Do you talk to yourself like this?  “I should lose some weight.” “I should start meditating.” “I really should exercise more.”

Odd as it may sound, “should” is the one word that could derail your habit change. Yes, sometimes change can start with a feeling of obligation, but if you never get beyond the “should” stage, your habit change could stall before it has a chance to get going.

Should. The word itself has a heavy sound, like a load on your shoulders that you have to bear.

Still, if the “should” is coming from your own mind, why should it thwart your habit change?  After all, it’s your “should.” Or is it?

Actually, some psychologists classify both our internal “shoulds”—those coming from our own mind—and external pressures from others—your doctor, your mother, your spouse—as “controlled motivation.” When controlled motivation has the upper hand, you feel motivated by perceived outside pressures. The inner “should” is often the voice of someone else—a parent, a spouse—that has burrowed into your brain without your permission. That voice is nagging, urging, insisting that you change ... and you are rebelling because you don’t want to be controlled.

By contrast, “autonomous motivation” is motivation for personal reasons that you have freely chosen on your own. When your autonomous motivation is strong, you are “self-ruling,” as the word “autonomous” implies. You are the owner of your own change. 

But maybe you are just in the habit of using the word “should” instead a more empowering verb. There’s a simple test. Replace the words, “I should” with the words “I want to.” Does the “I want to” resonate with you?  Then perhaps the habit change goal is your own, not someone else’s. In fact, replacing “should” with “I want to” or “I choose to” is a great technique for taking control of your unwanted habit. Feel the difference between the downbeat “I should lose weight” and the upbeat “I want to lose weight.” Does the "I want" make you feel more powerful?

If you don't yet feel comfortable with "I want," try out "I could." "I could" is a good transition phrase because it gives you the feeling of possibility. Instead of "I should exercise more," you open the door to change with "I could exercise more."

Being able to say “I want to change” could be one of the first signs that you are on your way to a successful habit change. (Click on "first signs" to discover other clues that you are ready and willing to change.)  Changing your self-talk and your other-talk to "I want," "I'm choosing," or "I prefer" is a great way to help yourself feel like less of a victim and more like an actor in your own life. 

(c) Meg Selig

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For smaller portions of info about habit change, willpower, and health, like me on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

For more information on "autonomous" versus "controlled" motivation, check out this charming (yes, charming!) 2-minute video. 

You are reading


9 Holiday Resolutions for Sanity, Safety, and Joy

2. I will realize that sometimes I may have to disappoint someone.

25 Fun and Helpful Quotations About the Human Mind

These short quotes about the mind may inspire you to change yours!

8 Things You Didn't Know About Your Mind

…and 8 ways to harness its unique powers for your benefit.