I have to go to this conference next month.

Man, I can’t skip the committee meeting tonight.

I have so much I have to get done around the house.

Have you ever stopped to pay attention to how many “have to’s” there are in your life? If you’re like most people, your brain is crowded with an ongoing list of obligations, commitments, and appointments that leave you feeling trapped. No matter how much you may want to, you feel like you can’t make real changes in your life because there just isn’t any margin to do anything new or different.

The Reality

What if I told you that all those things you “have to do” are actually a series of choices? That you can change those choices and make dramatic improvement in your level of satisfaction? At first you might think I was a little bit crazy, but the truth is, almost everything we do is a choice.

We choose to respond to emails, and when and how we do so. We choose to pay our bills on time, or not, and join committees, and how much we participate. We even choose to pay our taxes. There are consequences for each of these choices – some of them intended and some unintended. If we change our choice, we may change the consequence. Sometimes the change is positive and sometimes it’s negative.  Some consequences might be extremely severe, like going to prison for tax evasion. But, at the end of the day, each choice is still ours to make.

Having Choices Changes Things

At this point, you might be saying, “Everything’s a choice, so what?”

If the things you do (and don’t do) are choices, you always have the power to choose differently. Just recognizing that fact allows you to evaluate the choices you’re making in a new light. You free yourself to determine if what you’re doing is really working for you.

If it isn’t, rather than feeling trapped by your circumstances, you’ll be open to all new possibilities. Creative solutions that have evaded you in the past will suddenly appear as no-brainers. Don’t believe me? Take a recent example from one of my clients…

This woman, a busy professional with a demanding career and young child, was increasingly frustrated that she “had to do everything” around the house in the evenings, including her husband’s laundry.

“What if you didn’t do it?” I asked.

“I have to,” she said. “If I didn’t, he wouldn’t have anything to wear because he wouldn’t do it.”

“So, you’re choosing to do it so he will have something to wear.”

“I guess.”

“Is that a choice that’s working for you?”

“No. I’m angry and resentful. I’m tired. I’ve had it.”

I asked her to look for another choice she could make in her life that might lead to a better result for her (and her family). When we spoke next, I could tell she was excited.

“Guess what? When I realized it was my choice to do the laundry, and that I really want to keep doing it as part of my contribution to the family, I was able to see a clear solution. I bought more shirts. Now my husband doesn’t have to do without and I don’t have to feel rushed or exhausted during the week. I can do the laundry on the weekend when I feel more relaxed. I can’t believe I didn’t see this before!”

You might choose a different solution than she did. That’s part of the beauty of recognizing the power of choice – the results are totally individualized.

You may also discover that you wouldn’t really change the choices you’re currently making. For instance, I do certain things in my life because they matter to me, like maintaining an orderly home, responding to emails promptly, and participating on several committees and boards. When I feel trapped by the choices, or fall into the trap of thinking “I have to” do them, I remind myself I can choose differently if I want. When I choose to keep going the same way, I remind myself why and find my motivation renewed.

Try It for Yourself

We all feel trapped, overwhelmed or frustrated from time to time, but it’s up to us to make the changes necessary to get ourselves unstuck. Why not try it now? Identify one area of your life where you feel stuck or hopeless. See if you can identify the choices you’re making in those areas. Ask yourself if you want to make a different choice, or if you just need to remember why you made this choice in the first place. If you want to make a change, begin to imagine what would be possible if you chose differently.

Our lives are a series of choices and the results of those choices. To make lasting change, start by making small adjustments to the choices you make each day.