Take "should" off the table

If you want to motivate yourself to do something, start by jettisoning the idea that you should do it.

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I wanted an early morning routine. I especially wanted one of those serene-sounding routines where instead of hopping online you sip coffee contemplatively while doing something enriching. I honestly didn’t expect it to be that hard. I like getting up early. I love routine. Even committing to staying offline for the first 60 minutes of the day didn't seem like that big of a deal.

There’s a lot of things I’m not that disciplined about—spending money, cleaning my flat, cooking for myself. But I’m pretty good at abstaining from things. I quit drinking almost four years ago without any big instigating crisis. I went no-contact with my ex-partner of 10 years only six days into our breakup and literally never interacted with him again. I haven’t played a Kanye West song since 2018.

But for a long time the no-internet-first-thing-in-the-morning thing totally defeated me. I was reduced to strategies like putting my phone under a cushion on the couch when I went to bed, because if I caught even the smallest glimpse of it my brain would start shrieking like a five year old who had just heard the ice cream truck. I would be stumbling around half-awake trying to make coffee while my brain was caterwauling at me, OMG, THE PHONE! I SAW IT! THE PHONE! THAT’S WHERE THE DOPAMINE LIVES! THE PRECIOUS! LET US HAVE IT!

Although the couch-cushion work-around would usually get me through making the coffee, I’d get another round of urges as soon as I sat down to whatever I had decided to do for the first hour of my day—usually some kind of long-term planning or first-draft writing. And my brain was ridiculously persistent in thinking up reasons why whatever I was doing simply could not be done to an acceptable standard without more data, which of course could only be obtained from the internet. If I was planning my week, I definitely needed to check the weather, because probably some days would be better than others for a run. If I was writing something, there was likely some essential source I had forgotten to download the night before.

I knew my brain was doing this. I could feel it scrabbling around frantically like a rat trapped in a cardboard box. But knowing didn’t seem to help. Eventually, one of the “reasons” to get online would seem unanswerable, and before I knew it I’d be on the laptop and caught up in a click-loop of busywork, moving from email to task manager to budgeting app to text to slack and back.

Busywork is my siren song. Unlike scrolling social media, it lets me feel Competent and Extremely Productive while still providing my brain with a pleasurable influx of pings and lights and instant replies. Compared to refreshing twitter every 15 seconds, busywork for me is almost all the dopamine with only half the sense that I am wasting my life, and that’s why it’s my kryptonite.

I spent months fighting the Battle of the Busywork. I felt like I was in one of those cartoons where someone has an angel and devil on either shoulder arguing constantly. It was exhausting, and it was demoralizing, especially for the angel—so much so that she eventually just threw in the towel. Basically, I caved. I decided that if I wanted so badly to do busywork at the start of every day, then I would just fucking do it. I’d put in a couple hours of it, and then, surely, I’d be ready to get offline for an hour or so of writing.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

Lo and behold, after two hours of playing Inbox Zero with the dopamine fairies in my brain, I was in a jangling state of over-stimulation that was about as far from serene contemplation as a cyclone is from a refreshing breeze. Not only could I not settle down to deep writing or thinking, I couldn’t settle down to anything. If I did manage to hook into some bigger project, I could get in a couple of hours, but even then much of the day would be lost in a fruitless shuffle between the desk and the couch as I tried to find a place or a task I could commit to. By six p.m. I’d chuck it all and try to work some of the restlessness off with exercise, which might—but probably not—enable me to watch Netflix without scrolling my phone at the same time. Not coincidentally, this kind of day was exactly how things looked when I decided to try the whole Serene Morning Routine plan in the first place.

After a few of days of this, though, something happened. I noticed that I felt like shit. I contemplated the permission I’d given myself to do busywork every morning for the rest of my life, and I felt my heart sink. It didn't seem pleasurable or inviting, I realized. It seemed fucking grim. Having my day derailed and shunted down the endless chute of the internet, over and over, seemed like a kind of purgatory, but one I had for some reason decided to live in on purpose.

I didn’t want another day like the one I’d just had, much less a lifetime of them. I wanted presence, clarity, focus. I wanted to take my brain back. I wanted to take my fucking life back.

This was the moment I won the Battle of the Busywork—which was also the moment when I stopped seeing it as a battle at all. When I stopped thinking about staying offline as something that I should do, and I started thinking about it as something I wanted.


I took the long way around to get there, but you don’t have to. (I could even have taken the shortcut myself, if I had just remembered how I’d actually quit alcohol or started exercising every day or made basically every other positive change I’ve ever made in my life.)

If you want to have success with behavior change, you have to do something that may feel counter-intuitive or even a little scary, though it makes things immensely easier in the long run: you have to take “should” off the table.

Here’s why: when we try to change from a place of “should,” we turn the change we want to make into a rule we have to follow. Once we do that, we set up that angel-and-devil battle I experienced, where you’re arguing between the rule on the one hand and your desire to break it on the other.

This happens because our brains think of rules and desires as mutually exclusive. After all, it seems like if we wanted to do the thing, then we wouldn’t need a rule in the first place. That’s why rules aren’t motivating: they basically deliver an implicit message to your brain that says Psst, we don't actually want to do this. Which means that, when we set up behavioral change as a "should", we wind up making enacting the change and wanting the change mutually exclusive.

And that’s a huge roadblock because motivating action is what the emotion of wanting is for. When we turn the change we’re trying to make into a rule that we’re supposed to follow, we’re basically trying to motivate ourselves by cutting off access to the literal source of human motivation. In fact, it’s worse than that. We’re actually putting that powerful engine of human action in opposition to the change we’re trying to make, by attaching our wanting to the very thing we're trying to reduce or leave behind.

It's no surprise, then, that my attempt to stay offline turned into such a shit show. Once I told myself I should do it, I turned it into a rule I was supposed to follow that went against my desires. And the only wanting that was then evident was the wanting that went against the rule, the craving to lose myself in busywork.

But when I took “should” off the table—when I realized I actually wanted to focus and concentrate—I changed the game. Rather than the good-rule-angel and the bad-desire-devil, I had now had two wants: I wanted focus, clarity, calm and the capacity for deep work on the one hand, and I wanted a click-loop fugue state of busywork on the other. The only question was, which did I want more? And, once it was posed that way, the answer was abundantly clear.

By replacing should with want, you get access to the motivational engine of wanting, and the difference is astonishing. In my case, staying offline no longer felt like dragging myself through hardening cement. I still got urges to check my phone, but telling myself “I don’t want to feel like crap all day,” was motivating in a way that telling myself “I’m not supposed to” simply was not.

I also escaped the relentless back and forth of the angel-and-devil scenario. Weighing “should” against “want” has an apples-and-oranges quality that makes any resolution seem temporary. Even when I gave in to the busywork, I hadn’t actually stopped thinking I should stay offline; I just thought I’d lost the fight to do so. The “should” lived on as sign of my failure, and in that way the fight seemed like it could go on forever.

But with two wants you are no longer dealing with apples and oranges. Both options are the same thing: desires that you have for how you want to spend your time. The difference is in degree, not kind. And the choice becomes simple, obvious and blessedly finite. When you find yourself dealing with an urge, you don’t have to impose a rule and fight your desires. Instead, you can harness the power of wanting to fuel the change you have chosen. And when you fire up that motivational engine, you'll be able to move your whole self toward the thing you want more.