Do or do not, there is no should

Listen to this post on Soundcloud

I had a prolonged period of heavy stress a few years ago. In retrospect it’s easy to see that a lot of it was self inflicted. During that time I spent a lot of time reading. The key books for this story were:

  • Why Don’t Zebra’s Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
  • The Mindful Way through Depression by Mark Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg

It all clicked together when I was doing an exercise in the NVC book. I had to translate things in my life from the format “I must do x” to “I choose to do x, because y”. My list was short:

  • I choose to eat, because I would die without food
  • I choose to do something, because I need (money for) food
  • I choose to work, because I want comfortable shelter from the elements

Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve

I still felt a huge pressure of needing to do stuff. I realized that I just had a lighter but much more voluminous version of the same problem:

  • I should exercise more
  • I should process more photos I’ve taken
  • I should blog about some of this stuff I’ve been reading
  • I should read more books
  • I should do something about the situation at work
  • I should learn to play the piano
  • I should do more for Agile Finland
  • I should read more of the 80+ interesting articles in my work toread queue
  • I should merge my todo queues
  • I should clean my desk
  • I should empty the dishwasher
  • I should eat something
  • I should clean the frying pan

This list replenishes fast and contains items that will never be complete.

Just do it

I realized that I spend more time thinking about what I should be doing than actually doing anything. My first experiment was to just do stuff whenever I first thought I should. This made a huge difference at home. Having no laundry accumulate helped me spend less time as there was never a need to do any decisions about what to wash next. Having a kitchen ready for cooking when I came home from work also had a big impact on my quality of life.

It was quite obvious that I wouldn’t be able to apply this experiment to everything. But just doing the little things already made a big difference in my mood. Ironically, the Progress principle by Teresa Amabile is still in my toread queue on the bookshelf years later.

There is no should

What I did next was the biggest favor I’ve ever done to myself. I decided to drop the concept of obligatory should completely. It became a daily mindfulness exercise. I would acknowledge the shoulds as they appeared. Then made a decision either to do it or not and allow the thought to pass without dwelling on it.

I still do this daily and as the habit grows stronger it takes less energy. I choose not to do things a lot more, but I still have todo lists. My book queue has also crept beyond the shelf that was reserved for it. My photo processing queue is stuck somewhere in 2012. This did not magically multiply my personal effectiveness.

The big difference is that I feel much more in control of my life. The increased focus helps me do things better. The reduced stress will help me live longer and do things when I choose to do them.

Let it go

Your brain will continue to bring up things that you could do. It is a huge part of its job. The thing you can change is the way you react to these suggestions.

Should will be back, just let it go.

Originally published 20150117 at