The Right Words are a Powerful Agent of Change

A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words … the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.” Mark Twain

What phrase can change your life? The phrase ‘I DON’T.’ Surprised? Probably no more astonished than I was, but the science is solid. While both I AM and I DON’T are linked to our identity, only I DON’T is linked to a decision that supports that identity. When you say I AM disciplined, you aren’t providing any proof to substantiate that you are disciplined. When you say I DON’T skip workouts, you are linking it to a decision and you are providing evidence to support your assertion.

“I don’t miss a workout” is a lot more powerful than “I can’t miss a workout.” I can’t is weak. It connotes an external impediment. The phrase, “I can’t miss a workout” implies you really want to skip your workout, but someone is making you. Even if that someone is you, the phrase lacks commitment. It says to anyone that hears it that you are being forced against your will. It makes us feel like we are losing our autonomy. Even if we are the ones imposing the constraint, it makes us feel like we are less in control. It makes our Elephant feel like it is being bullied by our Rider. This will cause the Elephant to rebel when it has had enough. The Rider will be powerless to stop the two-ton Elephant when this happens. When you say, “I don’t miss workouts,” you are saying that you are the type of person that works out consistently because that is who you are. When a salesman says, they can’t give you a discount you might ask to speak to his manager because the salesman is saying the decision is out of his hands. He would like to provide you with a discount, but his manager or company policy is preventing him.

Contrast that language to the Rolex salesman that says, “We don’t discount our watches.” You aren’t tempted to speak to his manager, because apparently, Rolex doesn’t offer discounts. This unambiguous phrase ends the discussion. When we tell ourselves, we can’t eat that cookie in the breakroom we are inviting an internal debate that will deplete our willpower and erode our self-esteem. When we tell ourselves, we don’t eat cookies or any of the other highly processed garbage in the breakroom, we end the discussion; conserving our willpower, and build-up our self-esteem in the process. A reformed smoker will say, “I don’t smoke. I am not a smoker.They have shifted their identity away from being a smoker and, that is why they will never smoke again. Identity is this unseen force that shapes our decisions. We don’t like to do anything that goes against our identity. Our mind seeks harmony between our attitude and behavior. When there is disharmony, we will attempt to either change our behavior, or our opinion about that behavior.

How useful is this phrase for changing our behavior? I did say I was going to provide you some evidence. Researchers Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt conducted two studies comparing the efficacy of the I Can’t Condition to the I Don’t Condition. In the first study participants that were told to say ‘I Can’t’ to a temptation gave in 61% of the time while participants that said ‘I Don’t’ only gave in 36% of the time.[i] I have personally used this technique to make saying no to breakfast burritos, Chick-fil-A breakfast bowls, cookies, and cakes in the breakroom infinitely easier. It is amazing how much easier it has become to stay on track and avoid unplanned eating. Often it is these minor indulgences that sabotage our efforts. When it comes to weight loss, it is a battle of inches, literally, with the smallest indulgencies keeping you from achieving your fat loss goals. Give this technique a try, and I think you’ll find it makes overcoming temptation infinitely easier.

You can also use this technique to keep your workouts on track. In a second study, three groups were struggling to exercise regularly. The first group was told to say, “I can’t miss my workout.” The second group was told to say, “I don’t miss my workout.” The third group, the control group, wasn’t given a temptation avoidance phrase. After ten days, the researchers found the ‘I can’t’ group exercised once, the “I don’t” group exercised eight times, and the control group exercised three times.

Not only was the “I can’t miss a workout” temptation avoidance strategy less effective than the “I don’t miss a workout, but it was less effective than not having any temptation-avoidance phrase. When we say, “I can’t miss a workout” it causes us to rebel, to reassert our autonomy. Everyone desires to have control over their lives. When we say to ourselves, ‘I can’t’ it implies that we are going against our own desires because of an external impediment. Even when it is our conscious decision to do something, our subconscious mind feels like it is being bullied. Trying to force the Elephant to do anything it doesn’t want to do through sheer force of willpower is a losing strategy. The smaller rider cannot force the two-ton Elephant to do anything for long. He will quickly become exhausted, and the Elephant will do what he has been conditioned to do.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, says, “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.”[ii]Practice saying both phrases, and you’ll feel the difference. Say, “I can’t miss a workout, and then, “I don’t miss a workout.” The first will feel draining, the second empowering. Another reason the phrase “I don’t miss a workout” produces such dramatic results is that it speaks to our identity. Every time we say it, and then follow it up with action that supports it, we are reinforcing the identity of a fit person that exercises consistently. We aren’t just making an empty affirmation; we are backing it up with tangible action. Every action provides additional proof to substantiate that we are a fit person.

The researchers put it this way, “The refusal frame ‘I don’t’ is more persuasive than the refusal frame ‘I can’t’ because the former connotes conviction to a higher degree. Perceived conviction mediates the influence of refusal frame on persuasiveness.” [iii] ‘I can’t’ lacks the clarity and conviction of ‘I don’t.’ ‘I don’t’ is a bright line. Bright lines provide an unambiguous rule or guideline. If you say, “I don’t drink alcohol during the week” there is no ambiguity. The rule is perfectly clear. When we say something vague like “I’m going to eat better” or “I am going to exercise more” it doesn’t provide any guidance to the Rider, so when the Elephant disagrees, he will follow his urges. The Rider always needs to be able to provide immediate and unambiguous direction to the Elephant if he hopes to stay on track. He cannot rely on sheer willpower to override the Elephants desires.

[i] Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt, “‘I Don’t’ versus ‘I Can’t’: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research, 39, no. 2 (August 2012): 371–81.

[ii] James Clear, How to Say No, Resist Temptation, and Stick to Your Health Goals,

[iii] Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt, “‘I Don’t’ versus ‘I Can’t’: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research, 39, no. 2 (August 2012): 371–81.

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