I'm very good at wanting to buy things. I want to buy a new sound system, for example. This would mean ripping five speakers out of my walls, patching up the holes, and buying a $900 soundbar. My wife points out that the current system works well, and asked me why I want to replace it. And I had to admit why: I have to control the sound system with a second remote, which I hate. My wife pointed out that solving this is not worth $900 and a weekend project. So instead I'm buying a $60 universal remote. This is a better way to reach my real goal, which is feeling in control of my gadgets.
Do you want to climb a rock made of water? Why?
At a recent Lifehacker event, divorce lawyer James Sexton said that his clients often come to him with unreasonable or unlikely goals. They want strict custody agreements, or very specific financial splits. Sexton goes through these goals and asks what need each one serves. These are the real goals. They're often emotional - feeling involved in their children's lives, or not being taken advantage of. Sexton shows his clients their other, better options for achieving these goals.
The core technique is to simply ask, "why?" It's a lot like asking "why" five times to get to the root of a problem. But for personal goals, you can often hit bedrock with one or two "why"s. The point isn't to settle for something less, but to examine the whole story you told yourself (or ads and cultural pressures told you) about what you're "supposed" to want. If I really bought that new sound system, I'd end up hating it for some other reason.
You can apply this to negotiations, like getting a raise or job offer or making decisions with your partner, or in solo decision-making, like cutting down your shopping list. Do you need a gym membership, or do you need a pull-up bar? Do you need new shoes, or a cheap night in with friends who make you feel special? Do you need a new laptop, or does your laptop need more RAM?
If your to-dos feel overwhelming, or your shopping list would bankrupt you, or you're dreading the next negotiation, look at what you want, and ask why you want it. Or marry someone who asks you.