Take Control: Eliminating the Should’s
This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.
I often hear from people about what they “should” be doing. They “should” be exercising. They “should” be doing school work instead of watching TV. They “should” go to sleep earlier. They “should” eat better food. We’ve all done this at one point or another and probably more often than we’d like to admit. (Right now, for instance, I probably “should” be doing research for my thesis rather than writing this blog post.)
But what does “should” really mean? It means that — by your own analysis, your own evaluation of the situation — there is one thing (a) that you believe to be most important but that you have consciously chosen to do another thing (b) that you value as less important. That is technically what it means, but put that way it doesn’t seem to make much logical sense: why would I consciously choose (b) when I think (a) is more important? If I think school work is the best use of my time on a Friday night, why do I go out with my friends?
When we follow this line of questioning to its logical conclusion, the answer ends up somewhere around either masochism or being weak willed. To choose the less important or less valuable option, you must be too weak willed to fight against your basic instincts and do what you cerebrally know is best. This seems a bit extreme when written out in this way – we don’t necessarily think this consciously – but in the end this message is what gets through.
I experienced this for years: throughout my teen years I knew what I was eating wasn’t healthy. I had lists of foods that I knew I “should” eat and lists of foods that I “shouldn’t,” and every time I ate a chocolate bar, or a handful of chips, or an entire box of cookies, I told myself that I “should” be eating something healthier. I was constantly frustrated at my lack of “self-control,” as though the hand that was taking the cookies and the mouth that was chewing them were somehow divorced from “me” – as though my own brain had no control over my body.
As years of this “lack of self-control” went on, I actually developed an impression of myself as weak willed – I was clearly not a strong enough person to overcome these cravings. The problem was, though, that I am NOT weak willed. In everything non-health-related I have always been very driven: strong, goals-oriented, with a clear sense of my priorities. So why did I somehow reach the conclusion that I was weak willed?
I think a lot of it comes down to that word “should.” It indicates consciousness of a bad choice and therefore subconsciously reinforces a sense of loss of control.
The same goes for balancing school or work with a social life. When you choose to go out with your friends even when you have a deadline the next day and you say, “I should have stayed home,” what you are subconsciously saying that you weren’t a strong enough person to make the “right” decision.
But am I saying you should have stayed home? NO!!! I am talking here, not about finding “self-control” and making the “right decision,” but about reconsidering your priorities and eliminating the word “should.” By choosing to go out, you are demonstrating that — in that moment — your social life is a higher priority than your school work. By saying “I should have stayed home,” you are indicating that school has priority over social life. This sort of contradiction can drive you crazy – especially when it is as pervasive as it is in our everyday lives. If you change your mindset, though, so much can change.
For instance, say you had planned to go to the gym before work this morning but then only got five hours of sleep. Instead of going to the gym, you decide to roll over and get another hour of sleep. You could then say you “should” have gone to the gym, OR you could respect yourself and your decisions and say that sleep has to take priority over exercise and be glad for that extra hour of sleep.
This sometimes may seem a lot like rationalizing, but by phrasing it like a conscious, intentioned decision instead of a regret, your overall disposition can turn from negative to positive, even though your actions themselves don’t really change.
The more you do this, though, the easier it becomes to consciously pick the “right” choice because it is no longer about the “right” and the “wrong” choice: it is about your priorities and your determinations. It is about choosing to have that chocolate because you feel life you deserve a treat. It is about choosing to go out with friends because you need to de-stress. It is about choosing to think positively and get rid of the “should’s” because you have control over your own thoughts.