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Should vs. Must – My Newest Diabetes Change Hack

By Adam Brown

“I should really ______.”

I have a list of things a mile long I should do: sleep more, drink more water, meditate more, eat more veggies, stretch every day, etc.

The key word is should. “I will ____ if I have time, but when things get busy, ___ takes a backseat or I forget.”

Bad news, Adam: things are always busy, which is how a list of “shoulds” piles up into a list of “not-done-at-alls.” And that drives anxiety, frustration, and feelings of failure.

Meditating is a good example for me. It was one of my 2015 New Year’s Resolutions. I know intellectually that doing it for just five minutes reduces my stress levels and makes me a better person. But it’s so easy to blow it off, to say “I’m too tired,” “I forgot,” or to come up with excuses why I can skip it today and do it “tomorrow.”

Recently, I’ve tried turning this “should” into a “must.”

“I MUST meditate every morning.”

It’s a subtle but meaningful tweak, a mental re-prioritization. I’ve meditated every single morning since I started applying this idea earlier this month, my longest streak ever.

Of course, this isn’t that long in the scheme of habits, but it’s enough of an improvement that I want to unpack it: is “should” vs. “must” a useful tool for making ANY diabetes, health, or behavior change? I think so, and this article shares what I’ve learned in doing it. [For those interested, the idea of should vs. must has also been applied to finding a career.]

What is awesome is that “should” and “must” are flexible mental categories. Think about all the “musts” we do every day that are not mission critical: brushing our teeth, checking social media and email, etc. These behaviors did not used to exist, but at some point, they crossed into the “must” category – we just do them. The irony is that many “must” activities in modern life are not nearly as critical as many of our undone “shoulds”: eat well, move more, sleep more, etc. That brings hope – we can all change and re-prioritize our “shoulds” into “musts.”

Since most of us can readily identify our list of “shoulds,” it’s the next step I want to focus on:

How do I take a “should,” turn it into a consistent “must,” and then sustain that change over the long term?

What motivated me recently was realizing the negative impact that anxious, rushed, preoccupied Adam had on my loved ones. I’m a worse person when I don’t take time to breathe in the morning, and that adversely affects those around me. Meditation MUST be a priority if I want to be the person I strive to be.

Insight #1. To turn a “should” into a “must,” focus on the positive impact it could have on loved ones around me. This “other focus” makes it harder to de-prioritize, and gives wind to my sails when I’m ready to blow it off.

Insight #2. To turn a “should” into a “must,” link the change to my desired identity – what kind of person do I want to be, and is the behavior I’m doing (or not doing) supporting that? How would the idealized, fictional, heroic version of me act?

Even with that base motivation, however, a “should” cannot turn into a “must” unless I understand the critical ingredients for success.

For meditation, I need three things for successfully changing it into a “must”: doing it at a consistent time every day (so I remember), making the behavior as easy as possible (harder to blow off), and reducing my expectations (to make it less daunting). I put a meditation app (Buddhify) on my phone’s home screen, and am doing just one “waking up” track (3-7 minutes) before breakfast.

Insight #3. On days when I successfully turn “shoulds” into “musts,” what happened? What specific things did I do to succeed? How can I have more days like that? We often forget about these “Bright Spots” in diabetes – what am I doing right that should be replicated?

Insight #4. On days when my “shoulds” remain undone, what got in the way? How can I minimize or even eliminate these barriers? What are my Landmines – the mistakes or bad choices I make over and over again that sabotage my efforts? How can I change my environment to avoid them?

To sustain meditation as a “must,” it’s also been helpful to view consistency as the goal. That means three minutes every day is better than 21 minutes once a week. If I complete the process of actually sitting down to breathe every morning, I’m succeeding.

Insight #5: With new behaviors, define “success” as consistency.

By contrast, I talked in January about my 2016 goal of meditating “at least three days per week.” While my logic was sound, it hasn’t followed through into actual behavior – “at least three days per week” is too vague (which days?), and I’ve realized that it is not consistent enough to build what needs to be a daily habit. Thinking of meditation as a daily “must” seems to be working better for me; we’ll see if I can sustain it!

Is changing “shoulds” into “musts” really possible?

I’ve talked before about my teenage self, for whom managing blood sugar and diabetes was a “should.” It didn’t turn into a “must” until:

  • I learned more about diabetes and nutrition, making “good health” part of my identity;

  • I started using continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) and saw the real-time impact that blood sugars had on my mood, energy, thinking, and those around me;

  • Discovered that eating fewer carbs was a gamechanging factor for keeping my blood sugar in range. 

Right now, make a lists of your “shoulds.”

Which of those “shoulds” would make the biggest difference in your diabetes, health, or quality of life if you actually did it?

How can you turn that “should” into something like brushing your teeth – a “must” that you do every day?

  • What would be the benefits to the people around you?

  • How would it support your identity and the person you want to be?

  • On days when “shoulds” successfully turn into “musts,” what happened? How can you do these things more often? (Bright Spots)

  • On days when “shoulds” remain undone, what barrier got in the way? How can you knock them down? (Landmines)

  • Can you make consistency the goal?

I know this is not everything there is to behavior change, but I’ve found it useful as a starting point, particularly the impact my behavior has on others. I hope you can apply this framework to any “should” in your life – diabetes or otherwise.

Let me know what you think about this concept by email or on Twitter. I love hearing from readers!

[Credit to Priscilla Leung for the incredible graphic design!]