I can’t believe I’m about to quote a textbook, but I am. One of my coaching textbooks has a really spot-on presentation of the difference between goals and “shoulds.” Here goes:

A goal is something that you really want. A “should” is a goal that you think you should want, or think you need, in order to reach another goal (a means to an end). An authentic goal allows choice and can be freely set, changed, or abandoned with little resistance or emotional reaction. A should is rife with risk, consequences, and potential condemnation.

This is written so concisely and to the point that it’s probably pretty easy to understand the message. But, the bigger challenge is – How do you truly recognize what things in your life are shoulds and which things are goals? And, how do you weed out the shoulds so that you can get down to the business of goals?

Below are just a couple of questions you might consider asking yourself. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it might provide a good starting point for focusing your energies on what really matters.

1. How do I feel at the thought of completely abandoning this project or task?

Does the idea of giving up on this task bring you some temporary relief from any stress, but make you feel a bit sad or disappointed – like you would be giving up on something you really want? Sounds like you’re working towards a goal. But, does the idea of abandoning the project leave you feeling a profound sense of relief or freedom? That might be a sign that this project is a should. It’s okay to have mixed feelings or to find it difficult to separate your own feelings from the feelings of others. But, it’s important to get up close and personal with what you are feeling. In short, don’t run from what you’re feeling (physically and emotionally), move toward it and really get in there with what’s going on. If you’re finding it hard to know how you feel, try going for a walk, talking it out with someone who will listen (a coach is great for this!), meditating, praying – whatever works for you.

2. What would my family/friends/colleagues say if I gave up on this?

A big indicator of whether what you’re doing is a goal or a should lies in how others respond to the news that you’re considering giving up. If your family responds with concern because they have seen your dedication and passion for the work you’re doing, but reassures you that they support you know matter what, then this is a big sign that you’re working on a goal. If, on the other hand, they respond with contempt, disdain or pressure – maybe it’s time to look at what your “goal” means for them. Maybe this is really a should brought on by what someone else is envisioning for you.

3. When working on this task or project how do I feel in the moment?

This question is really about getting focused on your passions. The saying is really true – “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Do you experience a sense of flow when you’re working towards your goal? If given all day to work on it, would you? Does the goal help you feel more creative, more energetic, more alive or more whole? If not, it’s possible that you’re doing something you feel you should do, not something you really want to. Sometimes we have to choose to face challenging tasks with positive energy (even if we know that we’re feeling uninspired), but what I’m talking about here is different from facing something necessary with a whole heart. Taking on challenging or dreaded tasks with a whole heart can lead to lots and lots of growth. However, forcing yourself to complete tasks that leave you feeling less like yourself is a whole other ball game. Spend time getting to know the difference. The goals you set for yourself should be about moving you towards your very best you.

4. If I were to wake up tomorrow morning and an over-night miracle had given me complete and total clarity regarding this task what would my relationship with this task look like?

The “miracle question” is a great tool often used by therapists and coaches to help people begin to feel unencumbered by all the thoughts and “what-ifs” that can leave us feeling stuck. The great thing about this question is that it not only helps you gain a better understanding of whether you’re spending your energy on goals or shoulds, it can also help you re-examine the things that are truly goals – leaving you free to make changes as you see fit. So, if waking up tomorrow post-miracle, you realize this is something you really don’t want to be doing perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.

So think about it. The next time you find yourself saying, “Ug! I really don’t want to do this,” don’t blow off that feeling. Take time to really look at the tasks in front of you. Who knows, you may unburden yourself from a great big set of shoulds!



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