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Matt Wilcox


Sep 06th 2016

Should vs Want

A blog post from some months ago, which I never published. Here it is, finally published.


It's the end of another day at work and I've almost finished the brief walk home. I pass along a pavement full of discarded sweet wrappers, broken toys, and other detritus familiar to all who dwell on a wind swept council-estate. Half the houses are privately owned now, half not. The council ones all have newer fascias, guttering, and doors, and a clean lick of paint on the walls - so do half of the private ones, but the other half can't afford it - and look as you would expect old bare pebble-dash and flaking wooden trimmings to look. Mine's one of those. I open my rusted and squeaky garden gate, walk up the deteriorating concrete path, unlock and step through the ageing uPVC front door (the seals of which don't meet, allowing the strong coastal winds in), and I step into my quiet, empty, house.

I am confronted by my own reflection in a 3/4 length wood framed mirror as I take off my coat (dumping it messily on the stair banister; because the 1950's post-war architect, scrimping and saving on materials, left no place for a coat rack while he was also busily making every room not quite the right size or layout to be of full practical use given the square footage it manages to take up). I take off my worn-out shoes, slinging them into the strange 'cupboard' space - now occupied by a leaking washing machine, new combi-boiler, and various garden implements. I try not to scratch the flooring any further as I fight the terribly fitted folding-door closed again, banishing the contents of the weird alcove out of sight.

I put my keys on a small oak side-table I made three years ago during a hand-tool woodwork class that I truly loved.

I wonder what I should do tonight.

There's a list of house improvements and essential maintenance as long as my arm but not the budget to do much of it for quite a while. There's a load of stuff that could do with tidying and re-organising; because two years after moving in a lot of stuff is still packed up and in the way. There are half a dozen technical books I should read to help keep me up-to-date with work skills. There are another half dozen technical books which ostensibly are for my enjoyment but somehow remain only partly read after a couple of years. And another half dozen sci-fi and fantasy books I want to read but haven't gotten around to. I should be learning JavaScript more thoroughly, and I should be getting the garden ready for planting vegetables. I should be varnishing the bedroom door I fitted months ago. I should be looking at how much it'll cost to get a carpet fitted in the master bedroom so I can finally move into that room - I now live in a three bed semi-detached, ready for a family it looks like I wont have, and only one bedroom is usable. I should be booking the car in for a service, and the boiler in for a service. I should be cooking a good meal or planning the shopping so I can make one tomorrow, because I know the skipping breakfast and toast for lunch thing is bad. I should be getting back on the body-weight exercises, so I can get back onto the kettle-bell exercises, so I feel healthy and energetic again. I should be making use of the bike my granddad gave me, and which I enjoy riding, but has been neglected over the dark winter evenings. I should clean the bathroom, and I should try to meditate again.

I should be trying to find things to do socially now I'm single again and have no friends in the local area (these two issues aren't linked).

But all of that is a lot of effort, and some of it is quite scary, and I'm standing in the hall after a long day, avoiding looking at my own reflection. Staring into space.

I wonder what I should do. The quiet stillness is all that answers me.

Even thinking through the list is tiring and deflating. I go into the kitchen, with the awful un-even tiled floor that needs replacing, take out a frozen meal I made days ago, heat it up, and watch some YouTube videos while I eat.

Suddenly it is 10pm. I have done nothing I should do; I'm too tired to concentrate on the learning stuff, too deflated to exercise. Trying to read one of my 'books for enjoyment' doesn't go well because while I'm trying to read I feel like I should be making a dent in the huge list of things I should be doing instead. Or sleeping. It's late now. But I'm tense, and my brain won't stop spinning.

I can't concentrate enough to learn, and I can't seem to relax. I distract myself instead, achieving nothing I should. I try to avoid thinking about the myriad topics that cause me anxiety spikes while I wait for sleep to take hold. It's not working well so I put on a podcast and listen to people I've never met talk about whatever they talk about. I imagine I'm there. I fall asleep.

Should vs Want

I realise I have a problem. I recognise this place. I am being driven by should and I don't recognise any wants. It's a broken mental model.

So lets re-frame. What do I want to do?

It's a question I find hard to answer with anything concrete. What do I want? Happiness. Contentment. Security. Nebulous things. I have very few specific wants that I can do anything about, and those I have seem hidden in the shadow of a tower of things I should do.

I am aware that - luckily - all of my troubles come from thinking of the past, or imagined futures that come about through things I can't be expected to control. I don't actually have much in the here-and-now causing immediate problems. I avoid thinking too much about the past because I'm not ready to do that yet, and my mind constantly spins about the future. Thinking of the future is where anxiety lives.

I know I need to live in the moment more; I know that part of the happiness I felt the last few years wasn't just because I was in a good relationship, but was because while I was in that relationship I was not ruminating on the past or imagining the scary possibilities of the future. I was much more living in the moment.

I need to build myself back up again, and I am accepting of that. I've done it before, I know it's something I can do.

But I need to do it through wanting to do specific things. Not feeling pressured to do things to avoid possible future problems. My trouble with thinking about the future is there is always a way I can imagine something going horribly wrong, and feel like I have to plan for, and do something to avoid. The list of anxieties is literally endless - no matter how well prepared I am, or how little an issue is under my control, I can and will make more worries in my mind because the future is always uncertain. And born from that is an infinite list of should and shouldn't.

I need to figure out small things in the here-and-now that make me happy. Wants. And I think I've realised that want's are immediate. They live in the now. Which is where I hardly spend any head-time these days.


It's the end of another day at work and I've almost finished the brief walk home. I pass the messy pavement. I open my garden gate, walk up the path, and step into my quiet, empty, house. I take off my coat, take off my shoes, put my keys on the side-table.

I wonder what I want do tonight. I'm not sure. But - I pause for a second, close my eyes, silence my mind... and realise I'm hungry. Not conceptually or habitually, like normal - but I actually pay attention to the feeling this time.

I move into the kitchen and gaze into space - what should I make? I pause. No. What flavours do I want to taste? I imagine some possibilities, actually trying to experience these things in my mind rather than think about them as abstracts like I normally would. Yes; I want something with vegetables. I pull some ingredients out of the cupboards and start making some food. I remember to be involved with the cooking; I smell the spices, I taste the ingredients, I work my brain and keep it on the task at hand. I eat a nice fresh meal and realise I haven't thought about my future worries for a whole 30 minutes. And I feel more grounded.

What should I do now? Well, I should wash the dishes - and I make that concession to the offensive S word while imagining myself... reading a book with a glass of whisky? Maybe. Ticking off one of my to-do list items? No. Fuck that tonight. I felt the dip in my gut just at the thought.

I look outside through the misted window that needs replacing. The sky is a clear and bright blue, my skin feels warm in the sunlight, and I feel like I ate something good. I have a bit more energy than normal. I decide to go for a jog, and I smile. I smile again as I put my trainers on. I'm going for a jog, and it's making me smile. I do a quick half hour along the coast, passing moored fishing boats, cyclists, dog walkers and clouds of gulls. The sea doesn't smell much today, and I maintain my pace just at the peak of what I can sustain. I feel tiredness begin to build and my lungs burn... I back off slightly and keep going. The goal is to do half an hour none stop - the pace is irrelevent I remind myself - only half convinced. 30min passes and I slow down, stop my timer, and smile - 5.6km. Way off my best from years ago... but 5.6 more than yesterday. I walk back... I feel better. Much better. I've done something I wanted, *and* from the should list. I get home and decide if I'm sweaty already I may as well get some upper body work in - I do some push ups, chin-ups, and crunches. I'm knackard. Walking up the stairs feels like someone put gravity on 1.5Gs. I feel good that I feel knackard.

I want a shower. I have a shower. I want a hot chocolate... I get a hot chocolate. It tastes good, I know because I've sat down - sunk into the sofa, felt the tiredness in my body, relaxed, and paid attention to it all. And the steam coming off the mug is something I watch for a few seconds, the tiny particles drifting upward, the heat flowing into my hands, the smell... 

I get into bed feeling good, and tired, and like I've achieved something worthwhile.

Little things. Contentment is all about paying attention to the little things in the moment, and perspective shifts which encourage that.

Want doesn't live in the future as big ideas and concepts. Not really. That's where should lives, disguised as want. Want lives in the now. It's much simpler, but it's simple voice is quiet and I have to remember to reign back the shouting of should.