The power of one word

Recently I’ve noticed one word taking charge over the inner-diatribes in my head:


Even as I write that four-letter word my stomach begins to cringe and my chest tightens. There’s just something about the word ‘need’…

It instinctively makes me hold my breath and unconsciously raises my heart-rate.

It’s all too tempting to use the word ‘need’ recklessly – and to forget the true meaning of need.

I need some dark chocolate, I caught myself saying the day after Thanksgiving. Those words were shortly followed by another dangerous phrase, I need to watch The Crown.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that my body really needed the nutrients from a piece of dark chocolate. But did I need to watch television? Nope. The Crown is a treat, not a necessity. I get to watch The Crown. I get to eat delicious chocolate anytime I have a craving – provided that chocolate is available.

Just the thought of being in need triggers an unconscious chain of worry in my mind. Before I realize what’s happening, I find myself in a swirl of anxiety over the endless list of tasks that ‘need’ to be completed.

In the alternate scenario, when using the word ‘get,’ we feel grateful and privileged for an opportunity or gift.

Switching ‘need’ for ‘get’ is the simplest gratitude practice there is.

This little habit has the power to rewire our brains. Our choice in words have the power to shape our thoughts and emotions. Even a choice as simple as switching one four-letter word for another. Brain scientists Newberg and Waldman recently published a book with the evocative title Words can change your brain. The book explains that “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes.”

Phew! So I’m not the only person alive who struggles with word choice in her head.

The trouble with cutting ‘need’ out of our vocabulary is that it’s much easier said than done. When my to-do lists starts to overflow – which let’s be real is all the freaking time – I stop seeing each activity in my day as a privilege. The longer the list gets, the more quickly ‘need’ sneaks itself back into my thoughts…

If the only thing on my to-do list were groceries, then I’d be able to enjoy the privilege of shopping in a modern grocery store filled with exotic delicacies and unfamiliar ingredients in nearly every aisle.

Except, I can’t even remember the last time I allowed myself to enjoy grocery shopping. Why? Because the other tasks on my unyielding list of errands look like Mount Kilimanjaro.

I’m committed to reforming the habit of ‘need’ into a habit of gratitude. This tiny little shift in thinking has a big impact on two of my favorite topics: nurturing our wellbeing while improving our productivity.

Personally I’m still struggling with adopting this new habit. But I’ve found one-way to harness my energy positively and frame my day’s work from a place of privilege instead of need:

Create a judicious to-do list.

Here’s a play-by-play of my default approach to creating a to-do list:

I wake-up in the morning and stare at a comprehensive to-do list. More tasks pop into my head while thinking of all the things I need to do: for my office, for my family, for my daily routines, for my big projects, for my friends.

Everything is added to the bottom of the list.

All day I feel like I’m behind. I’m motivated by a constant frenetic energy, trying to slay my to-do list.

Eager to check off boxes, I start with the easiest tasks on my list. ‘Wins’ that I can knock out of the park without too much problem-solving. I end up procrastinating on the most important projects – work that requires more thoughtfulness and skin in the game.

Every chance I have for a break, my mind circles about the tasks ahead. How am I ever going to get through everything? Where will I find the time? Instead of recharging, my energy drains…

… and before I know it, it’s the end of the day. All I can see is how little I moved the needle on my to-do list.

Sound at all familiar? ; )

Here’s a play-by-play of creating a focused to-do list:

Winding down the night before, reflect on two questions:

  1. What absolutely must be completed tomorrow?
  2. Is someone waiting for you to do something?

Nothing you want to do goes on this list. Nothing you would like to do goes on this list. Only tasks with immediate deadlines go on this list.

Then ask this key strategic question:

‘What’s the most important thing you get to do tomorrow?’

(Notice the operative word here!)

List the top 2-4 projects that would move the needle the most. Putting the most daunting or challenging right at the start of the list.

Reflecting on what you ‘get’ to do automatically sets-up your brain to remember why you’re taking on a task in the first place. Maybe setting-up a Christmas tree is a small way of expressing care to your loved ones. Maybe you’re facing a difficult project at work, which you’ve taken on an opportunity to develop new skills. Maybe e-mail isn’t your favorite, but you recognize that it’s a necessary task to move forward on more meaningful work. (Raising my hand on this one!)

If you’re at all like me, remembering ‘why’ is the ultimate motivator – and key to productivity. Even though our culture is talking about ‘gratitude’ more and more, it’s stunningly easy to overlook the power of ‘get’ and to disconnect from the meaning behind our everyday tasks.

Knowing your purpose leads to greater presence – at home and in the workplace. When know that our brains struggle to get into ‘flow’ state when anxiousness takes over. When the 12 other tasks on your to-do list are all vying for your attention in the back of your head, you’re robbed of the ability to focus calmly on the task at hand.

So this holiday season, when gratitude is on the mind, let’s redefine the meaning of ‘go-getter.’ A real go-getter isn’t someone who’s selfishly pursuing her or his own agenda, fighting through mountains of tasks and slaying away all day. That kind of go-getter is on a path to burn out, conflict and exhaustion.

Let’s redefine a go-getter as someone who knows the joy-stealing consequences of ‘need’. A real go-getter is powered by their why. A go-getter is grateful for the journey.

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