Stop Making Should Lists

My husband and I have come to the conclusion that we have reached a crossroads in our lives. We both turned 39 years old (he in December and I in January), and we had to let our cat Karley go after she had been in our lives for the last 12 years. Things are shifting for us and rather than letting them shift negatively, we are are taking measures to ensure positive changes in our lives.

One of them is this idea of “should.” Here’s a list of recent “shoulds” we’ve been talking about:

  • We should finish the trim in our house.
  • He should get his truck fixed.
  • He should make the upgrades to the Mustang he’s been wanting.
  • We should watch less TV.
  • We should make a budget and pay off our debt.
  • Maybe we should sell the house and rent something, then pay off all our debt with the proceeds from the house.
  • We should take more vacations.
  • He should get a new job.
  • I should start a podcast.
  • I should start clearing out some clutter and minimize our “stuff.”

If you are like me, you’ve probably got some job-related “should’s” as well:

  • I should update all our websites with new bio’s.
  • I should schedule new head shots for the team.
  • I should teach a class in my market center.
  • I should scan my paper files and get them organized.
  • I should find some artwork to put up on these bare walls.
  • I should clean my desk.
  • I should do a better job of posting to our team’s social media on a daily basis.
  • I should get that newsletter going.
  • I should find a way to make this checklist more effective.

And it just goes on and on.

In fact, both my husband and I are guilty of saying to each other, “Someone should take out the trash (run the dishwasher, mop floor, fill in the blank with a chore no one wants to do).” And we say it like there’s some third party who will overhear and do it for us. This never happens, but we keep hoping one day this will work!

Here’s What’s Happening When You Should On Yourself

We all recognize that we have obligations—things we agreed to do either consciously or by proxy. When you accepted this job as an assistant, you agreed to maintain the websites for instance. Or, when you bought a vehicle, you agreed to keep it in good working order. Obviously, there are consequences to not doing those things.

Let’s get a good dose of logic here.

“The psychologist Clayton Barbeau came up with the term “shoulding yourself” to describe this cognitive distortion. Another psychologist, Albert Ellis, calls it “musterbation.” It consists of telling yourself that you have an obligation to do something different from what you are doing. Obviously, this cognitive distortion can work in your thoughts about other people too. But in either case, your automatic thought is that you or someone else should/must/ought to/has to do something.” – John Tagg, Shoulding Yourself, Shoulding Others

The key here is “automatic thought.” Do you realize you are having these thoughts? I know I’m becoming more aware of these thoughts as they happen, but clearly they’ve been slipping by. I’ll be working on something and then the shoulds creep in because I feel guilty about doing this thing instead of doing another.

This happens to me the most when I get on my computer to do some work. For instance, I intend to work on the pre-listing checklist for a new listing that was just signed. So open Top Producer, and get going on it.

I have to open my email to send out some information to the new sellers when I see an email from a client asking to make a change to some information in their listing. Rather than keep the seller waiting, I’ll switch to working on that since it’s fresh in my mind and it will only take a couple minutes anyway.

This leads to a rabbit trail. I’ll make the change in MLS, then go out to the other websites to make the changes, something else will catch my eye, I’ll open an article or two related to something cool about marketing and by then 20 minutes have passed and I still haven’t done what I originally intended to do which was to email the new sellers a copy of their listing agreement.

And then the guilt sets it. I should focus on one thing at a time! Why do I let myself get distracted? How can I keep myself from doing this in the future? Oh boy…

By using the word “should,” you are taking an idea and turning it into guilt. The guilt is pre-built into the idea. “Should” implies that this is something you must do, but you aren’t currently doing it, so therefore you are a bad person.

“We use the Should of Guilt to atone, to make up for the fact that we aren’t doing what we said we’d do. It’s our way of acknowledging that we know what we’re doing isn’t lining up with our plans, dreams, intentions. It’s a minor punishment, a way of making ourselves feel bad for the choices we made. And it’s also a half-hearted attempt to nudge ourselves back on course.” – Erin Karup, Are you shoulding all over yourself?

Does this sound familiar? Are you attempting, like your parents did to you in the past, to nag yourself into doing something? I don’t know about you, but when someone nags me to do something (even if it’s myself!), it makes me want to do it even less!

So how do we fix this?

A Turn of Phrase

I attended BOLD several years ago when I tried my hand at working as a buyer’s agent for a short period of time. (That didn’t work out so well, but that’s a story for another time.) One of the things BOLD teaches is to replace the word “but” with the word “and”. When speaking to a seller whose listing has expired, an agent might be inclined to say something like, “I really like all the upgrades you’ve done to the house, but you are clearly over-priced for the market,” The second half of the sentence negates the first half; as in, “It doesn’t matter that I like the upgrades because no one is going to buy your house when it’s over-priced.” Rather, the agent says, “I really like all the upgrades you’ve done to the house, (pause) AND you are clearly overpriced for the market.” In this statement, both halves of the sentence are true. “I like the upgrades, and they aren’t enough to get buyers to pay the price you are asking,” is the true meaning behind your statement.

You can use this same idea when shoulding on yourself. Switch out “should” for “must” and then test it to see if the statement is true.

“I should focus on this pre-listing checklist,” becomes, “I MUST focus on this pre-listing checklist.” Now you have a true statement without the guilt. Now you can take action into focusing on your pre-listing checklist. The “must” statement is way more powerful than the “should” statement.

The leverage model goes further than a powerful statement and addresses the fact that:

  • It must change now
  • I must change it now
  • I can change it now

These are your three beliefs for lasting change, and unless you have committed to these beliefs, then you will fall back into a “should” which floats vaguely somewhere on your non-committed To Do list.

-Bill Carmody, Don’t “Should” All Over Yourself: 3 Steps to Create Lasting Change

Here, you are making a commitment to doing what you said you would do. How do you fulfill that commitment? You time block for it. Write it into your calendar. On Monday at 3:00 PM I will complete the pre-listing checklist for 123 Main Street. It will take me 30 minutes. I commit to leaving my email and all unnecessary windows closed until they are needed. When I open my email, I will open no new emails, and I will only send out the necessary emails to complete the pre-listing checklist.

Maybe the first few times you do this, you actually write out these statements. It doesn’t take long to do this. And then once your brain makes the connection that a time block on your calendar is a commitment to do that thing and nothing else, then it will become a habit for you.

Now, perhaps, you can eliminate that “should” altogether? What if change your “should” to “must” and it isn’t a true statement for you?

I’ve been telling myself I should eat a wide variety of vegetables. But MUST I eat a wider variety of vegetables? Frankly, I’m not a big fan of veggies. I like a few different kinds, but I don’t want to force myself to eat vegetable I don’t like simply because I think I “should.” What are the consequences if I don’t eat a wider variety of vegetables? I gotta say, the consequences aren’t compelling enough to make me eat them. Sure, it’s “healthier” to eat more veggies. But, in reality, there are no long-term health consequences. There are other things I could do that would be easier and still benefit my health, and I’ve chosen to do those instead. These include exercise, take a supplement, and avoid sugar and processed foods. In my estimation, my mission of better health is accomplished. So now, I choose to stop telling myself I should eat a wide variety of veggies. I can let that go!

Choosing MUST and Dealing With Distractions

But what about distractions? Maybe you’ve made your commitment to a task, and then another team member comes to you needing something? How do you handle that?

Bill Carmody has more advice for us:

But if you spend your day without a focus on the outcomes you want to achieve, you will end up bouncing around between other people’s priorities.

Instead, create a new empowering alternative pattern where you decide what hours you will focus on your MUST list, which hours you will be available to your team, and which hours you will support the needs of your clients/customers. You new alternative pattern must give you momentum—forward motion with energy behind it.

Some things in your job duties just can’t be interrupted. If you need to be on the phone with a client, obviously you can’t be interrupted. And yet, we don’t treat ALL our activities this way. You could be working on updating the team’s Facebook page, and if an agent interrupts you to ask a question, the consequences are not large nor lasting. You’ve lost your train of thought and now have to get back to what you were doing which probably costs you a few minutes. But, multiply those interruptions by 10 or 100, and you’ve probably got a train-wrecked day on your hands.

Take your MUST list, those things that absolutely MUST not be interrupted, and time block for them. Then communicate to your team that you are unavailable during that time. Outside of that time, declare which hours you are available to your team and accept that you are going to work on things that will get interrupted while you have made yourself available to team members.

Perhaps even a morning and afternoon 15-minute team meeting is warranted. That way everyone can communicate their needs in the morning and their follow-up or new needs in the afternoon without interrupting each other things as they occur?

Finally, John Tagg leaves us with this: “What you choose to do, and then do, will (to some degree, at least) change the world. What you “should” do will just make you miserable.”

So here is my commitment: I refuse to “should” on myself, and instead I choose to make commitments to those things I am responsible for and to those things I enjoy doing!


Make the commitment today! Copy/paste this statement in the comments below so we can hold each other accountable: I refuse to “should” on myself, and instead I choose to make commitments to those things I am responsible for and to those things I enjoy doing!


1 Comment

  1. Courtney Downer

    You must have heard me “shoulding myself” in my office lately.

    I refuse to “should” on myself, and instead I choose to make commitments to those things I am responsible for and to those things I enjoy doing!


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