Every day we’re barraged by “good ideas”—all the things we should be doing with our lives and could start doing today if we really cared enough. Too much advice can overwhelm us, and, more importantly, it can inflate the power of “should.” It can cement an insidious (and, in my experience, ineffective) framework in our minds. We risk framing every choice—from work to pleasure—as an obligation. Doing so burdens life with a constant sense of onus, constraint and deprivation—not exactly the stuff of grand motivation. In my experience, we aren’t in for much fun or long-term success with that brand of approach. Luckily, there’s a better way to talk to ourselves.
I’m not oblivious to the apparent irony here. Here I am offering a blog all about living a healthy life, and each day I offer information and strategies to that end. But there’s something to my very nature that still resists the authority of “should” (or authority in general) and prefers a framework of option and example. It makes for some interesting creative tension every day.
I guess you could say it’s why I often write more casually than authors of other health blogs and why I’m so blunt about self-interest. It’s maybe why I prioritize publishing others’ stories that highlight their appropriation of Primal and why I couch my whole interpretation and experience of health within a loose blueprint that I flagrantly encourage people to make their own. And it’s perhaps why I spend ample time here deliberately ferreting out the slippery psychological forces and individual nuances at work behind any endeavor to change one’s life or lifestyle. At the end of the day, I don’t ever want to be a dictator of “shoulds.”
And here’s why.
In all my years, I’ve never found “should” to be a very effective way to talk myself (or anyone else) into much of anything. When we say “should,” we’ve immediately sidestepped ownership of our own motivation. “Should” declares that outside influences are more important than our own desires. As logical as this assertion might be at times, at others it can set up a conflicting division between what we want for ourselves and what we’ll do instead. While we may be willing to do what we feel is expected of us by that external code or logic, we retain the excuse to hold it at arm’s length like yesterday’s forgotten lunch—an unappetizing serving of pressure with a side of guilt and resentment.
Just how does this inspire or incentivize?
For my part, I prefer to frame my choices through self-determination rather than external prescription. I prefer to enlarge my understanding of and commitment to healthy self-interest rather than abdicate my personal will. Because the language we use with ourselves (like the stories we tell ourselves) matters. How we frame our health-related intentions (e.g. weight loss, fitness, stress reduction, etc.) can—and likely will—affect our follow through.
Shifting the language we use to describe our behavioral goals and healthy visions can reinstate that sense of ownership. When we let go of the “I should” and instead stake the claim of “I choose,” something happens. We’re no longer playing in the vague grounds of consideration and critique. We’re saying yes—or no. There’s no chasm to get lost or procrastinate in. We do it or we don’t.
Even better, we can further frame the choice not as avoidance of an unwanted result but within a concrete desire we’re aiming for. For example, instead of “I should do X because [insert negative blah, blah, blah],” we entrain our brain toward personal commitment by saying “I choose to do X because I want [this, that and the other awesome thing] for myself.”
Let’s do some more comparing and contrasting.
On Primal Eating
“I should eat better because I’ll continue exacerbating my thyroid issues/diabetes/autoimmune issues/etc.”
“I choose to eat better because I want to feel vibrant and energetic.”
“I should stop eating now, or it will just make me fatter.”
“I’m choosing to stop eating now because I’m full and satisfied.”
“I should stop being so careless with what I grab for lunch.”
“I choose to pack healthy lunches because being mindful of my food selection will help me reach my fat loss goal more quickly.”
On Getting Fit
“I should stop being so physically lazy.”
“I choose to fit in some kind of exercise each day because my mood is so much lighter/I sleep better/I have more energy when I do.”
“I should start lifting weights. I know I’m weaker than I should be.”
“I choose to lift heavy things three times a week because I enjoy challenging my limits and because I like feeling strong.”
On Embracing Other Elements of Primal Wellness
“I should take more breaks at work so I don’t screw up as much.”
“I choose to take regular breaks at work because I’m more productive when I do.”
“I should get outside more because I know I’m missing out on vitamin D.”
“I choose to spend an hour or more outside each day because I appreciate how it makes me feel relaxed and creative.”
“I should get myself to bed earlier and not deal with the chaotic mornings.”
“I choose to go to bed at 10:00pm because I enjoy being rested and focused the next day.”
Do any of these examples ring true? How do they compare with the way you talk to yourself about your Primal intentions?
Whatever the area you’re working on enhancing in your life (e.g. Primal eating, fitness, weight loss, healing a health condition, stress management, etc.), the takeaway here is this: there’s force in the language we use with ourselves. Our words can determine the real mindset we bring to our goals. Do we simply agree that a good idea is another “should” that we guilt ourselves over, or do we make a personal claim for our health and well-being by saying we choose to pursue what we want for ourselves today? Our words direct our thinking, which in subtle or dramatic ways influences the action we take—not to mention the attitude we bring to that effort. In the end, we do better for ourselves and our goals by empowering our intentions.
How can you take a concern or goal you have for your health, let go of the obligation, and frame it as a positive, purposeful intention? Consider it today’s Primal challenge, and share your newly fashioned aim with folks in the comments below.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great end to your week.
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About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.