Research for my latest novel has me delving into therapies, recovery activities and exercises for motivation. One particular activity I was introduced to yesterday was, “Write down your rules for life.”
Your rules for life, so to speak, are not necessarily rules that you stick to all the time. Your rules can be things that you feel you should be doing, or maybe things you feel guilty if you don’t do. Here are some examples:
- I should go for a run every day.
- I must not be selfish
- I should always text back straight away
- I must never be late for work
- I should always put make-up on before leaving the house
In my research environment, we were then told to change these negative, authoritarian words like ‘should’ to something that was kinder to ourselves. I thought this was a really interesting phrase to use, and noticed that many of the others in the environment were changing their rules to more tentative words: I could, I can, I might…
After speaking to my housemate later that evening, she pulled up an article she’d read about the impacts of using the word ‘should’. As the article says, although ‘should’ may occasionally give good guidance, more often than not it “induces guilt, and decreases the desire to do something you might otherwise want to do.”
In this article, psychologist Susan Heitler suggests to use the words ‘could’ and ‘I would like to’, rather than ‘should’ – and the more thought I put into it, the more it made sense. Even from a simple, stripped-back perspective: if you tell yourself you would like to do something, rather than you should do something, you’re surely more likely to do it, right? It just makes more sense.
Similarly, if you use the word should when addressing others, you’re very likely to make them feel guilty for not already doing said thing. Therefore, they’re less likely to feel motivated to do said thing because, let’s face it, nobody likes being told what to do. Telling others that they should be doing something is appealing to that little bit of rebel we all have inside of us: the voice saying, “If I should, then I ain’t gonna. Don’t tell me what to do.”
For example, if I said to my housemate (which would never happen, by the way, because she is far cleaner than I am): “You should have done the washing up today. You should really help out more.”
(God, it felt weird even writing that.)
She’s not going to do it. Actually, she’ll probably be pissed off that I’m telling her to do something. But if I said, “Could you do the washing up today?” I reckon she’d be more likely to pick up the sponge.
Using the word could implies that you have an option. You could do the washing up, but there’s no pressure. You could also not do the washing up, no biggie. Similarly, if I’m speaking to myself (happens a lot), I can change I should go for a run every day, to I could go for a run every day, if I feel like it. Hey, no pressure. If I don’t feel like going for a run, I’m not going to bother, but I have the potential. I totally could, if I wanted to. But I don’t need to feel like I should be going for a run, even when I don’t want to. I tried this technique out on myself this morning, because I have a whole host of things to do and very little time to do them in. I wrote myself a little list of things that I should be doing / have already done, but used the phrase would like to instead.
Things I would like to get done today:
- Finish off my publishing portfolio
- Edit my manuscript submission
- Write another synopsis & query letter
Things I could also do, if I want to:
- Email various people waiting for work and thank them for sticking with me while I’m busy
- Call a lady about renting a tent pitch
Just seeing these little lists already makes me feel like I’ve no pressure to complete any of my tasks – but that makes me want to do them even more! Not because I should, but because I could – and why waste that potential?
Susan Heitler’s article Should You Use This Word? on Psychology Today explains this concept far better than I can, so go and give it a read. Also thank you to my housemate, Beth, for pointing this out to me! It was too helpful of a concept not to share.