Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Dear Higher Ed: Stop ‘Shoulding’​ Yourself


I should be further along in my career.

I should have posted something yesterday. 

I should be more organized.

I should get through these 500 emails.

I should have said no to this request.

I should create a TikTok.

I should know what I’m doing by now.

I should…

Stop “shoulding” yourself. 

Shoulding is “the cognitive distortion of making statements of what should be true, as opposed to reality,” as coined by psychologist Clayton Barbeau.

It doesn’t mean that some of the statements above don’t have merit, but when you add them up back-to-back, you are robbing yourself of the gift of grace.

Higher education is a field overflowing with high achieving and competitive professionals. In return, leadership expects high standards – at times, no matter the cost.

We do it for the students. We do whatever it takes. We take “should” statements as directives instead of discerning where these shoulds even came from in the first place. 

Higher education – stop shoulding all over yourself. 

Higher education professionals — and many other industries — need to disrupt the shoulding.

Think about just today: what are some should statements that you’ve said out loud or in your head? What shoulds have you heard from leadership? From the industry? 

I’m writing to you today specifically about the shoulds related to digital communications, from email to social media and digital marketing. Communications professionals and public-facing leaders tapped to activate these tools are getting “shoulded on” all the time.

Sometimes the shoulds are all in your own head. For example: 

  • Your Instagram should have more followers.
  • You should make time for a live video. 
  • You should be able to get out a newsletter weekly.
  • You should be doing more (fill in the blank).

Or the shoulds from leaders given to communication pros:

  • We should post twice a day on every platform.
  • We should be replying to comments within hours.
  • We should have one of the most engaging social media strategies in the country.

These types of shoulds are what have left so many people burned out, bitter, and exiting higher education.

Right now we need to disrupt expectations that have resulted in the should and invest in the why.

Imagine for a moment what this is all for. 

And where is this should coming from?

Are you doing this out of guilt, approval, or expectation? 

Are you creating this should out of fear, self-advancement, or even anger? 

Who are you comparing yourself to? A peer institution? Another campus division? A recent industry article or podcast? 

If there was a past mistake, do you need to release this and forgive yourself or others?

Have you asked your community what their needs/interests are, or are you just assuming?

Many campuses and leaders have busied themselves in chasing after shoulds without first answering the deeper why. 

Shoulds are cruel. Whys are kind. 

Shoulds are guesses. Whys are metrics. 

Shoulds create shame. Whys create strategy.  

After reflecting on where the shoulds are coming from, try rephrasing should expectations into answering why statements. Start with why you will take this action. Or if you won’t, why you will not. Let’s see it in action.

The Should: We should post twice a day on every platform.

Why Statement: Why we post twice per day on every platform.

Our Why: Tailoring not only the content for our posts but the regularity of them differs for each platform, and we want to get the most bang for our buck.


Our Why Not: We don’t post twice daily on all platforms because we do not have a staff member dedicated to running social media for our department. Further, just one post in the evening shows higher engagement than multiple posts on the same day. 

Let’s do one more.

The Should: We should make time for live video.

Our Why: We will make time for live video because our audience engagement is high every time we do this, and it provides us a different way to tell our story.


Our Why Not: We will not make time for live video right now because we are short-staffed, and no one on our current staff has video editing skills.

Why not’s can be long-term or short-term. For example, a why not might be a ‘not now’ due to more resources.

Creating concrete and clear why statements are the building blocks to establishing and carrying out goals and strategies, as well as how to evaluate them. With a clear why you will be able to track progress and continue to discern if your strategies are in place for the right reasons. But beyond that, putting in the work to answer “why not” can be just as powerful.

Unclear and unspecific shoulds set your staff (and yourself) off on a goose chase. What is ever enough? What does success look like? Many higher ed pros are not okay. We must recalibrate. 

Higher Ed is overdue in recalibrating expectations.

In many ways, the pandemic has forced us to rethink many campus traditions and the “we have always done it this way” approach. But old habits die hard. As we navigate this next chapter of COVID, we also need to take a very hard look at what is realistic. 

If you’ve lost staff members, are you just farming out their work or fully reassessing workloads? Does requiring staff to be in their offices during “business hours” increase student satisfaction or your own convenience? Are you chasing after Twitter engagement or evaluating if your digital strategy is contributing to community belonging?

We don’t have the time or resources anymore for expectations that aren’t strongly grounded in our why. If you don’t know where to start, pull out your campus mission and values statements, strategic plan, or even your own job description. What if we entered into 2022 with less shoulds on our wishlists? Cross that shit off, and write in something that gifts you grace instead.

Gifting Yourself Grace

If you work in higher education, there is a very good chance that your 80% looks like 120% for most other people. In other words, you give a lot. Maybe more than you actually need to. Unfortunately, many campuses have taken advantage of this.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself this year, and I’ve come to understand that doing less doesn’t mean I’m not a hard worker. That taking a weekend or full week off is actually critical for my health and helping the people I serve.

As we enter a heavy holiday-based season in the US, I hope this letter will help you remember to give yourself grace. Think of it as an experiment. 

And I do have one tool to help you along in your experiment with gifting yourself grace. This December and January, I am hosting a number of free retreats called Renew specifically for higher education professionals who are tasked with digital communications, marketing, and social media management – in all pockets of campus.

Each Renew retreat will provide a spacious and strategic format to help you process 2021 and plan for 2022. We’ll call out our should statements. We’ll refocus on the why. We’ll hold space to discern what we need to start, stop, or continue. We’ll re-commit to grace. And we’ll probably partake in a dance party or a meditation or two. 

I hope to see you there – you deserve it! 

*This post was originally created for my newsletter, Digital Leadership Download. Subscribe and keep up with everything I’m writing, podcasting, and speaking about!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

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