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You don't *have* to do anything.

Published or Updated On: 
February 3, 2023

One of my goals for 2023 is to really connect with the fun of my work and other parts of life. I’m great at being responsible with my business, my fitness and getting shit done in general. I’m not always great at enjoying the ride. Maybe you can relate. One of the main ways I’m trying to enjoy the ride more is through a language change: I’ve stopped saying “I have to” and instead say “I want to”.

This may sound small or silly, but bear with me for a minute.

📜 Rulemakers

We have all had the experience of dragging ourselves along to do something. In these situations, we say “I have to”, as in “I have to go to work”, “I have to do these errands” etc. This phrasing is a bit odd.

Take “I have to go to work” for example. Do you really have to go to work? There is no cosmic power forcing you to go anywhere today. It is 100% within your power to do absolutely nothing but binge watch The Last of Us, at any given time. So why do we say “I have to”?

You go to work because at some point, you took a view from above and decided that you wanted to work. You want a paycheck, you want to use your skills, to contribute and make progress. From this higher vantage point, you could see it would give you a better life in the long run. So you created a contract with yourself (and others) to do a job. Hence, the language of “I have to”. We create rules & obligations for ourselves based on what we think is best over the long term. 🔮 Because you took that higher perspective and made a commitment, you get out of bed & get your ass going.

Self-imposed rules & obligations are how we herd ourselves around. They’re how we manage our baser impulses & achieve long term goals despite the presence of more attractive short term alternatives. They’re great, and they’re not the problem. The problem is the height of our perspective tends to drop down over time. ⬇️ If you've ever been thrilled about landing a new job or starting a new venture, but later dreaded that you "had to go work on it", you've experienced a perspective drop.

When the height of your perspective is low, you aren’t thinking about why you originally created that rule or commitment. You’re just thinking about how much you don’t want to get out of bed to go to work. At this level, the rules you created for yourself start to feel more like a prison. It sucks.

Sidenote: This idea about self-imposed rules is true for pretty much everything we say we “have” to do: errands, exercise, go to that social thing, make dinner, do Christmas shopping, fix that leak, organize the basement. All of these are contracts we’ve made with ourselves. The language can be expanded beyond “have to” to other variants too, like “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t”, as in “I can’t eat that, I’m trying to lose weight”.

⬆️ "I want to”

In my experience so far, an easy way to enjoy your life 5% more is to swap out “I have to” with “I want to”. 🗣️ This little tweak helps you reconnect with the original vision you had when you made the rule for yourself. It reminds you of the fact that it is true that you want to do whatever your self-imposed rule or obligation is. That’s why you created it in the first place! Because it will ultimately give you something you want.

Using the phrase "I want to" is an exercise in long term thinking. When you use that phrase, you’re creating alignment between your long term desires & your short term actions. It brings the height of your perspective back up. You can feel the prison crumble away, as you regain your sense of autonomy. 

It sounds easy in theory but I can’t believe the number of times I’ve caught myself saying “have to” since I started paying attention to this. I’ll also highlight that some stuff is easier than others. I’ve gotten better at saying “I want to go exercise”, but I still gag a little bit when I try to say “I want to do my taxes”.

An alternative approach I’ve seen other people push is the phrase “I get to”. The idea is it will create gratitude. While I like that in theory, this phrase seems less acknowledging of the fact that a lot of activities you might be applying this exercise to are pretty shitty in the short term. Seems like a kind of oppressive positivity to me. But if that resonates more with you, that could be another phrase to experiment with.

Give it a shot and see if it does anything for you!

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