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Three Buckets“When I don’t know how to take a next biz step…I revert to my safety of what I’m good at,” a colleague, whom I greatly respect, recently lamented. She had just attended a conference where she had been exposed to lots of new marketing information.

We sure are good at making things difficult for ourselves by staying in a place of what is known and comfortable. Sound familiar?

Brain science has proven that the instinctual areas of our brain automatically go to work when we sense danger and the unknown.  When we’re faced with physical danger, this autonomic brain function helps us take action and survive.  However, when we are in other new, unknown territory at work or in social situations, this survival mechanism can freeze us from moving forward toward situations that may create more joy and meaning in our lives.  Listening to my colleague talk, I heard her making a judgment that she “should” be doing something differently.  Positive psychology research calls this a “negative motivator,” which will make taking successful action very difficult.  By contrast, our lives become more meaningful when we have “positive motivators” in our daily routine.

A Motivation Exercise

Here’s an exercise that will put these concepts to work.  The first task is to identify something that you’ve considered doing for some time, but haven’t yet taken action on.  Take a piece of paper and write a statement describing the situation and what you’re feeling about it.  Notice the words you use to describe this issue.  For instance, my friend wrote, “I know that for my business to create a healthy income, I will be carrying out on-going marketing tasks.  At the conference I learned about internet social marketing and writing a book as ways to market, and since it’s worked for others maybe I “should” be doing these, too.  I spent all that money on the conference; I better make use of what I learned.  But I hate the idea of spending more time every day on the computer.  I’d much rather be talking to people in person.  I’ve loved the talks I’ve given to local groups in the past, and I did find new clients through those in-person speaking engagements.”

The 3 Buckets

Now, imagine that there are 3 buckets for sorting our actions: the Musts, Wants and Shoulds.

The Musts are the things that are basic requirements of life like brushing your teeth, paying the bills, going to work to support your family, caregiving for children and elders.

The Wants are things that you love to do, are passionate about, that give you pleasure or a sense of well being and you’re easily drawn toward spending time doing.

In the third bucket are the Shoulds.  These are the activities that you think about performing with disdain, and may find that you procrastinate on doing.

So your second task is to review the activities you’ve described in the exercise above and decide in which bucket they fit. Here are the buckets my friend created:




I must make an income from my business. I love talking to local groups about my field of expertise which is also my passion I have to market
I should use internet social marketing
I should write a book as a marketing strategy


The trick to working with The Three Buckets is moderating the amount of time spent with the Must activities and reducing the number of Shoulds in our lives.  When these two buckets are adequately managed, you’ll spend more of your time with Want activities that give you energy and a sense of time well spent.  Positive psychology recommends that we minimize the time spent on Musts in our lives to the extent possible, leaving more time to be spent in activities that increase our sense of well being. Reducing the Shoulds will also increase the meaningful time spent in your life.

There are two steps to reduce the Shoulds.  First, identify the Shoulds and assess whether doing each will contribute something positive to your life.  If the answer is no, it’s time to drop it off your To Do list.  When the answer is yes, the second step is to consider if there is another way of doing the task that will turn it into a Must or Want.

My friend decided that more time alone on the computer definitely wouldn’t contribute to her life, so she decided to drop internet social marketing from her list.  However, she did enjoy writing.  She realized that she could join a writing group with a friend.  This approach to the activity would give her a buddy, as well as social and technical support to try out writing as a new form of marketing.  It might also open the door to publishing newsletters or articles in the short term, plus ultimately lead to completing a book.

Here are the changes my friend made to her buckets:




I must make an income from my business. I love talking to local groups about my field of expertise which is also my passion, so I will use talks to groups as my main marketing tool for new clients.
I am exploring how to use writing as a marketing strategy.  I’m using my buddy and a writing group for support.  I will start by writing articles on topics I enjoy and can use for current marketing distribution.  I’ll see how these articles might be developed into a book over time.


When you catch yourself feeling uncomfortable with a decision that is confronting you, it’s a good time to stop and reflect before acting.   Use this simple Three Bucket process that I successfully use for myself and my clients.  Look at what’s going on and get some clarity about your options.  You’ll find yourself making choices that bring more energy and meaning to your life!

I encourage each of you to keep the vision of what you WANT for yourself that will create positive outcomes for you, your family, your community and the world. Don’t put your life on hold because change is uncomfortable. Give me a call at 707.824.8836 or email me at and let’s talk over what’s on your mind.