Should vs I’d like to

Reblogged from: http://ejf.io/thoughts/shoulds/

I used to think that there was a lot of stuff that I should do. I have many interests, and ideally would like to pursue as many as possible. I would make lists, and schedules, and invariably, not get to everything, or not follow the schedule at all. This, would typically lead to guilt, and a general feeling of “I’m not doing what I should be doing”. That I was feeling guilty and already not doing what I should be lead me to skip even more things that I felt I should be doing. By the end of the day, I’d feel like I hadn’t accomplished much, and after longer stretches of this, I would get more and more depressed.

I’m reading a book called “Feeling Good”, which is about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (in short, an effective, non-pharmaceutical treatment for depression). The general idea of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is that our thoughts generate our feelings, and that if we change our thoughts, we can change how we feel about things. One of the key points to the book is that depressed people tend to have distorted views of the world in one way or another. Among the list of cognitive distortions is “Should Statements”. Here’s a quick description from the linked Wikipedia page:

Should statements: doing, or expecting others to do, what they morally should or ought to do irrespective of the particular case the person is faced with. This involves conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, “always apply,” or to hypothetical imperatives which apply in that general type of case. Albert Ellis termed this “musturbation”. Psychotherapist Michael C. Graham describes this as “expecting the world to be different than it is”.
Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes. Or, while waiting for an appointment, thinking that the service provider should be on time, and feeling bitter and resentful as a result.

I think that I had been falling into that trap a lot. That said, I still had things that I wanted to do every day, and I still wanted to have some way to remind myself every day of those things. I started using an app that’s designed to track daily tasks like this. (The one that I’m using is Streaks, though there are many out there.)

Using an app, in and of itself doesn’t solve the problem though. I could still beat myself up about the things that I don’t get done. So, I have also shifted the way in which I communicate this to myself. Instead of saying that there are things that I should do, I say that there are things that Iwould like to do. If I don’t happen to get to them, that’s ok, there’s always tomorrow. I can’t do everything all the time, and I have figured out that I don’t think that I could accomplish everything on my list and get work done.

Here’s my full list of things that I’d like to do every day (in no particular order):

  • No beer today
  • Learn one new thing
  • 1 interview prep question
  • Consume News
  • Brain Training
  • Play with Raena
  • Plan day
  • CBT
  • Headspace
  • Hack
  • Exercise
  • Spend time with Elizabeth
  • Spend time with Lydia
  • Wake up early
  • Take a walk

Most days, I’m able to do the following:

  • No beer today
  • 1 interview prep question
  • Consume News
  • Exercise
  • Spend time with Elizabeth
  • Spend time with Lydia
  • Wake up early

Whereas, I rarely do these:

  • Learn one new thing
  • Brain Training
  • Plan day
  • CBT
  • Headspace
  • Hack

If I look at the list of things that I have done in a day, that I wanted to do, I can feel good about getting those things done. As long as there’s not something critical that I’m skipping every day, then that’s all this needs to be. A gentle nudge to remind me of the stuff that I said I’d like to do, and a pat on the back for those things that I did.

Hopefully, you’re not strapping yourself with lots of things that you should be doing, and are instead doing things that you’d like to do.