How To Say No, Resist Temptation, and Stick to Your Health Goals
by James Clear
by James Clear: Why
Everyone Should Act Like an Entrepreneur (Your Health Depends On
how to say no is one of the most useful skills you can develop,
especially when it comes to living a healthy life.
Saying no to
unnecessary commitments can give you the time you need to recover
and rejuvenate. Saying no to daily distractions can give you the
space you need to focus on what is important to you. And say no
to frequent temptations can help you stay on track and achieve your
This, of course,
begs the question: how do we avoid
distraction and get
past the urgencies of everyday life, so that we can actually
live healthy and do the things that are really important to us?
It seems like
a big task, but research is starting to show that small changes
can make a significant impact. In fact, here’s one change
you can make right now that will make it easier for you to say no,
resist temptation and stick to your health and fitness goals for
How to Say
No: Research Reveals the Best Way
In a research
study published in the Journal
of Consumer Research, 120 students were split into two different
between these two groups was saying “I can’t”
compared to “I don’t.”
One group was
told that each time they were faced with a temptation, they would
tell themselves “I can’t do X.” For example, when
tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I can’t eat
When the second
group was faced with a temptation, they were told to say “I
don’t do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream,
they would say, “I don’t eat ice cream.”
these phrases, each student answered a set of questions unrelated
to the study. Once they finished answering their questions, the
students went to hand in their answer sheet, thinking that the study
was over. In reality, it was just beginning.
As each student
walked out of the room and handed in their answer sheet, they were
offered a complimentary treat. The student could choose between
a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar. As the student walked
away, the researcher would mark their snack choice on the answer
who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat
the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students
who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat
the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time. This simple change
in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person
would make a more healthy food choice.
But the surprises
didn’t stop there…
How the “Right
Words” Make It Easier to Say No
The same researchers
were also interested in how the words “can’t”
and “don’t” would effect our willingness to say
no over the long-term and stick to goals when faced with repeated
temptation. After all, most of us can turn down a candy bar once,
but eventually we slip up.
In other words,
is there a way to say no that makes it more likely that we’ll
stick to healthy habits and avoid unhealthy ones?
designed a new study by getting 30 working women to sign up for
a “health and wellness seminar.” All of the women were
told to think of a long-term health and wellness goal that was important
to them. Then, the researchers split the women into three groups
1 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their
goals they should “just say no.” This group was the
control group because they were given no specific strategy.
2 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their
goals, they should implement the “can’t” strategy.
For example, “I can’t miss my workout today.”
3 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their
goals, they should implement the “don’t” strategy.
For example, “I don’t miss workouts.”
For the next
10 days, each woman received an email asking to report her progress.
They were specifically told, “During the 10-day window you
will receive emails to remind you to use the strategy and to report
instances in which it worked or did not work. If the strategy is
not working for you, just drop us a line and say so and you can
stop responding to the emails.”
what the results looked like 10 days later…
- Group 1
(the “just say no” group) had 3 out of 10
members who persisted with their goals for the entire
- Group 2
(the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10
members who persisted with her goal for the entire 10
- Group 3
(the “don’t” group) had an incredible 8
out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for
the entire 10 days.
The words that
you use not only help you to make better choices on an individual
basis, but also make it easier to stay on track with your long-term
Don’t” Works Better Than “I Can’t”
help to frame your sense of empowerment and control. Furthermore,
the words that you use create a feedback loop in your brain that
impacts your future behaviors.
every time you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’re
creating a feedback loop that is a reminder of your limitations.
This terminology indicates that you’re forcing yourself to
do something you don’t want to do.
when you tell yourself “I don’t”, you’re
creating a feedback loop that reminds you of your control and power
over the situation. It’s a phrase that can propel you towards
breaking your bad habits and following your good ones.
Halvorson is the director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia
University. Here’s how she explains the difference between
saying “I don’t” compared to “I can’t”…
donít” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering.
Itís an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I
canít” isnít a choice. Itís a restriction, itís being imposed
upon you. So thinking “I canít” undermines your sense
of power and personal agency.
In other words,
the phrase “I don’t” is a psychologically empowering
way to say no, while the phrase “I can’t” is a
psychologically draining way to say no.
How You Can
Apply This To Your Life
have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.
~ Leonardo Da Vinci
There are situations
everyday when you need to say no to something. For example, the
waiter who offers you a dessert menu… or the urge to skip
a workout and stay home… or the distracting call of texts,
tweets, and udpates when you should be focusing on something important.
our responses to these little choices seem insignificant, which
is why we don’t make a big deal about telling ourselves that
we “can’t” do something. But imagine the cumulative
effect of choosing more empowering words on a consistent basis.
and “I don’t” are words that seem similar and
we often interchange them for one another, but psychologically they
can provide very different feedback and, ultimately, result in very
different actions. They aren’t just words and phrases. They
are affirmations of what you believe, reasons for why you do what
you do, and reminders of where you want to go.
to overcome temptation and effectively say no is critical not only
to your physical health, but also to maintaining a sense of well-being
and control in your mental health.
To put it simply:
you can either be the victim of your words or the architect of them.
Which one would you prefer?
Clear writes about strategies that make it easier to
live a healthy life (both mentally and physically). Lew Rockwell
readers can get more of his research-backed articles on losing weight,
gaining muscle, and living healthy by joining
his free newsletter here.
2013 James Clear