Stop should-ing yourself

You see, I believe that should is one of the most damaging words in our language. Every time we use should, we are, in effect, saying “wrong.” Either we are wrong or we were wrong or we are going to be wrong. I don’t think we need more wrong in our life. — Louise Hay, quoted by Jim Hughes

When we go to make organizing decisions, we often know, deep down, what’s right for us. But then sometimes we listen to the “shoulds” — from other people or from ourselves — and veer away from those right-for-us decisions.

I need to keep these books because I should read them

Unless you’re in school, you can probably let go of this “should.” If you have absolutely no interest in reading some of the classics, you can give the books away; you really don’t have to read them. You only have so much reading time available in your life, so why not use that time to read the things you truly want to read?

I should convert from my paper planner, address book, or to-do list to a digital system

Digital tools certainly have their advantages — but if paper works for you, there’s really no need to change. You may want to look at how you could back up these physical copies just in case they get lost or damaged, but there’s no reason you need to switch from what’s working well.

I should keep this sentimental thing

Well, perhaps you should keep it. Is it actually sentimental to you or is it the kind of thing most people find sentimental? I got rid of all but a few pages of my high school yearbook because I just didn’t care about it, even thought this act would horrify other people.

Alison Hodgson wrote about the collection of love letters from her husband that she held onto because, when she asked her siblings for their advice, two of the three said she should. Here’s what came next:

I tucked the letters back into their box, and there they remained, untouched, until the day they burned in a house fire. And I have never given them a second thought.

Looking back I can see I really wanted to get rid of them but didn’t think I ought to — that was the tension. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, it was that what I wished to do conflicted with what I thought I should.

I should never check email in the morning; that’s what Julie Morgenstern says

That’s advice that works for many people, but not for everyone. If you give it a try and it’s interfering with your workflow or just doesn’t suit your personality, it’s fine to ignore this suggestion. The same goes for the advice from any organizing expert. What is most important is finding the productivity system that works best for you.

So take a minute to ponder: Are you holding onto something or making any other organizing decision just because it’s what you think you should do? If so, maybe it’s time to reconsider.

13 Comments for “Stop should-ing yourself”

  1. posted by pat on

    Thank you, this is a very timely post. I have always kept all the birthday, Mothers Day, and anniversary cards I get from friends and family each year because I thought I should. I really don’t care if anyone gets me one of those store bought cards-I’m just not a card person. I enjoy the cards the kids make, but not all are great. So each year I have faithfully kept most of them in a basket by my bedside. The cards that are homemade, that I want to keep to show the kids when they’re grown, are put in each kids “memory box”. I would rather have 365 days of loving acts from my husband than 1 card that my husband bought because he “should”. I never look at the cards in the basket, but I always hear other people say how “special” all those cards are, so I “shouldn’t” get rid of them. Now I’m going to go get rid of them-but I will bury them far down in the trash to avoid any hurt feelings.

  2. posted by Dawn F on

    Pat, before you get rid of all of my those cards be sure to go through each one and make sure you really want to trash all of them in the basket. My last birthday card from my grandmother before she passed away is extra special to me ~ seeing her handwriting makes me smile.

    Also, perhaps there is a card or 2, which is extra beautiful that you can display on a kitchen bulletin board or display at work ~ to make you smile?

    Our preschool loves to get old greeting cards ~ they use the covers for the kids to do crafts with. Perhaps you could recycle them in such a way??

  3. posted by Dorothy on

    I see the point of not “shoulding” yourself about books to read.

    But in my view keeping my mind active, continuing to learn and exposing myself to great art are all important — in the same way eating healthy food and exercising regularly are important.

    I guess if you’re never gonna read the books, yes, ditch ‘em.

    But let’s say you never read Oedipus Rex, or The Illiad, or A Modest Proposal, or Huckleberry Finn. What’s the effect? Well, you’ll certainly survive, but I’d argue your life would be less rich, just as it would be less rich if you never see Much Ado About Nothing or the Venus de Milo, or if you never hear Messiah or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. There’s a reason these pieces of art are “classics” — they represent the best work of some of the world’s geniuses. Why not expose yourself to them if you can? As the author of Huck Finn reminded us, “The man who DOES not read has no advantage over the man who CANNOT read.”

    Alternatively to giving away your “should” books, develop a plan for, well, actually READING them! For instance, a few years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to alternate a “heavy” book with a “light” book — that is a classic or a non-fiction book with a just-for-fun novel. I was successful in reading a number of books that had been on my to-read book for awhile.

  4. posted by Matt on

    I was excited to see this post, because my New Years Resolution every year is not to worry about the “shoulds” (although not necessarily in an uncluttering sense).

    I lived with roommates for all of my 20s, so I never bothered to collect much furniture. Someone else in the house always seemed to have what we needed. I remember turning 30 and feeling like it was really important that I acquire a couch. I was 30 now, and I should be acting like a mature responsible adult. And mature responsible adults owned furniture, so I should purchase a couch.

    Imagine my disappointment when I finally got that couch and discovered that it did not turn me into a mature responsible adult. I was just some guy with a couch.

    And that was when I resolved to stop worrying about what I “should” do, and just do what made sense and worked for me.

  5. posted by pat on

    Dorothy, I too think everyone should experience the classics, but I’ve found that they are much more enjoyable to me in an audiobook format. I listen to them on long car rides with my 2 teenage daughters. I also listen to them on my daily commute-it really helps pass the time. In addition, most classics are available in kindle format for free, or close to it, and it only takes a couple of minutes to download them.

  6. posted by Marie on

    I’ll have to think about ways this manifests in different areas of my life. I agree it can be unhelpful to have other people getting tangled in your process, as in: “Oh, you can’t get rid of THAT!” Or: “You can’t do THAT!” Some people are just less sentimental or want less of whatever is clogging up their life. I heartily advocate one following ones own process, whether it’s with decluttering or with any other aspect of your life.

    For myself, I have a lot of “shoulds” internalized from growing up with parents influenced by the Great Depression, such as: “Thous shalt not throw out anything that still has some use to it.” I’ve gotten rid of a lot of that one! My family has an additional “should” about saving all “historical” documents and mementoes. Sometimes this works out great, as when I lucked into my great aunt’s autograph book from when she was a teenager in the ’20s or old photographs with stories on the back from when my Grandfather wrote to my Grandmother before they were married. Other times, I feel stifled by the need to keep *everything*. I usually resort to keeping only what I use. I’ve learned to not discuss my decluttering with my family so much, but my mother is starting to come around… My father still thinks we are going to archive everything he’s ever collected in his life, and *that’s* not going to happen. I would need a couple of houses.

    Another “should” that seems to crop up a lot is that I “should” get rid of many or all of my books. (Does this sound familiar? :)) I like having my own library (some of which are hard to find or out of print), and I refer to and reread much of it. So for some people, that seems like overkill, but for me, it’s just right. I still trim back the excess every so often, but I’m not interested in the “shoulds” about somehow having too many books. I find it more scandalous that more children grow up with too few books. On the other hand, I’m embarking on scanning or shredding lots of old papers.

    It’s interesting how we get “shoulds” from our family, our background culture, our profession, and even our friends and communities. Very interesting topic! Thanks!

  7. posted by Ann on

    “The Tyranny of the Shoulds”. I am still dealing with my late brother’s furniture (that I never liked) that my mother insisted I SHOULD keep because it was “still good”.

  8. posted by Emily on

    Sadly I don’t think this means I can go to the beach when I *should* be washing the dishes or paying bills.

  9. posted by TV James on

    This is good advice we should all pay attention to. I should send this to a friend of mine. Thanks for all these suggestions of shoulds we should reconsider. (Ow.. ow… you could have at least noted the irony to keep us OCDs from twitching.)

  10. posted by Janet on

    Great idea about keeping only a few pages of a yearbook. How many people actually consider their high school years the “best years of their life”?

    My mother loved her high school experience and kept those books to the day she died. My family moved in the summer between my junior and senior year so I had to graduate from a school I neither knew or liked. Mom insisted that I get a yearbook because she was sure that I would be sorry if I didn’t.

    Years later when I was moving I came across that book and it was one of the first things to go in the big black garbage bag. It felt terrific! I often think of that moment and it has continued to inspire me to keep only what I feel is important to keep and not what someone else thinks I should keep,.

  11. posted by Jessica on

    What a great and timely post! As it happens, just last night I came across my high school yearbook and wondered if I would be a terrible person for throwing it out? Maybe I “should” have some sentimental value attached to it, but I simply don’t.
    When I get home from work today, into the recycling bin it goes!

  12. posted by Me on

    Our basement flooded and all my high school year books got wet. I tried drying them out, but some of the pages molded. Threw them out and haven’t felt sorry at all. I think they were important to me then, but doesn’t matter to me now.

  13. posted by Emmers on

    Seconding the Great Depression instincts here — it’s *hard* to get rid of things! But it helps so much.

    For the idea of “I *should* read classical literature,” you could always donate the books to Goodwill (or whatever) and then check them out of the library to read later.

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