As soon as we tell ourselves we should be doing something, we turn off the part of our brains that can help us actually do it. Here’s why it happens, and what to do instead.
If you’re not sure if you tend toward a deficit mindset, all you have to do is pay attention to how often you tell yourself you should have already met some external standard of behavior.
If the optimist thinks the glass is half full and the pessimist thinks the glass is half empty, the person with a deficit mindset thinks they should have done a better job pouring the water. Not to mention, they should have changed the water filter a week ago, been more committed to staying hydrated, and probably learned how to blow their own fucking glassware.
‘Should’ is a canary in the coal mine for the deficit mindset because it captures the two core tendencies involved: 1. measuring ourselves against a receding horizon of idealized expectations, and 2. seeing ourselves as failing to meet those expectations in a way that could, would, should have been avoided, if only we were better. The first rule of the deficit mindset is that there is no excuse for being in deficit.
No surprise, then, that people who recognize themselves in a description like this often just wind up adding Get rid of deficit thinking to the list of things they should have already done, right after flossing twice a day and getting back to being fluent in French.
Have you ever heard the saying, If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? In the deficit mindset, ‘should’ is the hammer, and our lives are the nail.
Why ‘Should’ is a Brain Killer
In order to actually begin to escape this mindset, we need to understand another hammer-like property of ‘should’: the way it obliterates our capacity for higher reasoning.
For example a while back I was struggling with staying up too late. I kept telling myself I should go to sleep earlier. I kept not doing it. I yelled at myself. Nothing changed. I kept yelling. For weeks.
This is a level of problem-solving — if you can even call it that — that we wouldn’t entertain for a hot minute in most other areas of our lives. If your dog started pooping in the hallway out of nowhere, you wouldn’t just keep scolding him forever. You’d at least ask yourself why the fuck he suddenly decided to do that. You’d consider stress, diet, your usual walking route, and a million things. You’d examine data, create hypotheses, and trial solutions.
That I did none of this is down to the fact that ‘should’ comes with an explanation for the problem pre-installed. ‘Should’ tells us there’s a rule, which we naturally won’t want to follow — otherwise there wouldn’t need to be a rule about it. So when we don’t follow it, the reason is clear: we’re bad at controlling our natural inclinations. The only relevant responses are to apply rules harder and become less bad.
We never need to look any further because our badness is always ready to hand as the answer — no investigation required. Nothing to see here, folks, we won’t be needing the ol’ pre-frontal cortex for this one!
This is how ‘should’ turns a relatively smart person into someone who forgets how to do basic problem-solving.
There’s a simple way to reverse this process, which I call the De-Shouldifier. It’s a method for bringing our problem-solving skills back online and exiting the stalemate of ‘should’. Here’s how it works:
1. Rephrase whatever thing you think you should do as something you WANT to do.
So for example, ‘I should go to bed earlier’ becomes ‘I want to go to bed earlier’. This immediately accomplishes two things: I stop seeing going to bed as an externally imposed standard I am inherently reluctant to meet, and I start seeing it as something I have chosen for myself for a reason. My wanting gets lined up with the thing I’m trying to do, rather than against it. This is key because as I’ve written elsewhere, getting us to act is what wanting is for.
2. Then write down the results you would get if you act on this want.
As adults, we necessarily choose our own ‘shoulds’. And we wouldn’t have picked the ones we did if we didn’t see them as creating some results we want in our lives, even if it’s just the result of getting to think well of ourselves.
In this step, we work on identifying those results, which means we get our intellectual curiosity and capacity for logical reasoning back online. We ask: what exactly do we think we’ll get from going to bed earlier, exercising more, recovering French fluency, you name it? Then we can connect our desire for this change with the specific reasons we want it.
3. Now take the opposite angle and ask yourself why, specifically, you want NOT to do this thing.
Instead of assuming that we already know what’s going on (i.e., that we suck at self-marshaling), in this step we investigate the actual, specific reasons we aren’t following our own directions.
The effects of this shift are massive, because a) we have a much better chance of addressing an objection we actually fucking know is there, and b) we get to notice that even this non-compliant part us has a logical reason for its actions. It’s not trying to throw us under the bus. It’s just trying to act in our interests in a way we haven’t yet understood.
In my case, when I finally asked myself why I was staying up so late, my brain responded: It feels good to be off the clock. Which is when I realized that 3 a.m. was basically the only time when I didn’t feel like I needed to be accomplishing something.
It turns out I was staying up in an attempt to finally have some fricking downtime. And when I looked at the results I wanted from going to bed earlier, I realized they were all about increasing my time on the clock. I wanted to get up earlier so I could squeeze more in, and get more done.
No wonder I was fighting myself tooth and nail about going to bed! Not only did I already feel like I didn’t have enough downtime, but if I went to bed earlier I’d actually get less. Of course, I was going to rebel against myself every time I tried to get myself into bed at 10 pm.
4. Compare the results in #2 with the reasons in #3 and decide how you want to proceed.
Once you can see the specific things you want from both doing and NOT doing the thing, you can actually start to compare and weigh the choices in front of you. You can problem-solve how you might be able to meet both desires.
This was ultimately what I was able to do with my staying-up-late dilemma. When I understood the actual reason for my resistance, I was able to go back to the drawing board. I identified thoughts that would help me associate going to bed WITH downtime — like ‘If I go to bed now, I can finish at 3 and go to the movies’ or whatever. And pretty soon, it worked, and I no longer even wanted to stay up late anymore.
The whole stupefying system of ‘should’ rests on our conviction that we’re inherently terrible at self-discipline, which means there’s no analysis required to understand why we can’t do the things we know we want to do.
And that’s the beauty of the De-Shouldifier. You don’t have to get good at self-discipline to try it out. You don’t even have to believe me about any of this. You just need to treat your non-compliance as if it did have a logic behind it, for a few minutes. And once you get your higher reasoning onto the case, you’ll start to see things in a very different way.
When we exit the stalemate of ‘should’, we can finally take Become less bad off the to-do list. We start to see our conflicting impulses as something we can navigate with insight and ingenuity, rather than as more proof that we’re failing yet again to do things well enough. Best of all, we get to recognize that there’s no inner, ungovernable monster standing between us and the things we want to do.
Don’t let the De-Shouldifier get lost in the internet shuffle! Get a copy to keep and use here.