Lost in the Shoulds

Have you ever been lost in the shoulds?  

Your parent thinks you should do this.  Your boss thinks you should do that.  Your friends think you should ignore both of them and hang out instead.

Or maybe you’re hearing the shoulds in your head from people you don’t even know.  This business book says you should build a business like this.  This religious book says you should live your life like that.  This comic book says you should laugh about the other books’ opinions about your decisions.

The more books I’ve read and the more podcasts I’ve listened to, the more overwhelming the sea of advice becomes.  

Here’s a simple question:  How much should you plan before taking action?  

Some sample suggestions:

“Just start.  An imperfect plan, violently executed, is better than the perfect plan that never takes effect.”  (Paraphrasing General George S. Patton)

“Begin with the end in mind.  You don’t want to build your ladder against the wrong house.”  (Paraphrasing Stephen Covey)

“You’ll develop your plan by doing the action.  Launch and iterate often – it’s the evolutionary process.”  (Paraphrasing Eric Ries)

Just writing those 3 suggestions made me feel anxious.

And then there are the more common types of questions that arise when I’m debating about what to do next:  “Should I work on this blog post first, or should I work on this podcast sponsorship proposal?  Should I work on my album instead, since it’s been so long since I made progress on it?  Shouldn’t I exercise though?  And don’t I need groceries for dinner tonight?  When was the last time I called my mother?”    

I’m sure you can see how these internal debates quickly spiral out of control.  

In certain moments, all of these shoulds feel so overwhelming that I can feel paralyzed, especially when I look at all of the things on my to-do list.  I will stare at my computer and know that I “need to be doing all of these productive things,” but find myself unable to take any action.    

That is the most frustrating feeling of all.  Doing ANYTHING productive would be better than doing nothing, but in those moments, checking the Facebook newsfeed seems to be awfully appealing.  

I’ve tried all of the mental tricks:

“Just work on anything for 5 minutes.  Small wins help build momentum!”

“Don’t worry about making it perfect.  Just write a bad first draft of whatever you’re doing.”

“Take a quick mental break.  You’re overthinking this.”

“If you do this productive thing, then you can do a fun thing next.”  

And on… and on… and on… to no avail.  More frustration, self-loathing about the time wasted, and the feeling that I was letting down both my loved ones and business experts around the world.  

Finally, I had a revelation while reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.  

In the book, Tolle talks about the distinction between our Mind, which is the endless chattering in our head, and Being, which is the experience that we feel when we are totally in the Now and not thinking about the past or future.  

I realized while reading that I was trying to solve my problems of the Mind by using the Mind.  I was trying to “outsmart myself,” which naturally wasn’t working because it was my “smart self” that was creating the problems in the first place.  

So this weekend, I tried a completely different strategy.  Instead of thinking about all of the things I had to do, I just focused on being present.  I noticed my breathing, the trees outside my window, and the feeling of my body in this moment.  I just focused on Now.  

The transformation was shocking and immediate.  All of my stress and internal resistance melted away.  It was like the inner Mind voice (that was criticizing me about all the things I “should” do) completely turned off.

And rather than being unmotivated or self-absorbed, I had the most productive day I’ve had in a long time.  Rather than worrying about how I was letting down people in my life, I just did the work.  But not by forcing myself to do it or tricking myself.  I just focused on being present and released all of my expectations about the outcomes.  

The work that I produced wasn’t perfect at first.  But that was okay, because I was staying in the present.  I wasn’t judging myself, I was just focusing on improving the work at hand.  I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, or whether people would like it.

Ever since that day, my stress has been greatly reduced and my productivity has increased dramatically.  The irony is that I’d been trying to meditate to achieve the same goal, but it didn’t have the desired outcome because I was expecting it to do some kind of ninja moves on my mind, like training a resistant animal.  Instead, what I realized is that I didn’t need to ride the animal of the Mind to a productive victory.

I’m sure in many different contexts in your life, you find yourself asking, “What should I do?”  

When you’re feeling stuck in those moments, I hope you’re able to take a moment to focus on what is Now.  Where is your body?  What is around you?  Don’t worry about the past or future; just focus on taking one deep breath at a time.  Focus on what is now, and you will find the external pressures receding from their imagined immediacy.  

And even if there is real immediacy, stressing about it will not improve your outcome as much as being fully immersed in the moment will.  Think about how you respond in a life-or-death emergency.  You become focused on what is happening at that moment – you become fully present.  In that moment, you are capable of great solutions or feats of physical or mental strength because you are powerfully focused on only what is front of you, not rehashing the past or anticipating/fearing the future.  

So when you’re feeling lost in the shoulds, take a moment to center yourself in the Now before proceeding.  You might just find that the path before you is much clearer than it appeared moments ago.