Browsing the archives for the obligations tag.
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Too Many Priorities

Strategies and goals

If I were to have to pick the one largest problem I have getting things done in my life, it would be having too many priorities. Maybe you can relate … though I hope you can’t!

Roots of overcommitment
Part of the problem has to do with my personality: I love to consider new possibilities and think about new ways to do things, so I often come up with ideas that seem likely to pay off handsomely if I invest some time and effort. Though sometimes that has been the case and sometimes it hasn’t, usually it’s much easier to consider whether the idea itself is worthwhile than to consider whether or not it really fits in with my primary goal at that point in my life.

And I do mean “goal,” singular. We can adopt a lot of different priorities in our lives, but if we really want to achieve something difficult and effortful, like starting a new business or losing 50 pounds or learning Swedish from CDs, our chance of success plummets unless it is the only big goal we’re currently pursuing.

Why only one goal?
Accomplishing any big change in our lives means changing habits, and changing habits takes time (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), effort, attention, and thought. When we try to pursue more than one major goal at a time, all of these resources get divided among the goals, and this takes a difficult but doable process and makes it so overwhelming that few of us can possibly succeed. It’s as though we are trying to defend a city with a small army that should be just barely up to the job, but then divide our troops in two or three or more parts and send them to defend other cities. All the cities may be worth defending, it’s true, but in this kind of situation, all of them are likely to fall.

When it’s hard letting other goals go
While knowing this has helped rein in my enthusiasm for new projects, it hasn’t prevented me from going in too many directions at once. Ironically, writing this blog makes it more difficult for me to let go of multiple priorities: it’s hard to write about self-motivation and not feel as though you should be able to create it in all aspects of your life at once, even if what you’re writing is that this is an unsuccessful way to proceed.

And of course all of the different project I pursue do feel very important to me. It’s hard to look at any one of them and think that I should let it go, especially after I’ve put a huge amount of work into it.

Yet sometimes letting things go–or at least putting them away temporarily–is exactly the best thing to do. Even a goal that’s put aside can benefit from this, because instead of unending effort toward too many goals that fails to ever fully succeed, we can have efforts that succeed in getting us somewhere, and once we’ve reached a certain level–the new business is running smoothly and there are no immediate crises, or new eating and exercise habits have become second nature, or communicating in Swedish is going well–then we have the mental capacity, the time, and the focus to spend on something else, which might well turn out to be that goal we had to sideline to get things going.

But getting to that point, for those of us who are used to trying to juggle lots of new projects or priorities, is hard. My natural response to the idea that I have to cut back on projects is that all of my projects are too important to cut back on. Yet not setting some of these projects aside means that I’m only considering them important enough to half-try and then fail at. It may be painful to give up on the car being rebuilt in the garage, the new artistic effort that had so much promise, or on the professional development effort that promises a better job but takes too much time and feels too draining–but that’s exactly what we end up needing to do if there’s something else that really needs to take priority.

Ongoing priorities
There are also things many of us do on an ongoing basis that really aren’t that important, and it’s very rewarding to experiment with not doing these. These may be things like participating in clubs or groups that don’t add much to our lives, watching TV, or spending a lot of time and effort on vacations. Many of these activities will be related to entertainment (or in some cases, just killing time), which sounds a bit as though I’m advocating a life spent having no fun, but in truth, the activities that are most enjoyable to us as human beings are often the ones that are the most rewarding, like helping out friends, engaging with our families, or doing something that you do very, very well.

However important existing priorities, even though they make demands on time and attention too, don’t need to be discarded to work on a goal. If you decide that the essential thing for you to do is to buckle down and really finish the renovations on your home, that doesn’t mean it’s time to ignore your spouse and children, stop paying attention to your job, drop out of your twice-weekly basketball games, or cut off communication with friends. These ongoing priorities are not goals in the same way that something that requires a change of habit and a significant new investment of time is a goal. While any or all of these things may slow down accomplishing a new goal, if they are already priorities in your life, they aren’t going to require new habits to develop on a large scale–and it is that brain-changing process of habit change that makes goals happen.

Photo by Auntie P

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Good “should” and bad “should”

Handling negative emotions


The word “should” is has surprising powers to sabotage mood and good intentions, but it can also be one of the pillars of a well-lived life. The issue is that there are two ways of using the word that seem very similar but that lead us in entirely different directions. One tends to create obstacles to getting things done and generates stress; the other use can help organize priorities.

By the way, in this article I’m talking about “should” in terms of obligation. There are different uses of the word, as Robin Dickinson has pointed out, and this article is about the two key meanings the word has for self-motivation.

“Should” as shorthand
The constructive version of should is shorthand for “if I want this benefit, then I’ll need to take this course of action.” With this version, there’s always a condition involved, and always an alternative. For instance, saying “I should plant my tomatoes next week” with the idea that doing so will give me the best possible crop of tomatoes is pretty constructive. I’m setting a goal for myself, and on some level I’m aware of what I want to accomplish. I could also choose not to plant my tomatoes next week, and probably not get as good a crop.

Invasive “should”
The harmful version either doesn’t have a condition, or it has a condition that’s isn’t based on our own priorities. For instance, saying “I should lose weight” can be actively harmful if the idea is that you’re a bad person if you don’t do it. So can “I should go this party” if the only reason for going to the party is that someone else thinks you should get out more (and you don’t agree), or if you feel a social obligation but have no real reason to want to participate.

This is not to say that there’s no such thing as a meaningful social obligation, only that doing things entirely for other people’s reasons is usually a recipe for trouble. We can (carefully!) take on other people’s goals as our own, for instance helping a spouse to train for a new job, spending time commiserating with a friend who’s lost a parent, or contributing to some wider social good through political action, volunteering, or just participating in our communities, and this can be positive as long as we’re doing it with full understanding of why we’re doing it. In fact, in some ways the ability to empathize with others and take on responsibility in a larger group is the a large part of being a mature adult. It’s just best to be sure we’re accepting responsibilities instead of feeling forced into them.

Good and bad “should” in the past
The use of “should” for things that have already happened is, if anything, even more likely to be a problem in the past than the present, because when we say things like “I shouldn’t have eaten that hamburger” or “I should have gone to class yesterday,” we’re much more likely to be beating ourselves up than to be planning different behavior for the future. It’s certainly possible to say “I should have gone to class yesterday” and mean “I can see that not going to class yesterday makes keeping up with the material harder, and so for the future I’ll make a special priority of getting to class every time,” but since reflections on the past rarely translate into plans for the future unless we go out of our way to make that happen, it’s much more effective to say (or think) that long, clumsy second version than to try to make the first one stand in for it.

“Should” for other people
The word “should” is just as messy when used on other people as it is when we use it on ourselves. Saying things like “he should watch where he’s going when he changes lanes!” or “my company should have paid for that” tends to put the focus on other people changing their behavior rather than on what we can do ourselves to respond constructively. Since we can’t control other drivers, it’s much more constructive to say “I guess I’ll watch out for unpredictable drivers like that guy” than to say “he should watch where he’s going,” or “In future, I’ll keep in mind that my company may not cover all the expenses I would expect them to” (or “I’ll go talk to my boss about this expense statement”) instead of “my company should have paid for that.”

The limited but real value of guilt and shame
The bad “should” actually does have a useful purpose in a limited way, in the same way that guilt and shame do: they bring our attention to a potential problem. If someone has done something that they know to be morally wrong and reflects “I shouldn’t have done that,” or feels guilt or shame, that’s positive to the point where it brings them to change their behavior and perhaps try to make reparations. Anything a “bad should” accomplishes beyond that role of pointing and reminding, however, is damaging.

Telling good “should” from bad “should”
Distinguishing between these two versions of “should” is tricky, because it comes down not to what we’re considering doing but to why we’re considering it. A “should statement” (the harmful version, the one without a meaningful condition) is one of the basic “broken ideas” (or “cognitive distortions”), and repairing this kind of idea means recasting it with a condition. A statement like “I should get my papers organized because I’m a slob,” (a should statement plus labeling: two broken ideas in one!) can be transformed into “If I like things around me to be in order, I’ll want to get my papers organized” or “If I want to boost how professional I look, I’ll organize my papers.” The original version of the statement tends to direct a person’s thoughts into their shortcomings and failures, which is a lousy way to get organized and not much fun, either. The transformed versions focus on the specific benefit or benefits you want to accomplish, and silently carries the other side of the condition, “And if I don’t, I just won’t get that benefit–which is not the end of the world.”

The benefit of getting a handle on shoulds
One potentially helpful approach, then, is to try to strike the word “should” out of our thinking completely. It’s harder to use bad “should” without using the actual word (though it can be done: “Politeness demands I go to the party tonight”), while good “should” statements are pretty easy to rephrase (“If I go to the party tonight, it will probably make my friends happy.”) But it’s not necessary to make this vocabulary change, since greater awareness can do the job just about as well.

The way we can apply this understanding of good and bad “shoulds” in our lives is to use it to notice bad “shoulds” as they come up in our mind, and then to think about applying conditions to them or examining them more closely. By doing things for reasons we recognize and agree with, we take greater control of and responsibility of our own lives rather than giving up power to circumstances or to outside forces. In this way we become a little more like the people we strive to be.

Photo by Brandon Cirillo


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