have tos | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

You Don’t “Have To” Do Anything


One thing I’ve learned about blogging is that, whenever I tell myself I “have to” write another blog post, that’s basically a surefire guarantee that I won’t finish one that day.  Or, maybe I’ll end up churning out something that feels second-rate to me.  Whatever happens, I probably won’t be happy with the end result.

I wondered for a while why this seemed to be true.  One day, when I caught myself thinking “it’s about time I wrote something new,” I noticed my neck and shoulders tensing up in response.  It was as if an angry two-year-old inside me was insisting “I won’t!” in response to a parent’s command.  No wonder my writing turned sluggish and frustrating when my body was so uncomfortable.

As it turns out, many psychologists have come to the same conclusion—when you tell yourself you “must,” “should,” or “have to” do something, you’re going to create resistance inside.  Marshall Rosenberg puts this well in Nonviolent Communication:  “human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy—our strong need for choice.  We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a ‘should.’”

Recognizing Your Choice

I do my best work, I’ve found, when I keep in mind that I always have a choice about whether to write or not.  There’s no rule or law that says I have to write.  If I wanted to, I could choose never to write another article.  As important as I sometimes make myself out to be, the universe would probably survive, and I’d find other things to do with my time.  When I come to my work with this no-pressure attitude, I get the most done and have the most fun doing it.

Some people I’ve told about this have been skeptical.  “If I didn’t tell myself I have to go to work, I wouldn’t go,” one of my friends insisted.  This is a common attitude—that if we didn’t punish or threaten ourselves into working, we’d never accomplish anything.  Somewhere along the line—probably when we were kids—many of us learned that we’re basically lazy and we need a firm hand to push us where we’re “supposed” to go.

And I think there’s another fear lurking beneath this habit of ordering ourselves around—the fear of being overwhelmed with options.  For instance, if my friend stopped commanding himself to go into the office every day, and acknowledged he has a choice in every moment about what to do with his time, he might start thinking about all the possible things he can do with his life—from trapeze artist to termite rancher.  It can be dizzying to realize how much freedom we really have.

You “Have To” Try This

Adopting a no-pressure attitude to motivate yourself may be against the conventional wisdom, but if you try it I think you’ll experience how liberating it can be.

A useful exercise you can do to see this for yourself is to watch for a moment in your daily life when you start telling yourself you “have to” do something—whether it’s washing the car, typing that presentation, calling your friend, or whatever else.  Check in with your body, and notice what sensations are coming up—how do you feel inside when you order yourself around like that?

Now, take a moment and acknowledge that you don’t “have to” do it at all, and that it’s actually up to you.  Say to yourself, inside or out loud, “I can choose whether to do this.”  Watch how your body responds to recognizing your freedom.

What I think you’ll notice is that, when you acknowledge your power to choose, your body actually relaxes, and it’s much easier to focus in this calmer state.

Link LoveEvan Hadkins writes insightfully and provocatively about psychology, health, politics, and the proverbial “much, much more.”  You may also want to check out my interview with Evan about his book, Living Authentically.  It’s got real depth and definitely isn’t your average “book promo piece.”