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‘Should’ rarely leads to behavior change

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As many of us know, behavior change can only be done via baby steps. It’s not done through some grand moment of realization. It’s done by making one small change and keeping at it. I’ve used this idea to fuel plenty of successes in my life. Losing and keeping off 40 pounds. Running 100 mile races. Running fast 1 mile races.

But there’s another word many people use to influence behavior.


You should lose weight. You should stop smoking. You should write tests for your code. You should sleep more.

Unfortunately, should has too much moralistic fiber. ‘Should’ can be replaced with ‘ought’. ‘Ought’ is the paradigmatic example of a moral word. And while morally-loaded words can enforce behavior (or restrict it) – they rarely change it. They are words of conformity. Behavior change is not conformity.

For many people the moralistic nature of the word ‘should’ is loaded with judgement and shame. Sometimes that prevents people from acting. Stopping change before it starts.

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