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Freeing Yourself From Should-Dos

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver

‘I want to do X, but I really should do Y.’ That might be the most stupid and unhelpful thought to ever flit through a person’s mind. We collect shoulds like parasites. I should read that book everyone says is worthy. I should start jogging even though I hate it. I should eat more salad so I live longer.

All of the above are examples of self denial, masquerading as attempts at self improvement. As Brianna Wiest says in 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think:

Recognize that anxiety stems from shame. It is the idea that who you are or what you are doing is “not right,” therefore eliciting a rush of energy designed to help you “fix” or change it. You’re suffering because there’s nothing you can fix to make that urgent, panicked feeling go away. It’s a mismanaged perception of who and how you are.

Rejecting a Culture of Self Denial

Learning, exercising and eating well are all vital to health. But there are many ways to do these things – and, crucially, a way of doing them that you would enjoy, that would nourish you.

Some people advise finishing all the half-read books on your shelf, to declutter your mind and demonstrate grit. The assumption being that you will inevitably grow if you force yourself to absorb material that doesn’t engage you.

Lists of Should Dos Converted to Want Too

A simpler and better solution is to remove those books from your life. Give them to somebody you suspect will actually enjoy them, or give them to charity. Now there are no books staring at you accusingly when you walk by.

Some of the books on my Books Log are half finished and then ejected; other books never make it to the log because I put them down almost immediately. Rejecting material that does nothing for you is not the same as rejecting material that challenges you.

Minimise the Necessity to Expend Willpower

If you hate salad, never eat it again. Blend some kale into a fruit smoothie and be done with it. If you need to get a nutrient into your body (art included), find a way that demands the least willpower, while minimising collateral damage.

We use these paths of least resistance with fussy children, but not with ourselves. We think we can will ourselves into becoming a person who craves a bag of lettuce for lunch every day. Because only the weak like to eat fries and cake; the strong eat War and Peace.

Here’s a little secret: you don’t actually want to become that joyless lettuce freak, which is why you haven’t become them already. What you actually want is to be you. So allow yourself.

Turning ‘Should-Dos’ into ‘Want-Tos’

  1. Identify things in your life that snag on your mind like thorns. Anything you’ve been putting off or causes low-level chronic stress.
  2. Realise that each of these things are desires or goals, twisted into a cudgel to beat yourself. Brainstorm an activity that you will enjoy that technically satisfies the goal. If it’s fundamentally unenjoyable, like going to the dentist, pair it with a reward.
  3. Try your solution. If it’s not fun enough to make you anticipate the next time, rethink and try again. Keep going until you’ve had fun and look forward to doing it again.
  4. (One day) Realise that enjoying yourself and being engaged and excited are not mutually exclusive from self improvement. You will not grow by contorting yourself into shapes that were never meant for you.
Published inLifestyle