“I should” vs. “I could”

"I should" vs. "I could"

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“Don’t ‘should’ on yourself” is a popular saying these days. You probably know people who can’t get the word “should” out of their vocabularies, who never feel they do enough and are chronically down on themselves for what they haven’t done yet. Perhaps you’re a chronic “should” speaker yourself.

Perhaps you’re even thinking as you read this, “She’s right; I should stop saying ‘should’ all the time.” Whoops!

Just as it’s hard to learn a new language as an adult, it’s hard to banish a habitual word from your vocabulary. One of the better ways is to replace it with something that sounds similar but means something different. (Aren’t we lucky to speak English, which has so many options for doing just that?)

In the case of “should,” a good replacement word is “could,” which changes the implication from obligation to free will, from guilt to opportunity. It’s not just a matter of changing a single word—that one word will affect everything that follows it. You can say, “I should go back to school,” and your brain will find the subsequent logical chain of thought to be “... but I don’t have money for more education, and it would take two or three years, and I’d probably just flunk out and that time and money would all be for nothing ...” Or you can say, “I could go back to school,” and your brain will hear “I know I can do it and will get a lot out of it,” and will start considering your options and growing them into goals.

Should implies, “I’m a jerk if I don’t, but then I already know I’m a jerk.” Could implies “I’m an intelligent person who was made for opportunities.”

Should is negative. Could is positive.

Should focuses on your (and the world’s) shortcomings. Could steers your attention (and your future) to possibilities.

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In the course of a typical day, how often do you say “I should” out loud or to yourself? Try counting them and, if “tired and irritable and overloaded” describes the way you feel much of the time, I’m willing to bet there will be a lot of them. Practice replacing those “shoulds” with “coulds,” and see if your real values and priorities don’t take back their rightful ground in your life.

Here are a few lifehacks to help the process along:

Keep a journal. Putting your thoughts in writing will let you see which way the balance of your mind leans on “should” vs. “could.” It will also provide a record of your progress to encourage you for the long term.
Even if you said the “I should” in your heart, say the “I could” out loud. This puts double emphasis and extra strength where it belongs.
Don’t “should” on others, either—not even on traffic engineers, authors, or politicians who won’t hear you, and especially not on anyone who will. This goes double for parents: help your children learn “I could” language while they’re young, so they’ll grow up to speak it naturally and further reduce the toxic “should” level of the world.