“”When we are run by shoulds, we are not living our own lives.”
— Brené Brown
“The next time you hear a should in your head, ask yourself if it’s really true for you.”
— Marie Forleo
“Shoulds are the enemy of joy.”
— Gretchen Rubin
The Magical Motivating Power of Want
Do you know anyone who’s always saying “should,” “have to,” “need to,” or “gotta”?
– “Oh, I should go apologize for that.”
– “Wait, I need to clock out from my shift, first.”
– Ugh! My alarm just went off. I gotta get up.
– “I have to find a decent gift by Friday!”
There are other terms like “must,” “ought to,” “better,” and several others, but for now we’re going to focus on those first four. As a matter of fact, we’re going to group them all together and give them an umbrella term, but let’s hold off on new terms for now.
We all use this need-to language. Yes, even you!
Usually it’s when we feel obligated, and it’s either unpleasant or full-on drudgery. A once-famous psychoanalyst called it “the tyranny of the shoulds” meaning that people carry inside-expectations and demands they feel they must meet if they hope for any kind of approval or acceptance from others. The shoulds tyrannize us.
I group together “should,” “must,” “need to,” and all the others and call them “external motivators.”
Understanding the Drawbacks of Should
While the shoulds and gottas are common habits, over time, they can lead to weakness, a lack of control, increased depression, and for those who talk this way a lot, codependency and passive interaction with others.
This is all about motivation, though — it’s what gets us to do the things we do. And if you can effectively swap out what you “should” do with what you “want” to do, it’ll make a significant difference in your ability to get things done and feel much better about yourself.
How would you like to be strong, in control, resourceful, assertive, and thrive in a healthy relationship?
When we rely on these external motivators, we’re placing our sense of motivation and purpose in the hands of external factors. These factors include societal norms and expectations from parents, teachers, church, or the law. I have to pay taxes because the law says so. I should be nice because they said so in Sunday School. I need to wash behind my ears because Mom always told me to.
These external motivators tend to create a sense of pressure, obligation, and even resentment, which often lead to burnout, disengagement, and rebellion.
When you say, “I should exercise more” or “I have to finish this report,” you put pressure on yourself because of standards and expectations that are external to you.
The Alternative to Should
The best counter to all those external motivators is “want.”
Want is an internal motivator that comes from our own preferences and values. When we focus on what we truly want to do, we tap into our own motivation, which is a far more powerful driver to action than external expectations. We’re more likely to take ownership, set true intentions, and take effective steps to fulfill them when we want to! We become more invested in the process, and the outcome becomes more meaningful and satisfying.
Replacing external motivator terms with “want” has a profound impact on our mindset and motivation.
How to Use Want
So, how do you start incorporating “want” into your motivational vocabulary?
Try this practical 3-step approach:
1. Identify your favorite external motivator
Over the next couple of days, notice the terms you say when you talk about tasks or obligations or changes you want to make. Do you find yourself saying “should,” “need to,” “have to,” or “gotta”? Most people use one of these more than the others. Even if you use several, pick just one to start with. This’ll be your starting point for instituting this subtle but powerful change.
2. Restate your motivators
Once you’ve identified the external motivator you most often use, repeat each phrase it comes up in, but use “want” instead. For example, instead of saying, “I should exercise more,” try saying, “I want to exercise because I’ll feel energized and alive.”
In the former statement, the focus is on external expectations or demands, which usually feel burdensome and demotivating. In contrast, the latter statement uses internal motivation, or desire for the benefits of exercise. This creates a sense of excitement and eagerness to take action.
Here’s another example: “I have to finish this report by the end of the day” vs. “I want to finish this report today because it’ll help me meet my goals and feel accomplished.”
In the have-to statement, the emphasis is on deadlines and pressure from the boss, which probably elicit stress and anxiety. Contrast that with the want-statement that focuses on the intrinsic motivation of personal desire and a sense of achievement. These tend to foster a more positive and proactive approach to work.
Finishing the report doesn’t change. When you change the way you look at something though, the work still won’t change, but your sense of purpose will.
3. Connect with what you want — why you want it
When you set intentions or plan tasks, ask what you genuinely want to achieve and why. Connect with your internal motivation and use it as a guide when you restate your intention.
For example, if you want to get up earlier in the morning, ask yourself why. Maybe it’s because you want a more relaxed morning and to start your day on a positive note. When you connect with the underlying motivation behind your actions (your why) and use it in your restatement, you’ll more likely follow through . . . and feel better about doing it.
Bonus step: Take pause to notice whether your want-statement feels any different than your should-statement did. If it does, great! That’s your motivation to keep making want-statements. If it feels no different, you may not really mean it (this can’t be faked). Be sincere. Also, check your why (the reason you want this). Your want-statement must be true. You can’t fool yourself.
Go Easy On Yourself
It’s important to remember that changing the way you talk takes time and practice. You can’t do it suddenly. First, take a day or two to notice which external motivator you use most often. Then focus on replacing your “shoulds,” “have tos,” or “need tos” with some form of “want” — and add a reason why.
. . . and on others
And if you already do all of this, consider using wants to improve how you motivate others. The same principle holds true when you speak to others.
“You have to clean your room!” doesn’t work half as well as “You may want to clean your room so you can play video games later.” It naturally changes your tone of voice, too. Instead of barking an order, you’ll find yourself extending an invitation.
When you “should” on others, you become their external motivator. They automatically want to push back. Showing them how to draw on their own internal motivator will help them feel better and raise the likelihood of you getting what you want.
For Further Practice
Here are a few more examples of how you can replace your shoulds with wants:
- “I have to eat healthier” becomes “I want to eat healthy to feel good and have more energy.”
- “I need to exercise more” becomes “I want to exercise more to lose weight and get in better shape.”
- “I’ve really gotta save money now” becomes “I wanna to save money so I won’t be living paycheck to paycheck.”
- “You need to ask for a raise, man!” becomes “If you want a raise, simply asking for it really increases your chances.”
- “You gotta slow down! This whole area is a huge speed trap!” becomes “I’ve heard this area is a real speed trap, you might want to slow down to save yourself a speeding ticket.”