Here’s What You Should Do

I was thinking today about the power of the word “should.”

How often do you notice that you’ve told yourself you should do something?  What feelings does it bring up for you?

When I hear it in my head, it goes something like this:

{walking down the cookie aisle at the grocery store}  “I should buy healthy foods.”  {gives a Mary Tyler Moore eye roll and tosses the cookies into the cart}

{sneaking into the pantry for the cookies after dinner}  “I should eat a piece of fruit for dessert.”  {eats cookies anyway}

{sitting on the couch with a handful of cookies}  “I should go for a walk to burn off these cookies.”  {plays five more games of Candy Crush}

Sound familiar?

Those shoulds can sit in your gut and start churning, making you feel guilty and small.  There’s an actual name for this; it’s called cognitive dissonance, which – in a nutshell – is the idea that we like to agree with ourselves, and when our behavior is inconsistent with our ideals or values, it causes us mental discomfort or stress.  And of course, we don’t like that dissonance, so we actively seek to resolve it.

Unfortunately, though, we sometimes resolve the discrepancy by reducing the importance of our ideal, rather than changing our behavior.

“Oh, a couple of cookies never hurt anybody” rather than, “I’m going to stop eating cookies.”

And while this particular example is true – a couple of cookies now and again isn’t necessarily problematic in an overall healthy diet – it can become an issue if you’re constantly butting up against cognitive dissonance with every eating or exercise decision you make.

If you’re hearing that should voice in your head all day long, it’s time to make some changes.

Here’s the thing.  You already know what you should do – there’s plenty of scientific evidence and readily available information showing us that we should eat right and exercise regularly.  So the question really becomes “How?”  How do I make better eating choices?  How do I get started exercising?  How can I get my actions to line up with my ideals?

I’ll tell you how:  start by asking yourself what you want.

When the nagging voice in your head is telling you that you should go for a run, ask yourself instead, “Do I actually want to go for a run?”

The answer might be, “No, I really don’t.  It doesn’t sound enjoyable, I don’t have the right shoes, and when I’ve tried before it hurt my legs and made me really uncomfortable.”  And then there you go, problem solved.  It is actually not your ideal to start running, so you can silence the should and line up your behavior (not running) with your values (I don’t want to run).

You could also think something like, “I would like to go for a run!”  And again, your problem is solved.  You know what you value (going for a run), so now you can start to make changes in your behavior (take the steps necessary to begin running).  And obviously, the good news here is that even if you don’t know how to start running – or start any sort of exercise program – there are plenty of resources like the Killer B Running and Workout Guides that can get you on your way to doing once you’ve figured out what you want.

I think there’s a really common misconception that the behavior change is the hard part of this equation, but the fact is, changing your behavior is really easy when you truly want to do something.

I used to love Chee-tos.  I mean, I loooooooooooooved them.  A bag wouldn’t last more than a day or two in my house, and believe me, I wasn’t sharing them with my kids.  And I can tell you with all honesty that I never felt guilty about eating them.  I never stood in the pantry with my hand on the bag thinking, “I should stop eating Chee-tos.”


Once I started running and exercising and thinking about my health a little more, I noticed that certain foods didn’t settle the way they used to.  A dinner of popcorn and ice cream didn’t fuel a good run the next morning.  Pop-Tarts for breakfast left me starving less than an hour later.  Habits that had gone unnoticed for years suddenly came under my critical eye because they weren’t serving my purposes anymore.  I started thinking that I should eat better, so I had to make a decision about what I wanted.

I wanted to run.

And therefore, I wanted to eat better.  It really was as simple as that.

Which is not to say that it was a fast transition to better eating.  Trust me, I did not do some dramatic clean out of all the crappy foods in my house upon making the decision that I wanted to eat better!

But every day, I made little decisions that supported my new ideal.  I chose a more substantial breakfast.  I added a piece of fruit into my afternoon routine.  When I would reach for the cookies, I would ask myself, “Is this what I really want?

And sometimes the answer was still, “Yes.  Yes, I do.”  And I learned to let it go at that.  Being perfect was never my goal.  Making better decisions was.

I don’t remember the last bag of Chee-tos I bought, but I do remember the last bag I thought about buying.  I was cruising down the chips aisle in the grocery store with my awesome husband who does the shopping with me, and he paused in front of that big orange bag.

He asked, “Should I grab one of these?”

And I responded, “Nope.  I don’t want ’em.

Cheers to following your heart and making good decisions,

Love Pahla

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