tolerant when I was "muscling through" something that wasn't going well for me, sort of like - how come they get to quit?
posted by warriorqueen at 2:45 PM on June 13, 2022 [6 favorites]

My ex did this *all the time* about *all the things* and I finally just asked him about it. He said he was just trying ideas on for size even though when he said them out loud it sounded to me like he was definitely going to do the thing.
posted by getawaysticks at 7:14 PM on June 13, 2022 [2 favorites]

Some people (me, for instance) have literal memory and cognitive issues.
posted by augustimagination at 7:52 PM on June 13, 2022 [3 favorites]

I think a good thing to do when you find yourself thinking "why are people like that?!?!" -- for both insight and empathy -- is to look seriously for examples of yourself being like that, and to continue to keep an eye out for that behavior in yourself. I would be very surprised if no examples of this specific behavior turned up in your life; tbh, I think there are examples in some of your previous questions, but then again askme questions are only tiny, partial windows into people's situations and therefore not a great basis for conclusive judgments (much like the minuscule windows you have onto the lives of the people you describe).
posted by trig at 11:21 PM on June 13, 2022 [12 favorites]

A low-stakes example of how and why I haven’t followed through on commitments: I have books on my “to read” shelf that have been there over ten years.

I don’t buy a lot of books but I have a list of books “I want to read”. If I find one in a used bookstore I’ll buy it, and be excited that I can now read this book I’ve been hunting for! I genuinely want to read it, I’m as committed as I can be - I’ve considered it enough to write it down, it’s been on my list for months or years, I’ve searched for it repeatedly, I’ve spent money, I own the thing, it’s on the shelf in my living room.

And yet, with many books, when it comes down to it, I look at it and can’t face actually spending hours or days reading the thing. I want to be someone who has read it, but I don’t want to read it. There are so many other things to do with my time, which may be more or less pleasant or valuable, and following through on this commitment to read that book just gets put off. For years.

I’ll end with a relevant quote from the comedian Simon Munnery: “Many are willing to suffer for their art, few are willing to learn to draw.”
posted by fabius at 1:54 AM on June 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

I have an ex-boyfriend who seemed to have a very similar very literal interpretation of absolutely any statement of intent regardless of practical and functional reality. Long after we broke up, in one of the very occasional path-crossings we had, I mentioned that my partner (now husband) would like to move back to a specific part of the country. Several years later we were getting ready to move to a different place, I crossed paths with the ex again, and he said "I thought you were moving to X!!" as if he had caught me in some kind of lie. Everything was like that, which is one of many reasons we broke up, because it was exhausting making sure I never said I might do something like go to the grocery store but then decide I should go later in the week after one of us got paid or when it stopped raining or after the Superbowl shoppers were done or whatever. I found out later he'd ended up in some debt because I think people were kind of taking advantage of this aspect of his personality, in which it would end up seeming like he was obligated to give them various gifts and entertainments because he "said he would". (And even now, 20 years later, I flinch slightly because my husband and I are actually considering the X region as a place to live and all I can think is I hope nobody tells my ex because even though I don't have to deal with him anymore I can only imagine him smugly checking it off his fucking mental legal pad of everybody's obligations.) He actually did end up in situations like your New York thing, where it would become increasingly problematic for him to actually go through with the plan, and it created financial and logistical hardships and a reasonable person would have to cancel with apologies, but he "said he would" so he had no choice but to max out a credit card or in one case lose a job because he wouldn't back out on a plan.

A lot of people want things because they want to be a kind of person - like a successful entrepreneur - but don't actually have the skills or desire to do the work. They just don't want a boss, or they want the benefits and luxuries they imagine a person in that position (usually a hero of theirs) gets. I would also like to not work for anybody, but I at least know myself well enough to know how much I hate doing all the legwork of sales and so that goal is probably not for me, but I didn't know that until well into adulthood!

A lot of people would actually like to accomplish the thing and are willing to do the work but days only have 24 hours in them and they can't stop doing the other work they have to do to survive. A lot of people work really hard to accomplish something and pull it off only to find they hate it and it has none of the rewards they thought it did and it is incompatible with other goals - this is one you see a lot in academia, and in similar long-education professions like medicine or law where you may obtain the credentials for the thing you thought you wanted 10+ years ago when you knew nothing about what it would actually be like and it turns out that only people with really specific personalities (or personality disorders) and lifestyles can actually tolerate the stress and still be good at the job.

I work in a job that has a ton of conflicting priorities that are constantly shifting, and as much as I wish I could hit every one of my project plan milestones, I'd get in serious trouble if I blew off the emergency that arose on Wednesday after I said on Monday I could have some other thing done by Thursday. I'd also be in trouble if I just sat around doing nothing at all because I was supposed to be working on the Thursday thing but the client isn't ready to give me the materials I need.

The real world is not a place where every plan can be a promise, every goal can be realized, or every spoken whim has to be followed through to extinction even if it stops being reasonable, interesting, or affordable along the way. The real world is also not a place that lays down the kind of path in front of most people that they can achieve every single thing they ever set their sights on, so what you are talking about is some pretty extraordinary privilege along with sounding honestly unpleasant, to have to do things even if the interest and practicality have long worn off.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:25 AM on June 14, 2022 [27 favorites]

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