Oct 21

Many times throughout the day, I make an automatic comparison of my present situation to a desired future outcome. Perhaps at the start of my day I have not written a new blog post and I want to have written a post by the end of the day. This makes me aware of what I want to accomplish, keeps me striving toward goals, and helps me to know if I am progressing toward those goals or getting further away from them. This, in and of itself, does not seem like a negative exercise. However, the words that I choose to use have quite an impact on whether I feel encouraged about my goals for the day or weighed down by the lack of progress.

When we make statements containing the word “should,” it can seem as though we are making aspirational statements or goals (“I should finish my paperwork before I leave work this evening.”), as if the statement gives us direction or motivation. The often unintended side effect of using “should” is the inevitable negative comparison of the present situation with the future goal. It adds weight and often carries guilt. When we make “should” statements about ourselves (“I should be getting up earlier in the morning and exercising.”), it is easy to immediately feel bad about not being at the desired future outcome. As if we were meant to be there already and recognizing that we are not there is in some way a small punishment to ourselves. Replacing the word “should” with the phrase “want to” (or something similar) can have a noticeable impact. “I want to get up earlier in the morning and exercise” can feel more aspirational, is more likely to feel more positive, and is more likely to motivate you to accomplish the goal in mind. On the other hand, saying “I should get up earlier in the morning and exercise” can feel more judgmental, is more likely to feel more negative, and is less likely to motivate you to accomplish the goal in mind.

If you need more proof, try a little exercise. Rate how positively you feel right now on a scale of 1 to 100 (100 being the most positive you have ever felt). Now list off 10 things that you feel you should do (using “should” as you acknowledge each item). Rate how positively you feel now on the same scale. Now list off those same 10 things but state each one in terms of things you “want to” do. Has your feeling of positivity changed? My guess is that the “should-list” is less motivating than the “want to-list”.

Shawn Healy, PhD

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