The Simple Power of Saying “I Don’t” vs “I Can’t”

By January 18, 2014 No Comments

Despite good intentions we often lack the motivation to pursue the goals we set for ourselves. We might really want to kick a habit or make a positive lifestyle change such as losing weight, eating better, getting more exercise or giving up smoking but actually moving to the stage of making and sustaining that change is a different and much more difficult thing. It’s as if we are wired to sabotage ourselves leading to best laid plans quickly ending up on the scrap heap!

The dreaded temptation starts getting in the way. It takes many forms, a comfy couch, a chocolate biscuit, a tired head, a long day at work, a busy life, boredom, stress….the list is endless. Temptation abounds. Before we know it we are back where we started feeling demotivated, deflated and a bit disappointed in ourselves.

Imagine if there was something simple we could do to switch the temptation / motivation balance in our favour. Imagine if there was something simple that we could do to help ourselves succeed. Well it turns out there is and researchers have managed to prove it AND it’s as simple as changing the language you use when you refuse temptation (either in your head or when you speak to others) from “I Can’t” to I Don’t”

Picture the scene…. your colleague in work has just brought in a delicious carrot cake. She is offering you a slice. You LOVE carrot cake but you had promised yourself not to eat rubbish this week. If you think to yourself “I cant have that carrot cake” then you are likely to feel deprived and what does deprivation do… it makes you want to eat. If you think to yourself “I don’t eat carrot cake” you feel “yeah I don’t want that… I don’t eat carrot cake”

Picture another scene… you are trying to increase the amount of exercise you take and have decided to go for a 4 km walk each day but today you are feeling kind of tired. You tell yourself “I’m tired, I cant go for a walk” pretty likely you wont go but if on the other hand you tell yourself “I’m tired but I don’t miss my walk no matter how tired I am” then you are more likely to get off your bum and just go despite how you feel.

In a study carried out by researchers at Boston College and the University of Houston, 128 participants were put on a healthy living program. Half the participants were told that when they were faced with temptation they were to tell themselves “I don’t do x” e.g. I don’t eat chocolate. The other half were told that when faced with temptation they were to tell themselves “I cant do x” e.g. I cant eat chocolate. When tested with real temptation 64% of participants in the “I don’t” group made a choice in line with their healthy living goal i.e. refused temptation / picked the healthier food option. This compared with only 39% of the people in the “I cant” group.

In another study 30 participants attended a health and wellness seminar and following this adopted specific health and wellness promoting goals. The participants progress was then followed over a 10 day period. During this time 10 of the participant’s were told to use “I don’t” self talk and 10 were told to use “I can’t” self talk when tempted to lapse in pursuit of their goals. The other 10 were told to “just say no”. At the end of the 10 days, 8 out of 10 participants in the “I don’t” group persisted with their new health goals whereas only 1 out of 10 participants in the “I can’t” group and 3 out of 10 participants in the “just say no” group did.

So get those internal thoughts and words working for, not against you. Help yourself to achieve your goals by choosing the language that make your actions feel like an empowered choice (I don’t) rather than a forced restraint (I can’t). If you do, you’ll be much more likely to achieve your goals

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