You Don’t *Have* to do Anything (You Always Have a Choice)

Hate is an appropriately strong word to describe the late Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s feelings towards writing clinical reports.

As a clinical psychologist, these reports were par for the course. Everyone did them.

Yet Dr. Rosenberg knew the reports were not serving his clients enough to merit the painstaking time and effort he put into them.

So if it wasn’t worth it, why was he still doing them?

In an effort to understand his actions, Dr. Rosenberg reflected on his motivations with a simple pen-and-paper exercise.

What he realized through this exercise was surprising! Although he hated filling out clinical reports, he was still acting by his own free will. He had chosen to do the reports in order to get the income they provided.

After understanding this motivator, and knowing that he could make his income in other ways, Dr. Rosenberg decided then and there to never write another clinical report.

You Always Have a Choice

This might not be a comfortable reality to confront, but people do things they don’t enjoy doing because they choose to do them!

Some people feel that they “have to” do certain things in life.

But in reality, there’s no such thing as “having to” do something! Nobody controls your actions but you.

Saying “I do this because I have to” is a way of shirking responsibility by blaming others.

And when you blame others, it disconnects you from being an active participant in your life. Suddenly you feel as if you’re being controlled by others. And nobody likes to feel controlled.

The alternative here is to take responsibility for the actions you perform on a daily basis. (Like Dr. Rosenberg did with his clinical reports.)

This can be difficult when you are doing something that you don’t enjoy. But here’s where it gets fun: owning your actions has the potential to fundamentally transform your experience.

Why you do Something Shapes Your Experience

The reason why you choose to do something significantly impacts how you feel about doing it.

As Dr. Rosenberg explains in his legendary book, Nonviolent Communication:

“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.”

On the flip side, something that normally brings you joy can do the opposite when you do it out of fear, guilt, shame, or obligation.

It’s not a surprising insight: you enjoy things more when you choose to do them.

The power of the insight comes when you apply it to parts of your life that don’t currently light you up.

Take Responsibility to Bring Light Into any Situation

Knowing that why you do something changes your experience, you have the opportunity to bring more light and playfulness into activities that currently bring you down.

And there’s a simple exercise you can do to get this process started. Paraphrasing Dr. Rosenberg’s words in Nonviolent Communication, there are three steps to this exercise:

1) Note What you Don’t Enjoy

Make a list of things in your life that you don’t experience any sense of playfulness while doing. (e.g. Taking out the trash.)

2) Accept Your Responsibility

Embrace that every item on this list is something you choose to do…Not something you’re forced to do. Write the words “I choose to…” in front of each of the items on your list. (e.g. I choose to take out the trash.)

3) Identify Your Motivation

Get clear on your intention for doing each of the things on your list. Add “…because I want to _________” at the end of each listed item. (e.g. I choose to take out the trash because I want to live in a clean and comfortable environment.)

Knowing this motivation, you can hold that in mind as you do whatever it is you’re doing. In this way, you connect with the purpose of your actions, and open up the opportunity to enjoy the experience more.

Watch-Out: Motivators That Don’t Enrich Life

One of the central premises of Nonviolent Communication is that we benefit by focusing on doing things that enrich life in yourself and others. (Doing this by focusing on meeting unfulfilled universal human needs that you or others have.)

As you complete this exercise, watch out for the following motivators, which Dr. Rosenberg warned do not enrich life.

  1. Money: Money is an external reward, not an actual a human need. Basing decisions on a desire for reward means that decision isn’t rooted in contributing to meeting a human need.
  2. Approval: Approval from other people is an extrinsic reward (like money.) As such, it is disconnected from the goal to help enrich life by
  3. Escaping punishment: Doing something to avoid punishment is a surefire way to dread that task. It’s divorced from helping others meet their needs.
  4. Avoiding shame: When doing something to avoid shame, you’re likely to dislike that activity.
  5. Avoiding guilt: There’s a big difference between doing something with the intention of helping someone meet their needs, and doing something for someone to avoid guilt.
  6. A Sense of Duty/Obligation: There’s no such thing as “should” or “have to”. You always have a choice.

Living a Life of Play and Meaning

With awareness that everything you do is in fact a choice, you have the opportunity to shift your narrative.

Instead of pointing fingers of blame at external parties that “make” you do something, you can get clear on the reasons why you want to do what you’re doing.

It’s not always comfortable to own up to your actions. But doing so puts you back in the driver’s seat in life.

And it gives you a chance to connect with the sense of meaning, and the playful spirit that’s accessible in everything you do.