Most people go through every day with a monologue about what they should do playing in their heads. I should go to the store. I should walk the dog. I should take the kids to the park. I should clean up the house. I should clean up my LinkedIn. I should… I should… I should…
Listen carefully, and you can hear the shoulds in your own mind right now. What is it your brain is whispering to you that you should be doing?
The should monologue is exhausting. It’s like having your boss constantly standing over your shoulder telling you what you need to do because it is that — only your boss is yourself, leaving you with both the feeling of being disappointed and the guilt of disappointing. Using the phrase should is bullying yourself into doing what you want. If the list of shoulds in your head is long enough, the internal monologue of bullying can give you a mental breakdown.
Escape the loop. Set yourself free from what you should be doing. Ask yourself what you want to do instead.
What we ‘should’ be doing is a story we tell ourselves about what things we have to do in order to be a worthwhile human being. Our list of things we ‘should’ be doing is given to us by our environment; the culture we grew up in, the religion we grew up with, and the people who surround us all inform our moral code.
Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.
Most people seem to figure this out to some extent. People talk about throwing off the religion of their youth and all its attendant moral expectations. But throwing off one set of ‘should’s’ for another doesn’t escape the central problem, which is that ‘should’ is an illusion.
Most of the obligations which we ‘should’ meet don’t exist.
- We ‘should’ work out. But why? It’s your body and your life. If you want to spend it three hundred pounds eating cheez-its on your couch, that is totally your prerogative.
- We ‘should’ get a better job. But why? It’s your income and your life. If you want to spend it working minimum-wage at the local vegan restaurant, that’s your choice.
- We ‘should’ call our parents more. But why? We take part in human relationships because they’re satisfying. If you know calling your parents is only going to take away from your life, don’t call them.
Aside from the things you must do lest the government imprison you, there is literally nothing you have to do. You don’t have to have a job, or friends, or a car, or any of it. There is nothing stopping you from packing a backpack and walking into federal lands and spending your life camping and bartering with hikers to survive.
“But hey, wait — I don’t want to be a hippie who lives off the land. I want to live in an apartment and have a job.
That’s precisely my point. You don’t have a job because you have to have a job, you have a job because you want to have a job. You don’t hem and haw about going to the gym because you should go to the gym, you do so because you want to go. Everything you do in your life, you do because you want to do it.
The distinction is critically important. Should is something you impose on yourself, a command which saps your energy and motivation. When has anyone ever said ‘I really should go eat a pint of ice cream and watch Netflix?’ Conversely, want is filled with energy and motivation. You want to travel the world. You want to be fit and healthy. And yes, sometimes you want to eat a pint of ice cream and watch Netflix. Don’t tell yourself the demoralizing story of what you ‘should’ do when you could tell yourself what you want to do.
This came to a head for me a few days ago. The endless list of shoulds was weighing on my shoulders more than usual lately. I should post to my blog more. I should start doing social media marketing. I should create some new lead magnets. Should, should, should. The stress of it was causing a pounding in my temple that was not unfamiliar to me. On a whim, I decided to try something new: a should-free day.
A should-free day would be a day in which I did not tell myself about anything I should or should not do, nor did I do them. If the thought popped in my head “I should do x,” I replaced it with the question “Do I want to do x?” I had a pass to guilt-free ignore what I should do. It was tough to keep my thoughts laser-focused through the entire day (as anyone who meditates regularly is familiar with), but it was worth it. The results were fantastic. It was the first day in a long time that I remembered feeling relaxed during the day. Do you remember what it’s like to feel relaxed? I didn’t.
Even better — it did not come at the cost of getting nothing done. In fact, the thinking and writing I did on my should-free day was as productive as my previous week. I read half of a book and edited + wrote several essays. When I told myself “I should write,” I threw out the thought and then I asked myself, “Do I want to write?” The answer was, of course, yes. That’s why I became a writer. I sat down to write in a much more positive frame of mind than I would have if I’d bullied myself into my writing chair. When I said “I should make healthy food,” I reframed it to “Do I want to make healthy food?” My body feels better when I make healthy food, and I wanted my body to feel good, so the answer was yes.
For some questions, the answer was no. When I thought “I should go to the store,” I threw out the thought and asked, “Do I want to go to the store?” I found that the answer was hellll no. I wanted to go to the store tomorrow after I’d rested a bit and when I would be able to buy more groceries.
24-Hour Challenge: Have A Should-Free Day
Pick a day you have off work to be a should-free day. Reframe every ‘should’ as a ‘want’ question. These three positive things will happen:
- Everything you end up wanting to do will leave you much happier and more refreshed than if you’d bullied yourself into it.
- Everything you end up not wanting to do will educate you about who you are and what it is you really want.
Some things you should do will be things you don’t want to do. If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it, but ask yourself why you think you should do it.
- Will you feel like a let-down if you don’t? Why?
- Do you feel like people expect you to do this thing? Why or why not?
- Is it important to you that you do this, or important to someone else?
One thing I feel like I should do, but very much don’t want to do, is move out of my parent’s house. People who live in their parent’s house in adulthood are the butt of every millennial joke, but the truth is that I love living with my folks. We watch TV and eat together frequently. We talk to each other about what’s going on in our lives. We have people to run errands for us when we’re sick or sad. Also, it’s nice to know that if I disappear off the face of the earth, there are people who will notice within twenty-four hours. I don’t want to move out. Nevertheless, a nagging voice inside me says I should.
My suspicion is that we all have a want that flies in the face of a should, no matter who we are. Perhaps you want to remain unmarried forever, despite feeling like you should be married by now. Perhaps you want to live in a tiny cheap house, despite feeling like you should get a big house like everyone else in your income bracket. Spend a day — just one — letting go of what you think you should do, and just do what you want.