Asier Romero/Shutterstock
Source: Asier Romero/Shutterstock

To reach many of the goals we strive to achieve—losing weight, getting ahead at work, improving a relationship—it’s not just a matter of taking action. There are behaviors we must stop doing to be successful, such as overeating, procrastinating, or getting worked up over things that really don’t matter.

It’s difficult to motivate yourself to adopt new habits. It’s even harder to rid yourself of old behaviors, which keep us from becoming the person we really want to be. No matter how much self-control you have, willpower alone will not do the trick.

Thankfully, there are strategies that work. Here is a particularly useful one that was recently discovered by researchers at Boston College and the University of Houston: Imagine you are on a diet, and enjoying a meal at a nice restaurant. After clearing the plates, your server says, “You know, we have an incredible chocolate cake on our dessert menu. We’re famous for it. Would you care to try it?”

Would you think to yourself: “I can’t eat chocolate cake," or, "I don’t eat chocolate cake.”

Think there's no real difference? You couldn’t be more wrong. Don’t and can’t may seem interchangeable, but psychologically they are very different. Social psychologists have learned over the years that even seemingly subtle differences in language can have powerful affects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior.

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. Thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

The difference between thinking “I don’t” and “I can’t” can be quite dramatic. In one study, students with a healthy eating goal were instructed that when faced with a temptation, they should say to themselves either I don’t do X or I can’t do X (e.g., I don’t eat candy vs. I can’t eat candy). On their way out of the lab, they were told that they could choose a token of appreciation for their participation in the study—a chocolate bar or a granola bar. Who chose the healthier option? Sixty-four percent of those who said I don’t, compared to only thirty-nine percent of those who said I can’t.

In another study, 20 adult women working toward a health and fitness goal were encouraged to use either I don’t or I can’t language when they were tempted to lapse (e.g., skip the gym, grab a donut, etc.). On each of the next 10 days, these women checked in via email to report on whether the strategy was working for them—and if not, they were told they could stop using it. By the study’s end, 8 of the 10 women using the I don’t strategy were still using it successfully, while only 1 of the 10 who used I can’t lasted that long.

The beautiful thing about this strategy is that it could not be easier: Every time you catch yourself thinking I can’t have this, or I can’t do that, simply say No, I don’t do this, instead. 

Because the truth is, it is your choice. The power to decide what you do and don’t do really is yours. When you are always thinking I can’t, it’s easy to lose sight of that fact. 

Reclaim your power: Now you know where to start.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Trying to figure out where you go wrong when it comes to reaching your goals? Check out the free Nine Things Diagnostics.

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