Should vs Must: Why Your Best Intentions Fail

by | Apr 6, 2015

Photo by sookie

Last week I read a beautiful essay by artist and my good friend, Elle Luna, describing what she calls The Crossroads of Should and Must. In it she shares the lessons she’s learned after a year of choosing Must instead of Should.

“Should is how others want us to show up in the world — how we’re supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. ”

“Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self.”

Elle’s experiment took her from a tech startup, to an empty white room, to Bali, and ultimately to her calling: painting. Such a journey inward is never easy, but as was clear from the resounding response to her piece, the conflict between Should and Must is something that we all struggle with.

(Over the past year Elle has turned her essay into a beautifully illustrated book about finding your true calling. The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion is available Wednesday, April 8, 2015, at book stores everywhere.)

At their core, Should and Must represent competing motivations. Should is our responsibility to others and the world at large. Must is our responsibility to ourselves. Sometimes these overlap, but often they do not. That is when we need to make a choice.

As Elle so eloquently explains, in most of our lives choosing Should is the easiest, safest path. But as I thought more about this I realized that the opposite is true for food and health.

When we choose what to put in our bodies, Must is our default.

Sure you should come home from work and cook a healthy meal from scratch, but you must have a break from your long day and comfort yourself from all the stress you’ve experienced. In this case, you have physical and emotional needs that are more urgent than your more lofty aspirations.

If Should and Must are in conflict when you’re depleted, Must will win. It has to. Should has to wait for a later day, when you have more time and energy to worry about health.

This role reversal of Should and Must may be one of the reasons we are so persistent in trying methods for getting healthy and losing weight that don’t work. In all the other parts of our lives, Should can get us through. So we keep trying to do what we Should do, forcing ourselves to eat salads and run laps, then cursing our lack of motivation when we slip back into Must.

This may also be why we feel so guilty when we fail. We are normally so good at Should. So why are we so weak when it comes to food? Should doesn’t work for what we eat, because fuel and comfort are too important.

But what if we could turn our health from a Should into a Must?

By coincidence, shortly before I stumbled upon Elle’s essay I had sent my subscribers an email asking them to tell me their deepest motivation for wanting to eat healthy.

Take a moment today and ask yourself why you want to eat healthier.

Do you want to lose weight? Why?

Is it because you want to feel more comfortable in your clothes? Why?

Keep asking why until you get to the core emotion that motivates you. Because while you can rationalize the reasons eating healthy is a good idea until the grass-fed cows come home, at the end of the day it will be a feeling, an emotion that motivates your action. Not logic.

You can read the entire message here

Essentially I gave them the challenge of finding their health Must, and the replies I got were truly illuminating.

As you might expect, the great majority were taken a bit off guard by my question and many were surprised by their own conclusions. Some realized they care deeply about how they look, and were slightly embarrassed by this. Others were afraid of following the disease-laden path of other family members.

But the most striking responses came from those who have already achieved health. Some have been long time readers and got healthy along the way. Others found Summer Tomato or Foodist more recently and continue to follow for additional tips and inspiration. A few have battled specific diseases, and are winning.

What they all had in common was a definite Must: they knew exactly why they eat well and take care of themselves and could articulate it clearly.

  • Debra knows that when she eats poorly it saps her energy.
  • Fred cares passionately about the environment, and sticks to farms he can trust.
  • Liz wants to continue to beat cancer.
  • Jim feels better now than he did five years ago, and knows his food affects how fast he will age.
  • Terrie eats healthy to manage her arthritis.
  • Jennifer doesn’t believe her stomach is a trashcan, so doesn’t fill it with garbage.

I love all these answers because they are all different, but equally powerful. For these people health isn’t a Should, but Must. Their personal Musts are what allow them to make tough decisions, even when they don’t feel like it.

It isn’t easy to make health a Must. Life has a way of making everything else seem more important on most days. But as long as health is just a Should, it’ll be nearly impossible to make meaningful changes in your behavior.

Why do you want to be healthy? Don’t stop at Should.

Originally published on April 14, 2014.

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10 Responses to “Should vs Must: Why Your Best Intentions Fail”

  1. Kelsey says:

    Oh wow. Of COURSE you’re friends with Elle Luna. I cannot handle the awesomeness.

    I saw Elle speak last year at Moxie Con in Chicago about this very subject and it was so powerful. I think of it so often… it really touched me.

    Love that you guys are friends <3

  2. Felicity says:

    I want to be healthy so I can be sane. I have a tendency to compulsively overeat – usually junk food, but anything will do – though have never binged on broccoli 😉

    Through trial and lots of error, I have discovered that I need to eat three small meals of real, nutritious food a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner. That’s what keeps me genuinely happy and sane.

    It seems a long way to go round to end up at a very common sense approach… but I got there in the end 🙂

  3. Adrienne says:

    This reminds me of your discussion in Foodist regarding the power of saying “I don’t…” instead of “I can’t…” or “I won’t…”

    There’s a “must” behavior that goes with saying “I don’t…” Saying “I can’t…” is allowing oneself to remain in the “should” realm.

    I’ve found “I don’t…” and its counterbalance “I do…” really important in adjusting my mindset for everything – eating healthy, managing stress, and improving my daily habits.

  4. Dani Spies says:

    I love this article because it really speaks to the ‘bigger conversation’ around eating better. IT’s true – when we are not getting enough rest, down time, relaxation the should of eating healthy loses to the must of some comfort and down time. Both equally important, but the later takes a lot less effort;)

    I want to eat great so I can feel great and look great. Simple but true:)

  5. Dee says:

    Yeah…I could eat cookies….
    I am a person who must eat watercress ….
    Got it!

  6. Angela says:

    I must eat well to live to 111 and feel “Good Enough” once and forever

  7. Deb says:

    I must eat healthy to live a long healthy life and to be able to live a full life as I get older. I am terrified of being a sick old woman someday.

  8. Jen says:

    Ultimately, I eat healthily because I love exercise, and not eating well interferes with my training and makes me feel terrible, physically and emotionally.

    I started out as a very overweight kid, and for me, that led to disordered eating for most of my life, even after I started exercising a lot and stopped being overweight. My unhealthy eating habits (along with a lot of other personal stresses) finally landed me in the hospital two years ago. Over the past two years, I continued to struggle with it. I’d exercise a ton, and the more I worked out, the less I seemed to want to eat. As I ran longer distances, lifted heavier weights, and saw the numbers on the scale drop, I felt great for a couple months, only to get really sick again. And every time I got sick, I got depressed and lost all progress, not only because my muscles were atrophying in bed but also because I binge ate when I got sad about not being able to exercise. Repeat this cycle about ten times. Late last year, I finally decided that yes, it’s incredibly important to me to look better and keep beating those PRs. And because I want to be able to continue getting stronger, I need to work up to it more slowly and have healthier, more sustainable habits. (Most of the time now, I do a pretty okay job.)

  9. veronia says:

    Thanks so much for posting this … I ordered the book and am happily reading it now!

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