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Why you don’t do what you should

Today’s post is short and sweet. It breaks down an intense frustration felt by everyone, entrepreneurs especially, and provides three sure-fire solutions.

You know all those things you should be doing. That you’ve been told to do. Perhaps they’re things you’ve read about. Or, even worse, they’re things you simply tell yourself to do – things so blindly obvious you don’t need to be told. You simply know you should.

Today I’m serving up the psychological magic bullets (yes really) that turn should-do’s into done. 

1. Get real about your to-do list (with psychology’s help) 

We all have to-do lists, whether they’re written down or in our head. Most people don’t realize that they also have a “gets done” list and another bullshit list of “things that should…”

Getting real about your to-do list means getting honest. You have to separate out your to-dos into necessities and possibilities. That’s two very distinctive lists.

Necessities are things that you absolutely must do – where no other possibility exists. Getting to work, making an international flight check-in or filing tax returns are good examples of “must do” items. Possibilities are things that you should do, but don’t really have to do. This includes things like going for a run, saving and buying flowers for that special someone.

The trouble with entrepreneurs is the lack of necessity. The wonderful freedom you’ve spent years pursuing… can backfire. In fact, freedom means you’re free to not do things. You don’t have to show up. You don’t have to write every day. You don’t have to make sales calls.

That’s why entrepreneurs have more “should” on their to-do list than anyone else.

Getting real about your list is essential. Everyone who’s self employed has enormous action-taking abilities, but they’re usually only ignited by necessity. Possibility (“could” and “should”) are never enough.

So take a look at the things you get done. Notice how heavy that list is with “must” items.

The secret is to set your goals and task lists with that knowledge in mind. Knowing that you’re likely to only do the “must” items, try to fill your schedule with as many as possible. Don’t even bother planning to do the “should” items. You won’t, even if you have the time.


2. Turn your should’s into musts

People who sign up for marathons are far more likely to go running than those who don’t. It’s simple psychology – when you give yourself more reasons to do something, the to-do item will slowly move from the “should” list to the “must” list.

There are a couple of psychological magic bullets for doing this – shifts that any human can make to transform a should into a must:

Social Pressure

Make a commitment in front of your peers and a whole range of complex social dynamics will ignite your drive to get it done.

Sexual Fitness

Evolutionary psychologists believe all behavior boils down to us trying to position ourselves as top-shelf baby making material. If you can make the completion of a to-do an indicator of your fitness as a mate, then motivation will ensue. It also doesn’t matter if you’re single or not – this still works for everyone.


It’s like social pressure, but even better. When you make a game out of getting things done, it lights up the neural networks that’ve been un-used since childhood. Remember those late night monopoly sessions where no one would quit? Imagine playing the game of business with that same attitude!

Spiritual Fulfillment

Connect your “should” with the metaphysical – make it part of your spiritual life purpose. By attributing large portions of philosophical Meaning (with a capital M) to your task, you create the pressure of necessity. When procrastinating is synonymous with denying the purpose of your existence, it’s much harder to do.


One of these four can be applied to almost any to-do item, making it irresistibly important. However if all else fails it’s time to…

3. Do absolutely nothing

If you’re the kind of chronic, hopeless procrastinator for whom none of the techniques ever work for… then this is for you.

It’s the ultimate, anti-tactic, cure-all elixir to motivation issues that feel like they’re almost genetic. It works, every time. Here’s how…

Go clear a space in your home. Find a room, or a corner of a room, with absolutely nothing in it. Then, go sit there. Perhaps bring a cushion.

Sit. Do nothing.

When an absolute need arrives (eating, peeing, sleeping)… go do that. Then come back and sit.

You’ll get bored out of your mind. That’s the idea. When you’ve been there long enough (which is a little bit longer than you think), you’ll start to become aware of things you want to do. Not things you should do. Not things you have to do. Things you want to do.

Stay sitting. Right where you are. Don’t move.

When the desire (the delicious want) to do something alights in your mind, carefully examine it. Think of it like an exquisite butterfly that lands on your shoulder. Just look at it out of the corner of your eye, barely breathing for fear it might flutter off.

Slowly but surely, by deliberately doing nothing, you can nurture this desire to do things. Do so. Nourish the desire with your imagination, until you can barely tolerate the pain of not doing it.

Only when you can barely cope with the idea of spending another second sitting, doing nothing… should you get up and do things. Take the memory of your desire with you. Never forget it. Do what you want to do and watch yourself grow and evolve, even as your desires do.

We don’t find fulfillment by doing the things we have to. Or thinking about the things we should. It is what we want and our ability to create it that defines us.



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  1. Oh, my, I needed this. My to-do is so full of want-to-do’s that it gets overwhelming. So I move some onto a maybe-sometime list for a more manageable to-do list. (The maybe-sometime is HUGE.)


  2. Hi Peter,

    Better to change to something you don’t even need to make a list for in the first place. Yet, we’ve become so divorced from what we do naturally with enthusiasm and told, “You can’t make money doing that” that we end up with unwanted lists.

    I’ve seen it in others and in myself. Find the right “inner” list and it falls into place.

    Thanks! G.

  3. Peter, this post is too good to only read once, so I printed it, the highest complement I can give a blog post! 😉

    “Evolutionary psychologists believe all behavior boils down to us trying to position ourselves as top-shelf baby making material.”

    If that is true, that makes recommendation #3 a form of personal foreplay.

  4. I like to list my doctorate to remind myself that it’s still the biggest thing I’ve accomplished, including startups (easy in comparison) – but that was TEN FRIGGIN YEARS AGO!!! On the other hand, I have a beautiful son from a great woman who can put up with me.

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

  5. Hi Peter
    Thanks for this article, the timing was spot on. I definitely need to pay a lot more attention to my MUST list and stop worrying so much about my should one. As you mentioned it is very important to work out the difference between the two lists. I don’t think I have been doing that very well lately. I also like your idea of doing nothing. I will give that a go that next time I get really stuck.

  6. another great post, peter, with great information and more importantly, suggested actions. which we know is the only place where success and freedom reside. thanks ps

  7. I hate the word should. 😛

    To me, ‘Should’ and ‘supposed to’ is all about control and not good enough and doing what other people or the negative voices in my head are saying.

    I should get my quickbooks up to date. I should spend more time with my kids. I should stop lurking on blogs and go outside into the real world. I should be thinner, smarter, more motivated, read more, write more, exercise more, be less reactive and more responsive. I should drink a hemp smoothie and stop raiding the kid’s halloween candy. I should care less about what people think.


    I rebel against should. Maybe I shouldn’t (boo!), but I do.

    In my head (maybe because I am weird) I do much better with gentle words of encouragement. “Even though” statements help me get moving – they’ve got this strange power to make big DOOM FILLED to-do lists into less intimidating chunks of doable goodness. And then I just focus on one thing at a time. It keep me motivated and out of stressville, which for me, is important.

    For example.

    ‘Even though’ I hate getting my quickbooks up to date, I know it is important to my overall success. I love me, I love my work, and I desire success, and until I can afford a bookkeeper, the damn quickbooks is part of my reality. So I am going to start with one thing – I am going to sit down at my desk and open up the application.

    If I get that far, I keep encouraging myself. “Good job. Even though I know this is not enjoyable, I will open up the register and record my phone expenses.”

    And then I do that. After that, I feel motivated to do one more thing and before I know it, everything is up to date and I have accomplished something. Then I celebrate with yogapilates or a walk with the dog or more candy from the halloween bucket. 🙂

    In my strangely twisted mind, this is much easier than “I should get the expenses in quickbooks uptodate or my accountant will kill me.” Because I get blocked at ‘should’.

    Does anybody else have this problem or is it just me?

    Thank you so much for letting me RAMBLE ON in your comment section. This blog is great. Now I am going to go outside.

  8. Man, I needed this one badly. I sit around all day doing two things…

    1. Writing blog posts to feel like I’m doing something
    2. Thinking about the things that I haven’t done and saying that I’m going to do them tomorrow… definitely. (or Monday if it’s the weekend).

    I actually feel like #1 is a must. Your “Social Pressure” reference was on point. I pushed my websites so much to my social networking friends that I felt obligated to deliver. Now, it’s a rhythm and I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

    #2 is different, though. These are the things I really SHOULD be doing but I am not.
    – Making video for my blogs
    – Looking into podcast
    – Creating an ebook more relevant to my audience to replace the current one

    I have to get it together, man. This is a much needed post.



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