Overcoming “I know I should, but…”

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How often do you hear those five little words: “I know I should, but…”?

It’s a different issue for everyone, but most of us have at least one thing we should be doing, but for whatever reason, we just can’t make it happen.

For example, say there’s an imaginary Paleo dieter called Kurt, and Kurt’s problem is sleep: he gets maybe 6 hours of sleep a night. He can feel that it’s affecting his health, and he knows how bad sleep deprivation is, but he’s getting really tired of preachy blog posts sanctimoniously repeating the dire consequences of sleep deprivation, because darn it, he’s busy. He knows he should sleep more, but…he has a full-time job and he’s taking MBA classes in the evening, and he has to get up early to hit the gym 4 days a week, and now on top of buying and cooking all his own food, he’s supposed to magically find 8 hours a night to lie there unconscious? Maybe in Paleo Fantasyland!

For you, it might not be sleep. Maybe it’s chronic stress: how many times have you felt a flash of irritation at someone self-righteously warning you about the dangers of stress and thought “that’s fine for them, but would they be so perfectly Zen if they had to put up with my life?” Maybe it’s exercise. Maybe it’s cooking at home. It could be anything. But you can tell it’s an “I know I should, but…” problem if

  • You scroll past blog posts and articles about it because you just don’t want to hear anyone else preaching at you.
  • You get defensive when it’s brought up.
  • The topic makes you feel victimized, threatened, or angry for reasons you don’t understand.
  • You can come up with perfectly understandable reasons for your behavior, but you still feel guilty.
  • You’re looking for information about a health concern, and you keep finding that it’s related to this particular thing that you’re doing or not doing, but you don’t want to hear it so you go looking for other causes instead.
  • In most other aspects of your life, you can do what needs to be done: this is one of a very few exceptions, or even the only one.

If any of that sounds uncomfortably familiar, you’re probably facing an “I know I should, but…” issue.

These problems are energy vampires: they’re not really alive, but they never really die, either. They don’t get serious enough that you’re forced to confront them, but they also don’t go away. They just fester in the back of your mind, sucking up your mental energy and preying on the edges of your mood. There’s always that niggling dissatisfaction of something you should be doing, the annoying guilt, the knowledge in the back of your mind that this is a real problem, no matter how many justifications you have for it.

Well, it’s time to haul out a head of garlic and your favorite hunting stake, because those vampires are about to die forever.

But It’s Not My Fault!

If you really believed that, you wouldn’t feel guilty about it. If you’re still hung up on the issue, one of two things might be happening:

  • It really is beyond your control, and you’re having trouble accepting that and letting it go. To get back to Sleepless Kurt, maybe it really is objectively impossible for him to get a solid 8 hours.
  • It actually isn’t beyond your control, and deep down, you know it. In Kurt’s case, maybe he’s just struggling with time management, or he’s in denial about his choice to prioritize World of Warcraft over sleep. All the justifications about how busy he is are just excuses.

In the first case, the solution is to make your peace with the things you can’t change. You’re an imperfect human living under imperfect circumstances, and you’re doing the best with what you’ve got. You’ll know you’ve reached this point when you’re no longer bitter, angry, guilty, or defensive about the issue, and when it’s no longer nagging at the back of your mind.

But if acceptance just isn’t cutting it, maybe the problem is that it isn’t actually beyond your control. Maybe that’s just an excuse: deep down, you know you could do something about it, but for some reason, it’s incredibly hard even to admit, much less to start working on.

Addressing the “Shoulds”

These questions of “I know I should, but…” are so uncomfortable to address because they make you confront the gap between your values and your behavior. It’s easier and more comforting just to let ourselves believe our own excuses. But stick with it, and you’ll feel so much better in the long run. Here’s how:

Identify the Problem

Step 1 is to identify the problem – because often the issue really isn’t what you think it is.

Sit down with a pen and paper, in a place where you have no distractions. This is going to be pretty tough, so you’ll need all your focus. Think of your “I know I should, but…” problem, and then write it down. If anything else comes to mind on the topic, write that down too. Then just list all the reasons why you’re behaving this way even though you know you should be doing something else. From the totally ridiculous to the emotionally profound, just write it all down. If something doesn’t quite ring true, write it down anyway, and then try to come up with something that sounds more right. Keep listing things until you get the one that knocks you over the head with “Wow! That’s the problem!” (you’ll know it when you find it).

Brainstorm Solutions

Step 2 is to brainstorm some solutions. For each reason you came up with (even the ones that aren’t the “Wow!” reason), ask yourself some questions:

  • For outside reasons (e.g. “my work schedule”): what 3 specific things could I reasonably do to make this situation less of a problem? For example, if your work schedule is preventing you from cooking meals at home, you could: look up bulk recipes, buy a slow-cooker, and experiment with meal planning.
  • For internal reasons (e.g. “I’m afraid of looking dumb”): what 3 specific things could I do to work around this in a way I can live with? For example, if your fear of looking stupid is preventing you from going to the gym, you could: buy a DVD and work out at home, go running at night when nobody can see you, or hire a personal trainer to teach you how to use the gym equipment.

Writing in a journal

Pick One and Plan

At this point, you should have a list of several possible things you might do to help yourself bridge that gap between “I should…” and “I do…”

Now comes the hard part: don’t do them all at once! Pick one and focus on that first. Then make a concrete, quantifiable plan to do that thing, and give yourself a specific time to do it. For example, “I will go to Target on Saturday and buy a slow-cooker.” If that helps you cook even one healthy meal that you otherwise wouldn’t, then you’re on the right track.

When you’ve accomplished one thing on your list, then move on to the next. This gets a lot easier as you build up momentum and start feeling good about finally addressing the problem. Err on the side of slow and steady; the worst thing you could possibly do here is make it too overwhelming.

It’s Not Easy

If it were easy, you wouldn’t need to read this, because you wouldn’t be having a problem in the first place. Cut yourself some slack, especially if you’re struggling with some heavy emotional issues behind the problem. Take it one step at a time, and remember that it’s fine to go slowly, as long as you don’t give up and quit. Keep reminding yourself how good it’s going to feel when you can live without that nagging guilt and defensiveness in the back of your mind, and stick with it!

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