“A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or newspaper, the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.” -Mark Twain

Have you ever told someone you can’t have a piece of cake because you’re on a diet or can’t go to lunch because you must go to the gym? If you answered in the affirmative to either of these questions, you are probably patting yourself on the back, but what if I told you that the language used in these examples is weak? Confused? Don’t be.

I will explain how the right words will improve your willpower, bolster your self-esteem, and make overcoming temptations easier. During my research, I made an extraordinary discovery – a simple two-word phrase that can be used as a mantra to bolster our discipline, willpower, and self-esteem. You’re probably guessing the phrase is “I AM.” While you’ll undoubtedly hear many motivational speakers extol the power of ‘I AM’, they aren’t the words I am referring to. I didn’t find any studies that substantiated their effectiveness. That is because self-affirmations that aren’t backed up by concrete actions are the beginning of dilution. An affirmation not backed up by action will erode your self-esteem. People that advance the power of I Am subscribe to the power of attraction.

Critics of the power of attraction are correct when they say you cannot just wish things into your life. The power of attraction is often misunderstood. Its power lies in an area of our brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). Our RAS filters everything we see and hear in our environment, determining what we notice and ignore. If we didn’t ignore most of what we see and hear, we would experience sensory overload. When we set a goal, backed up with commitment, we trigger the RAS. Our brain becomes acutely aware of anything in our surroundings that could help us. When we stay connected to our vision, we look for ways to take another step, big or small, towards our goal every day.

When we repeat a positive affirmation like, “I am strong,” we are more likely to notice any proof to support this belief. The more proof we find, the stronger our faith will become. If your RAS cannot find any evidence to support your affirmation, you’ll begin to erode your self-esteem. Self-esteem is gained through action. There is a word for self-esteem not supported by evidence. It is called delusion. The most fulfilling rewards of success are the self-esteem you build and the person its accomplishment forces you to become, not the achievement itself. A hard-fought victory is always the most satisfying.  So, if ‘I AM’ isn’t a helpful phrase for creating an empowering identity and bolstering our willpower, what is? The phrase that has the power to change your life is ‘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 connected to a decision that supports it. When you say I AM disciplined, you aren’t providing any proof. When you say I DON’T skip workouts, you link it to a decision, and you are giving 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. Our Elephant feels like it is being bullied by the Rider. Our Elephant is going to rebel when it has had enough. The Rider will be powerless to stop him when this happens. When you say, “I don’t miss workouts,” you are saying that is the type of person you are. When a salesman says they can’t give you a discount, you might be tempted to ask for their manager because the decision is out of his hands.

Elephant - Rider - PathLearn more about about the Elephant & Rider Analogy.

Contrast that language to the Rolex salesman that says, “We don’t offer discounts.” 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 invite 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 junk food. 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 either change our behavior or our opinion of it.

How helpful 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 told to say ‘I Can’t’ to a temptation gave in 61% of the time, while participants who said ‘I Don’t’ only gave in 36% of the time.[i] I have used this technique to make saying no to breakfast burritos, cookies, and cakes in the breakroom infinitely easier. It is incredible how much easier it has become to stay on track and avoid unplanned eating. Often it is these minor indulgences that sabotage our efforts. Losing weight is literally a battle of inches, 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 temptations much easier.

You can also use this technique to keep your workouts on track. In a second study, three groups were struggling to exercise. 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 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,” Elephant to rebel.

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: it speaks to our identity. Every time we say it and then follow it up with action, we reinforce the identity of a fit person. We aren’t making an empty affirmation.

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 a clear rule or guideline. If you say, “I don’t drink alcohol during the week,” there is no ambiguity. When we say something vague like “I’m going to eat better” or “I am going to exercise more,” it doesn’t provide clear guidance to the Rider, so your Elephant will follow his urges.

A bright line is a clearly defined rule that leaves no room for varying interpretations. Bright lines provide clear guidance to the Elephant and prevent the Rider from analyzing what to do. The Rider is prone to analysis paralysis. The clarity of bright lines preserves our willpower by avoiding an internal debate. Like habits, they conserve willpower because we don’t debate what to do. Adopt ‘I Don’t’ as your willpower mantra, and you’ll be amazed by your results. The right words are powerful. They are electric. Develop your own ‘I don’t’ mantras to overcome temptations and assert a more powerful identity. “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” Leonardo Da Vinci

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[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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