Half full? Or half empty?
Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

A recent post about Streaks and creating consistency with new habits included the suggestion to focus your inner dialogue (a.k.a self-talk) on how you’re going to do something versus if you’re going to do something. It’s a simple shift, with huge consequences.

Here’s another such shift. Heidi Grant Halvorson is the director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. She explains the difference between saying I don’t and I can’t;

I don’t is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. I can’t isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking I can’t undermines your sense of power and personal agency.”

(more here)

Your words convey your sense of empowerment and control.

And it’s not just what you say out loud to others, but equally important – what you think to yourself. Every time you tell yourself I can’t (or worse, I shouldn’t), you’re reminding yourself of some imposed limitation or something that you’re forcing yourself to do. This doesn’t suggest desire – this suggests struggle.

When you tell yourself I don’t, you reinforce your control and remind yourself of your self-determination. Furthermore, you’re framing yourself as the version of you that’s important to you, and/or perhaps aspire to be. Some examples:

  • I can’t have dessert vs. I don’t eat dessert on weeknights
  • I’m tired but I can’t skip the gym vs. I don’t miss my strength training sessions
  • I can’t keep checking social media while I’m working vs. I don’t allow distractions when I’m working on X
  • I can’t stay up past 10pm anymore vs. I don’t sacrifice my 7 hrs for anything

The phrase I don’t is a psychologically empowering way for you to say no to something. The phrase I can’t is a psychologically draining way to say no.

The words you use will not only help you to make better choices in the moment, but also help you to stay on track towards your longer–term goals. Saying I don’t shifts you right into what you do instead (the how discussed in Streaks). Saying I can’t sounds (and feels) negotiable, and leaves you wrestling with excuses why you can…just this time. The difference over the long run is obvious.

None of us are perfect. (Not as long as there’s dark chocolate and Netflix.) Perfect is neither the point nor the goal. It is pretty great to experience a sense of personal power and lingering positive emotions about the choices we make. We all wish to convey self-discipline and feel a sense of control over our destiny. In the context of your health, fitness or productivity improvements, small shifts create big change over time. If this simple shift can assist with all that, why not try it? 

So, what don’t you do anymore?

More about the power of words here, here and here . (Sense a trend?)

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