The words we use are powerful. And sometimes it just takes one to have a big impact.

Several years ago, some researchers1 looked at the effects of telling yourself “I don’t,” instead “I can’t,” when faced with temptation. The participants in one of the studies had various health and wellness goals for themselves. For the first ten days of the program, the researchers followed up daily with the individual participants to track who was sticking with their plans—and moving towards their goals—and who had given up.

The participants were split up into different groups, each group receiving different instructions for how to deal with any temptations to stray from their plan. One group of participants were instructed to simply tell themselves “I can’t” do X (e.g. I can’t eat a candy bar, I can’t miss a workout, etc.) whenever they were tempted. Another group was instructed to say “I don’t” instead (e.g. I don’t eat candy bars, I don’t miss workouts, etc.). There was also a control group which was told to simply tell themselves “no,” and to not give in.

Of those who were told to simply tell themselves “no,” only 30% of the participants made it through 10 days without giving up. Of those who told themselves “I can’t,” the success rate dropped to only 10%. But for those who kept telling themselves “I don’t,” the number of participants who stuck with their plans rose to 80%.

It was only one word—“don’t” instead of “can’t”—and yet it made a difference. In this case, those who were saying “I don’t” were at the same time making a statement about their identify. They were identifying with a certain kind of person they wanted to be. And being reminded of that identity helped them to act out their desired behavior.

The words we use reveal how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. And it’s this perception of how things are that will affect our actions and interactions throughout the day.

But our current perception of the world can be altered. And one of the ways of doing so is through the words we use. In the study, changing a single word affected the way the participants saw the situation, and their response to it. It reminded them of the power and control they had in making a reponse, which in turn increased the likelihood that they would follow through.

The words we use have power—both to reveal and to change. May we choose them wisely.

  1. Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt. Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 39, No. 2 (August 2012), pp. 371-381. I saw this research referenced in this article by James Clear. ↩︎