Regarding Should & But

In my thinking and writing about time for this series, I have unexpectedly had to ponder a concept that is much larger, hairier and more impactful than time itself.

You: “But Abby, what could possibly be a larger, hairier and even more impactful concept than time?”

Abby: “Judgement.”

We judge each other and we judge ourselves. We envision perfectionist ideals of what we are supposed to be doing with our time to be on the right side of good. We create lists of shoulds and should-nots that seem unbreakable yet remain seemingly unattainable. We perceive that society and those around us are judging us against these lists as we make choices about what we make time for.

You should read more. You should be eating a healthy meal. You should be on time. You should not spend so much time watching TV. You should take a day off. You should expose your children to more culture. You should weed the garden. You should take the car in for a tune up. You should go to the grocery store. You should go to the gym.

Sound familiar?

The judgement inherent in thinking about time has smacked me in the face over and over. I have even personally admitted (quite publicly to a live audience with data) my own thoughts about how I should watch less Netflix.

The more I think about this pile of shoulds, the more I believe that the first step for many of us is letting go of the judgement we carry around in the language that we use when talking about our use of time.

I should _ but __.

I propose a moratorium on the use of the words “should” and “but.”

When you say something like “I should read more but I never seem to find the time” you are writing off your ability to change. You are telling yourself that you can’t do something when in reality you are choosing not to do it. This also means you have chosen to do something else instead.

That thing that you chose instead may be an obligation or circumstance that is hard to change. In fact, your whole life might be overtaken by things like that.

How many times has the word “should” entered your mind this week alone? How many “buts” have you used to avoid changing something over the course of your life? These words haunt us and change our ability to accomplish things.

Too many people get lost in the shoulds and buts and as a result don’t even try to accomplish the things that they want to. Too many people who have a calendar full of shoulds feel like they are living someone else’s life or that their dreams are unreachable.

The power of could & if

Write a list of things you think you should do. Assign a but to each. Now try replacing every “should” with “could” and every “but” with “if”.

  • “I should read more but I get so tired at bedtime” becomes “I could read more if I made time for it when I wasn’t so tired.”

  • “I should write more but I am scared of the blinking cursor telling me I am no good at this” becomes “I could write more if I dealt with the insecurity of the subject I am writing about”

  • “I should make healthy meals at home but I never have the ingredients in the house when I’m tired and hungry after work” becomes “I could make healthy meals if I created a meal plan and grocery list to shop once a week”

  • There is power in the language that we use, even when talking with ourselves. When we use the word “should” we are applying judgement. When we use the word “but” we are giving ourselves an excuse. When we use the word “could” we are assigning possibility. When we use the word “if” we are admitting our responsibility in accomplishing whatever it is.

    That “if” might be a tactical habit to implement, or it might be a monumental psychological or circumstantial adjustment. Whatever it is, it is a reality you must face if you want to accomplish something.

    You might write these statements and think “I will never be able to do that” -- this is a perfectly acceptable and important result of this exercise. This means you have to work on letting go of the judgment of not accomplishing something you think you should. Carrying around the judgement of a goal you will never accomplish (or don’t really want to accomplish but think you should) weighs you down and changes your ability to do other things in your life.

    Letting go of certain career aspirations might be the key to you actually leading a healthier life. Letting go of being a perfect parent with perfect kids might be the key to having a life outside your parental responsibilities.

    Time can shield us from our fears.

    There is no better material for shielding us from our fears than time. If you fear being unhealthy, you can put time towards your health. If you fear being uncultured, you can put time towards immersion in cultural stimuli. If you fear being a bad parent, you can put time towards your kids.

    Whatever you fear, there are ways to use time to shield you from making that fear into your reality. While time can be used to shield us from our fear it can also be used to invoke our fears into reality. If you don’t put time towards your health, your fear of being unhealthy will likely be realized. If you don’t make time for cultural activities, your fear of being uncultured will be realized.  If you don’t make time for your kids, your fear of being a bad parent will be realized.

    There is no pause button on time. We use every second to either feed the fears we have or shield ourselves from them. The way you spend the seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years of your life represents the truth of who you are. The only person who knows this truth is you.

    Take your truth seriously and for goodness’ sake stop shoulding all over yourself.


    This is the sixth and final piece in my year long series about time. If you have enjoyed reading about this topic, sign up for my mailing list to stay in the loop about my next book called "How to Make Time"

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