Do you tell yourself you should drink less coffee… as you’re standing in line at Starbucks?
Or that you should draw in your sketchbook more as you’re sitting down to stream a TV show?
Or that you should get in shape… as you bite into a cupcake?
Why is it so easy to abuse yourself over what you “should” do…
…and so hard to actually do it?
What if, instead of fixating on what you think you should do, you took control and decided what you will do?
What if you trusted yourself to follow through and actually do that thing?
As Sarah Von Bargen put it, “Daily choices add up to a life. We are what we do every day and we pay for our choices with the lives we lead.”
We all have this inner monologue about how we live our days. Sometimes it’s neutral: “Noon. OK, what’s for lunch, then?”
But way too often, it’s negative, even abusive. “Lunchtime. Ugh, I should skip lunch, I’m such a pig. But probably I should eat something really healthy with lots of protein so I don’t fade in the 4 pm meeting. I should get the to gym over lunch, lazy ass.. I should finish this proposal; everyone on that committee hates me, I hold them all back. I should take a brisk walk. I should answer these emails…” and so on, ad infinitum. Meanwhile this person is hunched over their Facebook feed nibbling a lukewarm Hot Pocket.
Minimizing that stream of abuse you direct at yourself is absolutely possible, and it’s not a trivial activity. It’s a mental health issue, a physical health issue, and a huge contributor to how in control you feel over your life. When you follow through on your creative habit, you begin to build the kind of trust in yourself that will change your entire relationship with your work.
In the Creative Focus Workshop, one of the most pivotal exercises we do is called “The Should Monster”.
In it, I have students make lists of all the beastly things they say to themselves all day as their inner critic tries to force behavior change via abuse. (Never works.) Then they create a depiction of their personal Should Monster.
It’s very cathartic; you can burn it or throw darts at it.
A lot of the shoulds on the list are poisonous slander, like “You should be more like your brother,” or “You shouldn’t try to be a writer; no one will ever read your work.” Externalizing these kinds of things can be extremely effective at stealing their power over you.
The problem is, not all of them fall into this category.
Every cohort, I got this question: “What about Shoulds that you really do believe you should do?”
What if you truly believe that your life would be better if you drew in your sketchbook more (and not only because some art school prof claimed that “real artists maintain a sketchbook practice”)?
Here’s a version of my usual answer. “All Shoulds are not inherently negative! Some Shoulds become plans. ‘Wills,’ if you will.”
“If you “should” get in shape, then either decide to get in shape, and make a plan, or consciously put it aside for now. Revisit it as a potential plan in the future. Treat it like a bucket list item, and not a daily nag. Some Shoulds are like Idea Debt for life plans.”
Reading this, André Hedetoft, a Creative Focus Workshop student, had a breakthrough, and actually applied my idea to his list of Shoulds, dividing it into three categories. His insight has completely changed how I think about and teach this exercise.
I’ll get back to André’s insight in a bit. First, let’s look at the categories of things causing people so much anxiety and pain.
Plans for creative projects that you’re either not starting or not finishing.
Any projects or plans you’ve made a mental commitment to. Anything you’ve started and not finished. Anything you “owe” to someone else.
Those things you tell yourself over and over again that make you feel like you’re failing. (I’ll get into the 3 categories of Shoulds below.)
You may sense looking at the descriptions that these are not exclusive categories, and you’d be right. These three are a 3D matrix of overlapping motivations, functions, and manifestations.
Idea Debt projects are open, festering loops. They’re ideas you truly want to get done, or at least you did at one time or another, and they’re often quite tied up in your self image as someone who does this sort of thing. You feel you “should” be able to do them all, and right now.
Open loops is a more general category and includes all kinds of other things that you need or want to do, including all the incredibly banal stuff of running an adult life. The reason they’re “open” is that you feel obligation to finish, thus, Shoulds.
Shoulds are often “Idea Debt for life plans,” but also include lots of self-critical stuff having to do with behavior and attitude that isn’t always dependent on individual projects. Shoulds function at a meta level.
André pinpointed the problem with the Shoulds activity when it stopped with drawing the Should Monster.
I absolutely loved this exercise. For me… life transforming.
One of my biggest problems is and has always been that I’m genuinely interested and curious and just love to turn anything that captures that brief attention into really big projects and massive plans. It starts out well with great momentum, but then reality sets in and I have a hard time following through, which turns all those “wants” into shameful “shoulds.”
The key insight here is many things on his list were there because he really wanted to do them, but he had a hard time following through because there are so many of them, and he hadn’t decided on any one.
Here were André’s three categories:
1. DROP IT.
2. PICK UP AT LATER POINT IN LIFE.
Get those “shoulds” out of my head and down on a list, where they can stay until they are ready to become “wills” or “drop its”.
3. TURN THAT SHOULD INTO A WILL.
The big one. For me just rephrasing “I want” or “I should” into “I will” made a huge difference. It forced me to be concrete. Not just with what I want…but also how I plan to be able to do it.
I tried to focus on the amount I could actually do over the long run (preferably for life) instead of short sprints that burn out like a shooting star. I call them SUSTAINABLE WILLS. Start small. Build the habit. Prove it to myself with these small wins. Over and over and over again, until they are a natural part of me.
The division of Shoulds into 3 categories essentially pinpoints which items in your inner litany is idea debt and open loops (AKA things you may (or may not!) want to actually implement/do/change in your life), and which are truly just horrendous mindgames played by your inner critic.
Category 1 is made up of those mindgames.
The key for gaining a measure of control over this category of Should is realizing that many (most? all?) of these things come from conditioning you’ve been exposed to:
What society tells you about how artists are supposed to live and work (“Real artists are solo geniuses whose work is recognized without them engaging in commerce”).
What your culture tells you about how people are supposed to behave and present themselves (“Women who focus on their work are selfish and bitchy. They should be primarily caring for everyone else.”).
What your parents taught you about what they expect from you (“You should lose weight.” “You should be married.” “You should get a real job.”)
You can’t control what kind of a family you were born into, or whether your third grade teacher was verbally abusive, or the culture of your nation. But you can recognize when the effects of those preconditions are leaking into your self-image. And when you do, you can start to counteract those messages.
What’s crazy is that you may vehemently disagree with the underlying beliefs reflected in those mindgames. But until you lay bare the logic you’re playing out when you berate yourself, you won’t be able stop yourself when you start to hear that voice coming at you again.
Assuming you do take issue with the assumptions you’re carrying around—you may even be shocked by them—exposing them to sunlight, identifying them to yourself, is the first step to eradicating them.
Here lies Idea Debt. And Open Loops. And, perhaps most of all, potential health, relationship, and creative habits you’d like to implement because you think they’ll make your life better, but—and here’s the key—that you haven’t actually committed to.
These are ideas that genuinely line up with how you’d ideally like to live your life, but you haven’t chosen to devote the bandwidth to focus on them properly.
Creative “want-tos” are frequently on this list. Turning “I should paint more” into “I really want to paint more, but I don’t see how I can make the time (yet)” is a major, important transformation of POV. Just this change of outlook will give you agency over whether or not to follow through on your creative habit.
This is your “Life Idea Debt” list. Like project Idea Debt, you may one day tackle some of these projects (and habits), but for the moment, they’re on hold. When they run through your head, you can say that to yourself. “This is on my list, but I’m not working on it right now.”
If you’re thinking about resolutions for the New Year, and in particular if you feel ready to commit the time and effort to implement a new habit, this is where you find your list of options.
OK, so I kind of misled you. There are really only two categories of Shoulds. Because, by default, this third category starts empty.
Why? If you’re telling yourself you “should” do something, you’re not doing it, right?
And if you’re going to start doing something new, it will, be default, take up space-time and willpower you’re currently using for something else. Thus: dilemma, and possibly the ripple effect (planning a big blog post on this idea in January. Stay tuned).
Therefore, the key to making this category work for you is to keep this list SHORT.
In fact, keep it to one item, until that one item is either a finished project or a fixed habit.
Then you can move the next priority up from the Want-To list.
What’s the point of going through the painful exercise of confronting all your Shoulds?
You need to take back power over the voice of self-disgust and disappointment. And in order to do that, you have two different tactics available.
On the one hand, with the needlessly painful, emotional self-putdowns, identify where those ideas spring from, so that you can learn to set those thoughts aside. It’s too much to expect that you can banish all negative thoughts forever, but if you can identify what’s happening, you’re more likely to be able to simply put them in a box and deny them the kind of sway they’ve had over you.
On the other hand, there are all these other desires that are more concrete, and represent ways you want to live and things you want to accomplish.
This is where real control is possible.
This is where you get to choose what’s most important, of all the things you’d hypothetically like to do, and do it.
Then you relegate all the other “shoulds” to “sounds nice, but not my priority right now.” When that nasty voice pops up saying you “should” be doing that thing, you have a ready answer, backed up with real thought.
And what does actually doing that one thing look like?
Following through on a new creative habit.
In my world, the habit most people want to build first is, “do my creative work on a daily basis.”
It’s not that “daily creativity” is necessarily all that inspiring. You might tell yourself that there’s a big project you desperately want to finish. After all, creative output is frequently measured by products finished: Books, blog posts, paintings, films…
But the things you want to accomplish—making time for them requires changes in the way you live.
And that means habits.
Yes, projects are ultimately finished because you complete tasks.
This sounds kind of circular. The reason you feel a “should” about this habit or project is that you’re not doing it. You feel stuck.
I’ve joined forces with a big thinker about the power of small habits, Sarah Von Bargen (who I quoted above in the intro), for a free workshop next week, December 5, 2018, and hope you’ll join us to first choose what you want to focus on, and then get the key steps in place to implement, and preserve, your tender, powerful new habit, just in time for a fresh start with the new year.
(And if you’re reading this after Dec. 5, you can grab the replay at that same link!)