Why We Should Eliminate “Shoulds” From Our Vocabulary

“I should practice more.”

“I should be able to memorize this faster.”

“I should be able to play this better by now.”

“I should eat more fresh veggies.”

Sound familiar?

The word “should” is a common fixture in our daily vocabulary. But it’s a word that does more harm than good. And one that I think should (oops!) be eliminated from our vocabulary.

What’s the big deal?

On one hand “should” is just a word, and as my first grade teacher always said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Except that the whole sticks and stones premise is a bunch of baloney if you ask me. Words can absolutely hurt, and often cut deeper than any stick or stone ever could.

Um…so how is it that the word “should” is holding us back?

The problem with shoulds

Problem #1: Our inner child

Do you remember how it felt when your parents sat you down for a lecture and told you all the things they thought you should be doing differently? Mmm…good times, right?

Does it feel any different when you lecture yourself?

When you say “I really should practice more scales,” does this make you feel more enthusiastic about playing scales? More determined to follow through?

Or does your inner child start dragging its feet?

“Shoulds” feel like a bit of a guilt trip, and when we feel our guilt buttons being pushed, we get resentful, willful, or discouraged. These are not emotional states conducive to continuing down the path of mastery.

Problem #2: Problems vs. solutions

The other problem is that when we dwell on our shortcomings and failings, we’re less likely to look for and identify solutions and next steps.

Focus on how you should be practicing scales more diligently, and the dialogue spirals downhill pretty quickly. “I should be practicing more scales” leads to “Man, I lack discipline” which leads to “What’s wrong with me?” which leads to “Maybe I don’t have what it takes…why do I even bother…I should just quit now…” and pretty soon we’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of The Office, and eating a 6-pack of Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches (which are by no means good for you, but still awesome, I say).

Take action

Replace your shoulds with a word or phrase that is more future-solution-focused. Personally, I like the phrase: “Next time, I will…”

For instance, “Next time, I will…try doing 5 minutes of scales before I do anything else” or “This afternoon I will spend 20 minutes googling for ideas that might make scales more interesting and challenging in a motivating way.”

You may very well find this to be a helpful tactic in non-music areas of life too. From parenting happier kids, to working out more consistently, to perfecting your top-secret banana-chocolate-chip waffle recipe, the phrase “next time, I will…” can help keep us relentlessly solution-focused.

Question: What are your most frequently recurring shoulds? And how could you reword them, transmogrifying these shoulds into solution-focused next actions instead of mini guilt trips? Leave a comment below…I’m curious.

Photo credit: Jose Juan Castellano

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

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40 Responses

  1. I’m an acrobat and dancer and have been following your blog
    for a while since all of your tips are just as appropriate whether
    your instrument is a trumpet or your body. I find that removing the
    aspect of self-judgement implicit in ‘should’ is very helpful. My
    coach a few years back also told me to remove the word ‘try’ from
    my vocabulary … it goes without saying you ARE trying, but
    thinking that way has an implicit expectation of failure I feel. I
    know what you’re getting at with the future focussed ‘next time’
    thing; but I also believe it is important to have a lot of
    now-based vocabulary to keep yourself in the present moment when
    actually practicing. For example I found for ages my technique was
    suffering because I was constantly thinking “I’m going to do… x y
    z” whereas “I AM doing… x y z” puts me in more of a flow state
    where I get the best results more effortlessly. Anyway keep up the
    good work, love this blog. Many thanks, Matt

  2. Personally, I’m fond of the phrase “I want to…” as in “I want to play my scales more perfectly” or “I want to play a certain concerto from memory by the end of this month” or even “I want to practice x amount of time today.” When I convince myself I want to do something, it makes it less of a chore and more of an exciting goal, and I usually leave the practice room feeling like I accomplished something.

  3. Great article! Personally, I find that the phrase “Doing x
    will help me because…” is the best motivation for me. Whether
    it’s scales, cleaning the house, or changing an aspect of my diet,
    I like to focus on why I should do it and the benefits that it will
    bring to me. It makes me want to get up off the couch and do it
    instead of wallowing in guilt from the “I should.”

  4. There’s more than “shoulda” to be eliminate…there’s also
    “woulda” and “coulda” to be eliminated

  5. Absolutely! My hack around this has been to practice things
    that sound inspiring to me, while staying diligent, i.e. avoid
    noodle based practicing but still inspiration based.

  6. I should:
    1.Be more proactive in promoting myself in order to find work: gigs, lessons, etc. I find it very hard to talk about myself. I know you have to but, it’s very strange. It is almost like you have to learn to separate you, yourself from you, the performer, teacher, etc.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Oof, that’s a good one. I think we all struggle with this, but for what it’s worth, something that helped me was learning that we actually don’t have to talk about ourselves to promote ourselves. Meaning, the less we talk about how qualified we are, and the more we talk about our students’ needs, wants, and frustrations – and the more help we can provide them to improve their situation – the more they will trust us to help them get to their desired destination.

      It’s like going to the doctor. If we feel like they took the time to understand our specific complaint, we’ll usually trust them more and take their advice (whether they’re right or wrong). If we don’t feel like the doctor took the time to hear our complaints, we tend not to trust them or like them very much – even if they are totally correct.

  7. I’ve used “need to” in the past — mostly in terms of needing to balance my free time better. It’s a matter of trying to find a way to identify problems that doesn’t point a finger for not identifying them sooner. It’s almost easier to do it without thinking too much on it — too much thinking can be distracting. Identify what needs to get done and then stop mulling. (If only it were as easy to do as it is to say … )

  8. It is just amazing how replacing the ‘should’s with the ‘will’s change the whole outlook. Many years back I used to use a similar concept – telling myself ‘next time’ whenever I screwed something up. Over time, I lost it somewhere. Thanks a lot. I have learnt a lot from your posts. Thanks to you, I also have developed a habit of regular practice which I am very happy about.

  9. “Should ” implies judgement and too much analysis. I like to think of my practice time as fun. How much fun can I add to my scales today? How many different rhythms can I think of? How fast? How slow? To analyze is to paralize. Let’s not waste precious moments with self judgements

  10. Years back I listened to a set of tape on stress and anxiety. The author advised that people “stop shoulding all over themselves”. This has been one of my favorite phrases to use when teaching. Also good advice to myself.

  11. To take it one step further, after you replace “should” with “will”, make sure it’s specific so you’ll follow through. For example, “I will wake up at 7AM and go for a jog after breakfast.” That works much better than “I will wake up at 7AM.”

    My frequent ‘should’ is ‘I should be writing.’ I get sidetracked on research too much these days– I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

    Great article, Noa! I’ve shared it with some of my peeps who say ‘should’ a lot more than they should. 🙂

  12. If you feel like you should be doing something important to you and you are not doing that thing then as you say that brings up a whole host of problems like guilt, am I worthy, am I lazy, maybe I don’t have what it takes. It is irrational because there is nothing that say’s you “should” be doing anything. Also we tend to speak like this rather casually and may be telling it to someone else to get some sort of feedback from them but may not actually believe it yet I heard somewhere that our subconscious mind takes our thoughts literally and at face value and does not differentiate between what is true or not.

    Awhile back I learned to replace should with I prefer. I’d prefer to be practicing right now but I’m not. That gives me a choice without implying that I am somehow falling short.

  13. What’s worse is using the word “should” and not really knowing what you should be doing anyways. I think it’s important to make sure you are doing what you like and not always what you THINK you should be doing.

  14. Research (I found it here: http://www.amazon.com/Makes-Brain-Happy-Should-Opposite/dp/1616144831 and here:http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2013/02/why-were-all-in-sales.html) talks about a Bob the Builder method for self talk.

    Bob, for those who don’t know, is a popular children’s television character. Each episode he and and his viewers are faced with challenges, to which Bob responds with his catchphrase question and answer: ‘Can we fix it? Yes, we can!’

    (see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P2-Nmk1uFQ)

    The point is, rather than thinking ‘I should x, y or z’ we might try the interrogative frame and ask ourselves ‘Can I x, y or z?’

    The argument is that framing things with a question is a more effective way to set our mind up to: a) start building motivation and b) identifying steps that can help us meet challenges successfully.

    For instance: Can I do a better job on my warm up today? Well, considering yesterday’s was pretty lame, believe me, yes, I can…

  15. The only useful “shoulds” are:

    The consequence of an action that you’re testing such as “The feather and hammer should strike the moon surface at the same time if dropped from the same height.”

    Or as a directive or rule like “You should stop at a stop sign.”

    Both of these have no emotional baggage attached them and can simply be answered with a “yes” or “no.”

  16. I should be able to play guitar chords better than I can now. I’ve spent weeks working on the same handful of chords and it’s just not coming together like it used to.

    I started playing three years ago, and these were the first things I studied. I was awesome at them after a few months, but here’s the problem – I wasn’t using a metronome at all.

    Now, I’m trying to rectify that mistake, but it doesn’t help that in the absence of actually having any rhythmic context (i.e. songs to play using the chords I knew) and being able to play them in time to a beat I got bored of chords and moved away from them.

    Now, I’ve gotten back into studying them, but I find myself saying, “I’ve spent x number of weeks on this, I should be better than this by now.”

    Maybe I need to say, “I’ve spent x number of weeks on this and I’ll spend x more on it if I have to. I’ll get this right or at least get one step closer today.”

    1. “Should” is a killer word, and needs to be left out of the vocabulary of musicians because it forces us to run a race behind some ghost runner that we never catch up to. To say “should” means that we’re comparing ourselves to some perceived entity that somehow can do everything we want to and remains the subject of our constant envy. The only way to become the musicians we want to be is to accept our limitations but diminish them through practice. It’s our own race to be won, only that we become better than we were in the past by our own reckoning, not someone else’s opinion.

  17. I should be practicing, I should be exercising, I should be cleaning the house, I should be prepping my classes, I should be calling my sick friend, I should be taking the dogs out, I should be writing…for me shoulds don’t come singly but in a swarm, like midges.

    I’ve tried saying “I WANT to practice today,” but I can tell I’m lying (usually.)

    What if I said “I SHOULD eat the rest of that Ikea chocolate and play Zombie Run”?

  18. “Stick and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” You are correct that that is baloney. But, only if you believe the words. Ultimately, words cannot hurt us. Only the words of the thoughts that we ourselves believe can hurt us. If someone says I’m a lousy musician, that does not have to hurt me. If they say I’m a lousy musician, and prohibit me from getting work, it’s the prohibiting of work that hurts me. Their words only hurt me if they act upon them. Ultimately, it’s the activity that hurts me. And only the activity that hurts me. Likewise, if someone says I’m a lousy musician, and only says it, without doing any activity regarding it, their words only hurt me as much as I give them importance. If their words are accurate, even then they cannot hurt me. They can reveal a truth, but that’s it. How I choose to react to it is entirely within my capability. The more we are aware of our own thoughts, the more power we have to take charge of our own behavior. The more independently we think for ourselves, the less someone else’s words can hurt me. Ultimately, somebody else’s words cannot hurt me if I am accepting of myself, regardless of my performance.

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