Solving the problem of “I have to…”

Ball and chain by Thomas Quine

Inevitably, there are a truckload of things which we should do, but which we don’t want to do.

We resist them, not because they’re unnecessary, or not good for us, but mainly because they’re a pain in the arse. They just aren’t as fun as activities which we voluntarily pursue.

There is often a heavy sense of obligation with these tasks – a feeling that we have to do them.

Rather than motivate us to action, this obligation of have to becomes a millstone around our necks, dragging us down and creating resentment around the task, and usually around the fact we haven’t already done it.

Reframing the obligation

James Clear wrote a compelling piece around reframing the have to to get to.

Instead of “I have to wash the car”, we reframe it as “I get to wash the car”. Instead of focussing on the obligation, we can explore the advantages of completing the task over letting it sit undone. The obligation then becomes an opportunity and we can approach the task in a more open, skilful way.

Why bother?

This might have a touch of the “work will set you free” about it, but it’s important for two reasons:

  • Your own happiness – You might not choose whether or not something needs to be done, but you certainly get to choose how your feel about doing it. If you’re going to be completing the task anyway, why torture yourself by being resentful the whole time? Either reframe it, or stop bitching about it and change something.
  • Your ability to operate skilfully – When we’re in a resentful or defensive frame of mind, it blinds us to the options which are available to us. This self-imposed tunnel vision means that we can only see the what we’re already familiar with. But we can loosen up this tunnel vision and broaden our perspective on a challenge by asking ourselves “If I chose to look at this as an opportunity, what might I see, which I’m missing now?”

The best thing about this reframing is that it only takes a second and it’s completely within our own control. In fact, the entire point of the exercise is to get our ego out of our way by giving it something to control.

Taking charge of the things which are within our sphere of influence, however small they may seem, is one step down a path which helps us avoid resenting the necessary obligations.

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