The process of deciding to step away from medicine was fraught with confusion. Why had I decided to become a doctor in the first place? If I had made a suboptimal decision once, what was to stop me from doing so again? Those questions haunted me.
Life coach Michael Neill lays out 3 motivations for anything and everything we do:
- “I have to” – in other words, desperation
- “I should” – in other words, rationalisation
- “I want to” – in other words, inspiration
This paradigm resonated with me greatly and it now plays a role in almost every significant decision I face.
While there’s a time and a place for desperation and rationalisation, overusing them means I rely on fear, worry, obligation and guilt. I don’t believe these are healthy or sustainable states from which to create my future.
Let’s explore each of the 3 motivations in a little more depth.
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1. “I have to”
One might assume that most of the time, “I have to” stems from some genuine emergency. For instance, a safety concern, health crisis, or impending bankruptcy. Yet, at least in my experience, this doesn’t hold true.
Somewhere along the line, I learnt an unhealthy motivational hack: I started to believe that fear is an appropriate tool for getting more done. Still today, I habitually drum up a sense of frenzied urgency in order to tackle the tasks in front of me.
“I really have to get the groceries done this morning.”
Although it is important to do the groceries, I now appreciate the distorting power of the words “I have to”. Those words rob me of choice and personal responsibility, paving the way for desperation to rule over my emotional landscape.
Luckily, I haven’t had to make many significant decisions from this state of being. That’s because most of my essential needs – food, shelter, physical safety – are taken care of. This frees me up to make a choice.
Therefore, when I say “I need to”, I am often seeing reality through a self-constructed frame of victimhood and powerlessness.
2. “I should”
Creating my life using the words “I should” means constantly ceding my personal agency to some internalised authority. For example:
“I really should go visit my aunt this weekend.”
I may not want to go see my aunt, but I would feel guilty if I didn’t. Guilt is the main vehicle of such rationalisations borne from the mind.
However, there is an important distinction to make:
- Using “I should” when I do authentically want to do something, but I’ve lost touch with the felt sense of desire within me. This often happens when an unresourceful state (fatigue, stress, numbness) is disconnecting me from my core values. I then turn to “should” as a form of self-discipline. This isn’t the worst thing, but reframing this as “I choose to” is often much more energising.
- Using “I should” when I don’t want to do something, but I’ve learnt to motivate myself through guilt and obligation. In this case, I’m not walking to the beat of my own drum. When it comes to making big decisions, this is one to be weary of – I might just end up living someone else’s life.
3. “I want to”
If worry, fear and guilt are the least effective states to move forward in, what’s left? The answer is inspiration, excitement, joy and authentic desire.
Children are natural pros at making decisions. All day long, they run around getting inspired to do so many different things. They’re little wanting machines, and it’s a joy to observe.
“How do you have the energy to jump on that trampoline so late in the evening?” I ask, wearily.
“I don’t know… I just want to!”
To that child, “I want to” is all the explanation they owe themselves. Or anybody else for that matter.
But when we mature socially, we risk losing touch with our authentic desire. It takes effort to keep the inner child alive and stay connected with gleeful states like play and wonder.
Of course, creating a future from these states may evoke fear, doubt, guilt and insecurity:
“Could I really do that?“
“Wouldn’t it be embarrassing?”
“Wouldn’t it be self-indulgent?”
When these questions bubble up as a secondary reaction to inspiration, I can reframe them as evidence of a winning idea. Not winning in the sense that I’ll achieve x metric of worldly success, but in the sense that I’ll be honouring my spirit. Is there a greater win?
As an example, I really want organise a solo wild camping trip in Norway one day. The idea gives rise to a fair amount of anxiety, but the primary feeling is excitement, wonder and possibility. It’s something I’m inspired to try; something I know I want to do.
That’s the best place to create my future from.
Here’s a simple 3-part reflection to try out based on the above decision-making framework:
- Review past decisions: which decisions made you who you are today? How do you feel about those decisions today? If you notice a feeling of regret, stay with that.
- Notice patterns: when you made each decision, which primary state was alive in you? Was it joy, play, inspiration, fearful desperation, cold rationalisation, or something else? Consider any patterns around how you arrived at an answer.
- Explore forks in the road: in light of the above, consider opportunities ahead of you today. As you hold the options in mind, drop into your body and connect with your breath. What happens? Do you become tense or heavy? Do you want to hide under the covers? Or perhaps you note lightness or expansiveness. The dominant feeling can offer major clues about what to do.
If you’re not getting a read, try carving out time to reconnect with yourself. For instance, I regularly do nothing for extended periods of time – that means no input, no screens, no busywork of any kind. I just sit, meditate, or do something else that brings me home to my body.
The world is changing – it’s becoming obvious to me that we don’t need more people to simply follow their heads. We also need people who can listen to their hearts. That said, I wish you happy decision-making from the bottom of my own.