You say it to yourself all day long—and it forces you to split your focus.
Erin Falconer is the editor behind the self-improvement site Pick the Brain. In this excerpt from her book How to Get Sh*T Done ($26, amazon.com), she highlights the toxic word we all need to ban from our self-talk.
It's time we kicked should to the curb. Should is a word that implies obligation and expectation and often comes as a box set that’s gift-wrapped in guilt and even shame. It’s also a word that implies an open-endedness and the absence of a decision. It describes possibility rather than reality. “I should go to the gym” is not the same as “I’m going to the gym.” “I’m going to the gym” is definitive. You’ve got a plan and you’re executing that plan. There’s no feeling involved, it’s simply a commitment. The person saying “I should go to the gym” might end up by lacing up her runners, or she might spend another hour on the couch. Not only does should suggest things are still up in the air, it’s almost always a negative.
We rarely use should when talking about something we’re looking forward to. If you wanted to describe something you hoped for but weren’t sure would come through, you’d say, “I hope I can make it to that conference next month” or “I want to leave the office in time to join friends for dinner.” You don’t have a set-in-stone plan yet in these scenarios, but your desires are clear. When you find yourself saying should, you’re not anticipating something great, but rather are reminding yourself of that never-ending to-do list you should (there it is again!) be chipping away at.
Shoulding ourselves is a major energy drain, as it compels us to split focus. We’re forcing our minds to be in two places at once. If I’m exhausted after a marathon week and am urgently in need of a day involving my bed and a book, but I’m taunted by the feeling that I should be helping my parents clean out their garage, I’m now in two places. I’m also in neither place, really. I’m not enjoying some well earned self-care, because I’m distracted by my guilt, and I’m not helping my parents, because I couldn’t make a decision to do so. I’ve robbed myself of the satisfaction that either of these choices could have brought me. We’re never truly in the moment if we allow thoughts of should to be telling us a story of another choice that might have been made.
Which brings us to should ’s true toxic nature. We don’t actually say should that often, not out loud, anyway. No, should is the word we say to ourselves, all day long. Inner dialogue is something all humans have. If left unchecked and untrained, the brain can be noisy with negative commentary. Imagine a sportscaster (except it’s you!) describing your day. “Really? Can you not see the muffin top those jeans are creating? You should lose five pounds before wearing those.” Should plays a key role in the lion’s share of this trash talk.
Your alarm goes off and you think, I should go for a run . . . but I really want to sleep for fifteen more minutes. At lunch you tell yourself, I should order the salad . . . but I’m craving a burger. After a phone call with you mother, you think, I really should get out to my parents’ place more often. I should go this weekend. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to exercise, eat healthy, and stay connected with our families. But the very fact of a should in a sentence is a red flag that you either don’t want to do that thing, or don’t really intend to do it. Either way, you’ve created a divide between what you’re expected to do and what you want to do. If you are saying the word should, but really mean something different, you are penalizing yourself—which over time will deplete you.
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And whose expectations are we meeting—or worse, failing—when we badger ourselves with should? This can be a tricky tangle to unpick. But it’s worth slowing down and examining if you’re being pulled toward doing something because you believe it’s the right thing to do or because you’re conforming to a societal expectation that doesn’t serve you.
Here are a few times you shouldn’t should:
I should go to Jenny’s baby shower because she went to mine. Wrong.
I should do more work on this paper because I have an extra couple of hours. Wrong.
I should go pick up the kids because my husband has had a really tough week. Wrong.
If you are saying the word should in a sentence there is a 99 percent chance you are wrong.
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The only time should should be used is in choosing a priority or order to something that has a quantifiable outcome, e.g., “I should go to the bank before the meeting because traffic is lighter and I will waste less time.”
Making changes in how we speak, and therefore in how we think, is significant. If you’ve been doing anything one way for years, switching gears will feel uncomfortable. And it’s that discomfort that can set off alarm bells for many women. Making other people uncomfortable? Making myself uncomfortable? It’s like sirens going off in your brain!
But with repetition, saying what you mean (rather than what is expected of you) can become as comfortable as your old habits were.
Excerpted from HOW TO GET SH*T DONE: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything So They Can Achieve Something by Erin Falconer. Copyright c 2018 by Erin Falconer. Reprinted by permission of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.