It’s easy for us to build a life that is filled with obligations. At first, new responsibilities can fill us with pride because we feel like we’re making a difference, growing and being dependable. And, in a growth phase, these are all true – but over the long term, if they’re not linked to our aspirations, we will feel heavy, dissatisfied, frustrated and obligated to fulfil commitments that no longer resonate with us.

When we’re able to unclutter our life or remember a time when it was less cluttered, we can think about things that we hoped for, aspired to and dreamt about. Many of us go through seasons in our lives where we wake up with the thought of all we need to get done in a day and go to sleep with the stress of not finishing everything. In this space, our habits reveal that we’re doing what we have to, not what we want to.

As popular TED speaker, Dr Susan David, says, many of us have the desire to change our habits, but few can parlay that desire into tangible change. She says that if there is something in your life or behaviour that you’d like to adjust (and can’t understand why you’re not following through), the first step is to ask yourself why exactly you want to change this habit.

As you’re reading this, think about how you react to something exciting that’s about to happen. Would you take a deep breath before opening that gift, seeing that surprise, or meeting that person who means so much to you? This act of hope, of drawing breath, is called aspiration, and this is where we find ourselves doing the things we want to do.

Now, think about how you react when you have to put on that load of washing or renew your driver’s licence. Would you blow out a long sigh before engaging with something that you already perceive as a chore? But, it has to be done, right? So we simply suck it up and get on with it, because we have to.

This brings us back to David’s first step: why do you want to change a habit? Are you being driven from obligation or aspiration?

“Taking good advice is an important life skill, but successful change usually emerges from internal aspiration, not external pressure,” writes David. “Goals that are driven by what other people want from us—or by the shame of not living up to their expectations—rarely lead to sustainable changes in habits.”

Remember, this is about habit formation and alteration; it’s not about once-off decisions. So, when we ask ourselves about the change we’d like to see in our lives, it’s helpful to figure out if it’s something we have to do (obligation) or want to do (aspiration).

At a high level, anything that can make us feel like we want to take a deep breath is probably on the side of aspiration. Anything that makes us sigh… well, that’s most likely an obligation.

David offers this example:

A “want to” goal will make you feel self-motivated. But a “have to” can become a “want to” if you find a way to connect it to your values. Perhaps you’ve failed to be inspired to hit the gym by a friend who is nagging you about tightening your tummy in time for beach season. A perfect six-pack is just not something you care about.

Maybe, though, it is important to you to stay healthy and mobile as your kids and grandkids grow up. Suddenly the same habit (exercise) becomes more enticing because it’s connected to your values, not someone else’s.

Change begins with setting new goals, but it continues when we plan specifics about what we will do and get excited about the new journey. At WellsFaber, our goal is to give you the support you need to get the most out of your wealthspace – we advise, you thrive. If you’d like to check in on this, let us know.