Why we should shed our ‘shoulds’

We will enjoy something more if we recognise that it’s a choice

We will enjoy something more if we recognise that it’s a choice


You should take that job. You should join that board. You should take on that new client.

“Shoulds” are the things we do out of obligation because we have not considered our true objectives, even out of fear: what if we never get another opportunity? What will others think of us if we say no? What will we think of ourselves if we say no? Sometimes, “shoulds” even seem like things we want to do.

But, in fact, they stand in staunch opposition to our true desires, those things we hope and strive for, those opportunities that are an immediate “yes!”. When we say yes to “shoulds”, we end up overcommitted, spread thin and burned out.

The truth is that achieving the best outcomes – job satisfaction, meaningful relationships, successful ventures – requires shedding our “shoulds”. We can do this by asking three potentially life-changing questions before taking on a new commitment.

1. What is my motivation?

This is about intrinsic motivators, not external ones. Intrinsic motivation is a drive that comes from within, an expression of our true desires. Extrinsic motivation is found in outside factors, such as money, prestige or praise.

Ask yourself why you’re making a specific decision. If you find yourself saying yes to something solely for extrinsic rewards rather than intrinsic motivation, stop and consider if the task is a “should” you can shed.

2. Does it align with my values?

Being able to confidently shed our “shoulds” comes back to aligning our decisions with our core values. We can’t do that if we don’t know what those values are.

Being honest with yourself and fine-tuning the reasoning behind those values will help you get better at walking away from “should” opportunities. So make a list of your highest-priority values, then revisit a “should” decision you’ve recently made or are considering. Where does it fit on your list? Will it eat up more time, money or energy than you want it to?

3. Do I have a choice?

I’ve put this consideration last because too many of us jump to it first. Of course, it’s true that sometimes we do have to do things for extrinsic reasons, or do things that take us away from our most important commitments. Every job contains some stultifying or downright unpleasant aspects. But it is important to recognise that even things that don’t feel optional often are.

Self-determination theory suggests that in order to act, or to feel motivated to act, we need to feel that we’re in control. We’ll enjoy something more if we recognise that it’s a choice.

Shedding our “shoulds” isn’t easy. But once you identify what the “shoulds” are, it becomes easier and easier to say no to them, and to begin saying yes to things that actually align with your goals – the things that you really should do. – Copyright Harvard Business Review

Regan Walsh is an executive and life coach who helps seasoned and emerging leaders thrive in work and life.

Previously published in The Irish Times.


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