What's a Utility Function?

And why does it matter?

October 21, 2021

A friend of mine has a theory — we all have a “utility function” that guides our behavior and decision-making. It’s that main desire that serves as our internal North Star. (The source of a utility function isn’t going to be analyzed in this post, though I presume it’s a mixture of upbringing, experiences, fears, and dreams). Psychology has referred to it as a “primary motivation.” More recently, neuroscience and manifestation coaches, like Lacy Phillips, have called it an “authentic code,” a core essence that defines values and dictates how we should be using our time.

Although I’ve known other terms previously, the phrase “utility function” specifically resonated with me. It’s a simple yet powerful construct that’s helped me to better understand my own decision-making, the motivations of others, and how we relate to one another. A utility function isn’t about putting ourselves or others into boxes. It’s about digging deeper and getting clearer about what makes us tick.

There are a lot of utility functions out there, such as pleasure-seeking, comfort, impact, achievement, status, curiosity, connection, problem-solving, and attention. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to it. It’s about which element is at the forefront of our decision-making.

My utility function is curiosity. It’s what drives me to have a spectrum of experiences in all realms of life, from my range of friendships to dabbling in different hobbies. It propels me to spontaneously pick up and travel to see an art exhibit on the other side of the globe. It also explains my non-linear career path, having worked with companies and in roles that are curiosity-driven, jobs that can teach and expand me and my experiences.

When I’m aligned with my utility function, I feel joyful, at ease, like things are flowing to me — things “feel” right. When I focus too much on other drivers that aren’t aligned with me, such as “status,” “pleasure,” or “achievement,” I end up feeling off-track. Because I’m trying to create the best and most beautiful life story for myself, I know what I need to be guided by (otherwise, I need to change the course of my story).

Below, I’ve outlined a simple three-step process that you can go through to uncover your utility function and what it means in terms of living a life that feels aligned.

1. Get clear + and honest with yourself
It’s important to start by understanding what’s most important to you. I like to immerse myself in a variety of activities and ask myself, “Does this raise or reduce my energy? Does it feel liberating? Or limiting?” That typically guides me in the right direction.

Other questions to ask yourself:

  • How do I choose my jobs?
  • How do I choose my friendships?
  • What’s important to me in terms of where I live?
  • When am I at my best? What types of experiences make me feel alive?
  • What does my everyday experience look like? What do I seek out?
  • What do I enjoy doing most in the world, and what could I get lost in?
  • When I make big decisions, what is the biggest factor I take into account?


2. Connect the dots
We can have more than one utility function, but I believe we have a main utility function that ends up being our driving force. Take a look at your answers to the above questions and consider what you see popping up consistently. Do you notice a through-line in your responses?

You may notice that you build your life in a way that has comfort as a central theme, seeing it in the relationships you pursue, the food you eat, and the movies you watch. Or maybe most of your motivations focus on meaningful connection, and you choose jobs that enable you to throw community events that connect people. You may enage in one-on-one dinners over parties because you prioritize deep connection over a night of fleeting fun (both are okay, by the way).

If you find yourself noticing a utility function that you don’t like or want to move away from, that’s also a good learning (e.g. if you recognize that yours has been based on power or status, and you’re ready to move into a different phase of life, know that the change is absolutely available to you.)

3. Live from that place
Understanding what drives us can have wonderful effects in our life. It helps us get clear on what brings us joy, when we feel our best, and what we can infuse more of into our day-to-day. We also tend to understand ourselves more deeply and can better relate to those around us. Every experience we have doesn’t have to fit into our primary motivation (the magic really does happen in the unknown) but it can serve as a meaningful tool for crafting goals, making more authentic decisions, and relating to others.

For example, I have a friend who has built a career that’s fun for her — she’s an interior designer. She loves to make and build furniture because it’s enjoyable. Close friendships are important to her, but she also needs friends with whom she can be silly and have fun. She’s willing to spend money on a home that she enjoys living in thanks to its location and architecture, even if it costs more, because there’s pleasure in the beauty surrounding her. And when she’s choosing food at a restaurant, she’ll go for the burger versus the baked salmon because the burger, well, tastes better (at least for her). There’s a consistency between her desires and her behavior.

When I’m making a tough choice between two projects, I’ll know that the one that invites me to learn new things and takes me to new places will be more in line with my primary motivation. And if I’m clear on my utility function being curiosity-based, my friends might be more eager to invite me to try new activities and go on fun adventures.

What’s your utility function? And more importantly, how’s it going to affect what you do, how you act, and where you go next?

P.S. I’ve shared utility functions’ effects on humans, but the same principles apply to brands. Understanding what you stand for and what motivates you as a brand has great implications for how you grow, what types of customer profile you choose, influencers you partner with, how you communicate, and who you hire.

More Tips

After getting back from a yoga retreat vacation, “mindfulness” has been on my mind. There was talk about gratitude, drawing the right energy into our lives, setting intentions, and reclaiming our wholeness through thoughtful behaviors.​

Let’s be honest. Difficult conversations are… difficult. They’re avoided, postponed, and people typically don’t want to have them. I consider myself an open person, but I’ve realized that I have trouble when it comes to having “difficult” conversations. …

I was sitting at my desk the other day when my company’s controller, Meital, introduced her friend to our VP of General Operations, saying “Meet Jon, my boss.”Jon turned to Meital and said, “I…

If you’re interested to see where my adventures take me, follow me on Instagram or check out my VSCO for more of the artsy stuff.

© Anna Drabik 2021