freedom from the tyranny of Should

I am sitting in an armchair in my living room, which is filled with pale, fragile winter light. Out the window, tiny, icy snowflakes are falling fast. They haven’t much loft or bulk, but they are abundant, so they quickly coat the roads between home and the yoga studio, where I was scheduled to teach all afternoon.

My busy day has become a snow day, and frankly, I find this very uncomfortable.

The kids and dog are spending the day with a friend, as planned, so no one needs walking or feeding. The yoga students are home, so no one needs guidance or encouragement. An expanse of afternoon/evening stretches out before me, and into it pour the Shoulds, copious as the piling-up snowflakes outside.

I should write that blog post.

I should do the laundry.

I should take a nap.

I should organize that messy bookshelf.

I should repair and repaint the bookshelf.

Maybe I should just read.           

Ooh, I should read that novel. No, I should read my homework assignment. That would be productive. Really, I should read that book about writing. THAT would be productive.

I should make dinner for the kids.

I sigh just reading that pile of Shoulds. Trying to sort through them in my head is exhausting. There’s something so murky and slippery/sticky and creepy about Shoulds.

Like, where do the Shoulds originate? I should because I want to? Or because I ought to want to? Or because someone else wants me to?

Like, what is this weirdness that Shoulds come in contradictory pairs? This is what I mean by slippery/sticky. I should do the laundry is of course followed by I should take a nap. Damnit.

And like, how is it that Shoulds have such extraordinary mission creep? The bookshelf, for instance, that goes from needing to be tidied to needing to be overhauled. For me, something like I should pay the mortgage quickly escalates to I should learn QuickBooks and keep a household budget.

If I check in with my body, I find that Shoulds feel so heavy. Ominous. Amorphous. I almost feel I can’t muster the energy even to look at them. I want to shove the big pile of them to the side and try to not-notice them towering there.

  what should thinking feels like. except not as pretty as this photo by Camille Seaman.

what should thinking feels like. except not as pretty as this photo by Camille Seaman.

But at the same time, the Shoulds make me vaguely anxious. My inner vision feels clouded. There are too many voices in my head. So I skitter from one Should to the next, unable/unwilling fully to engage any of them.

Either way, I end up with the heaviest, stickiest Should of all: I should be doing something else.

Or I used to, anyway. Then I got to journaling and found my way out, like this:

Free Thyself from the Tyrrany of Should

1. First, the Shoulds must be caught and gathered. So go for it: write your to-do list (for your snow day, or your afternoon off, or your tomorrow) as a series of Should statements. You can include responsibilities/commitments, things you want to do, things you dread doing. Your head is likely already very good at generating them, so just go with it. Let them pile up in their slippery/sticky way.

I should write that blog post.

I should do some laundry.

I should take a nap.

I should organize that messy bookshelf.

I should repair and repaint the bookshelf.

I should read.

I should make dinner for the kids.

2. Have a look at your list and be glad all this shit is out of your head and on a piece of paper.

3. Looking at the list, put a star next to any task that you feel could be enjoyable, or would raise your energy.

4. Go back through the starred statements, cross out Should and replace with Want To.

I should write that blog post.

   becomes

I want to write that blog post.

5. Dearest, feel the difference in your body when you transform that statement. When I want to write that blog post, I feel stronger. Brighter. Resolute. If one of your new Want statements doesn’t feel that way – if it doesn’t ring true for you, or your embodied self disagrees – draw a box around it. Because it’s likely been drawing a box around you.

You could stop right here, and just do the Want things. That would make for a great day, and you’d come out of it feeling energized. But if the lurking Shoulds need sorting, here’s how to do that:

6. Go through your list and put a plus sign next to any task that feels necessary. You’re not sure it would raise your energy or be enjoyable, but you do think it’s important to get done.

This is the "But I Have To" variety of Should. The question to ask here is this: is it Wantable? For instance:

I should do some laundry does not, at first glance, appear translatable into I want to do some laundry.

I don't particularly enjoy doing laundry, and it doesn't raise my energy. But I do very much enjoy the result of having done laundry. I love clean socks and towels, and having all my favorite clothing ready to wear. I enjoy that so much that really, I suppose I do want to do some laundry!

Important note: you might dislike laundry so much that you just can't get to Want To. That's okay: this Should simply gets a box around it.

7. This time through the list, put a right-pointing arrow (like a forwarding arrow on email) next to any task that really belongs to another day or another project. (This is to address the aforementioned mission-creep. Should-thinking isn't rational when it comes to temporality and scope of projects). Going back through the arrowed statements, cross out Should and replace with Will Consider, adding a more reasonable day/time at the end.

I should repair and repaint the bookshelf.

  becomes

I will consider repairing and repainting the bookshelf over Spring Break.

8. Now you are left with what I consider the most tyrannical Shoulds, because they are not coming from you. Especially nefarious are those boxed statements, posing as desirables in your head, but not fooling your embodied wisdom.

I say that all the remaining Shoulds must be interrogated. Here are some good questions to ask:

  • Why is this on my list? Where did it come from? (Someone else’s expectation? An area of my life where my values or priorities have evolved? An old commitment that my heart’s not into anymore?)
  • Does this really have to be done?
  • Could someone else do it?
  • Is there an alternative to this that is preferable?

9. Perhaps you are so excited to dive into your day that you don’t want even to pause to re-write your to-do list. Whether you jump right in or re-make your list, promise me to prioritize the Wants. Do them first. Just this once. See what happens.

So today, sovereignty from Shoulds empowered me finally - finally! - to begin this blog. And now I will fold laundry while watching Transparent, happy to imagine all of you, too, becoming queen of the day.