What Do You Really Have to Do?


I have to go grocery shopping. I have to schedule a doctor’s appointment. I have to do laundry. I have to go to work. I have to put gas in the car. I have to grade these tests. I have to take the kids to baseball practice. I have to walk the dog. I have to get in touch with so-and-so….

Do your days sound like this? I’m sure one glance at your calendar could create quite a list. Does it ever seem like your days are a long series of have tos? But how much of it are you really choosing? What if we swapped the words have to for choose to?

Of course, we are affected by external circumstances and we don’t make our choices without impacting others or being influenced by them. To be clear, this is not a post about having a better attitude. I’m not going to advise you to quit complaining and be grateful for what you have. I’m not going to tell you what you have to do or what I think you should choose.

Instead, would you take a few minutes with me to become aware of the choices we’re making and explore the reasons we’re making them? Where do the choices we make reflect our priorities and values? Are there areas where we’re acting like victims instead of taking responsibility for what we choose?

There’s very little we actually have to do—eat, sleep, breath, use the bathroom… Most of us have things we do out of a sense of obligation or duty. We choose to do things we find less than completely enjoyable because we want the consequences doing them brings or want to avoid the consequences of not doing them.

I do not like washing dishes. I would never choose to wash dishes for the activity itself. But I do want the consequences of having washed the dishes. I want to eat off of clean dishes. I want my kitchen to be free of mess, stink, mold, and flies. I want to be able to welcome guests without embarrassment.

So I choose to wash my dishes. (Although I have to admit I still usually say I have to wash the dishes…).

Changing our words may seem like a small thing, but it can make a big difference in our mindset and encourage us to examine more closely why we actually do the things we do.

In the book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg shares some interesting thoughts about the motives behind our choices. He writes:

An important form of self-compassion is to make choices motivated purely by our desire to contribute to life rather than out of fear, guilt, shame, duty, or obligation. When we are conscious of the life-enriching purpose behind an action we take, when the sole energy that motivates us is simply to make life wonderful for others and ourselves, then even hard work has an element of play in it. Correspondingly, an otherwise joyful activity performed out of obligation, duty, fear, guilt, or shame will lose its joy and eventually engender resistance.

This simple switch from have to to choose to reminds us we don’t have to let our lives be decided for us. The choices we make build the life we’re living.

What are you choosing? Let’s take a look…

Make a list of things you have to do. Notice when you say have to as you go about your day. Don’t worry if you catch yourself saying have to a lot. The point isn’t to police our language so much as it is to notice where we might be feeling stuck.

Swap out the words I have to for I choose to Try making the switch and notice how it feels. It’s totally natural to feel some resistance coming up. Stepping into greater self-responsibility isn’t easy.

Now identify what you want in making that choice. What are the benefits? Do your motivations line up with you priorities and values? Or are they something else? Rosenberg reminds us we “might uncover motivations for money, for approval, to escape punishment, to avoid shame, to avoid guilt, to satisfy a sense of duty…know the price you pay for them.”

How do you feel when you switch the words have to for choose to? What if you turn it around and say I’m not going to choose to … anymore? Do you feel relief, sadness, resentment, guilt, empowerment…? Whatever feelings come up don’t necessarily indicate what you should choose, but looking at what’s behind those feelings can bring clarity around why you’re choosing the way you are.

Maybe upon examination you decide to keep making the same choices—wonderful! Hopefully becoming more aware of the choices you’re making and your reasons for making them will make it easier to find satisfaction and even enjoyment in the things you are choosing. Just because we use have to to talk about something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we don’t want.

If, on the other hand, there’s something you don’t want to choose anymore, what are some ways you can start to make a change? What will you choose instead?

How was this exercise for you? Are you able to identify the motivations behind your choices? What do you think of exchanging have to for choose to? I definitely appreciate it can bring up some resistance.