How to Say No, Resist Temptation, and Stick to Your Health Goals

Learning 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 health goals.

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 the long–term.

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 groups.

The difference 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 ice cream.”

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.”

After repeating 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 sheet.

Here’s what happened…

The students 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” affect 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?

The researchers 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 of 10.

Group 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.

Group 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.”

Group 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.”

Here’s 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 10 days.
  • Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10 members who persisted with her goal for the entire 10 days.
  • 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 goals.

Why “I Don’t” Works Better Than “I Can’t”

Your words 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.

For example, 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.

In comparison, 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.

Heidi Grant 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”…

“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.

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

One can 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 updates when you should be focusing on something important.

Individually, 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.

“I can’t” 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.

The ability 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?

55 Comments

  1. Wow, great timing. I’ve decided to replace my morning coffee with cream and sugar with a glass of Amazing Grass drink powder. After a long day at work, a tough (but great) workout, and a night of crabby kids, I am craving nothing more than to break my intermittent fast and chow down on some brownies my wife has in the cupboards. I’ve been sitting here saying “I can’t” do that – what a difference a simple change in attitude makes. Thanks James!

    • Whew — sounds like a packed day. I’m glad this article could help (even if it was just a little bit).

      Keep up the good work, Eric! Thanks for reading!

    • Well, I don’t take this comment lightly then. :)

      I appreciate you making an exception. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Caroline. Thanks for reading!

  2. What an amazing realization and suggestion! I felt a lightbulb click inside me when I read your email. Once again, you hit it out of the park, James. Thanks for the advice! :)

  3. My new mantra – I don’t miss workouts!

    Thanks for putting everything into perspective for me; I love reading your blog and please keep doing what you do…

    Have a brilliant week!

    • That’s what I love to hear! Keep up the good work and I’ll do my best to keep sending useful info your way.

  4. Dear James,

    Thank You so much for the “I Don’t” article and the other 3 that I have read so far, you are truly a powerlord and I gain such valuable knowledge from your articles even if at times they are only a reminder. I feel truly blessed to have you connected in my life and you are making a big difference as I try to ‘tune’ and ‘master’ my innerworld, with the information you supply. Again a big Thank You and I wish there more like you.

    • Ryan — first, thanks so much for reading. Our community is what makes this site what it is and you’re a big part of that. It’s great to have you here.

      And secondly, anyone who uses the word “powerlord” in a comment is obviously awesome. I’ll do my best to keep sending great info your way!

  5. This is well-written, informative, and simply amazing but not surprising.
    Conscious attention to this feedback will certainly aid one in resisting temptation and gain stronger good habits. A powerful essay–thanks James!

    • Thanks Jennifer! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      p.s. As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Feel free to share your thoughts here anytime.

  6. To me this is all about identity. You’re making yourself into the type of person who “doesn’t miss workouts”. Your self image is profoundly powerful, and cultivating it to your benefit will literally change who you are (actions follow beliefs…). Great post.

    • I agree 100%. I think what holds most people back from their goals isn’t the tactics, the education, or the strategies — it’s the type of person that you believe that you are. Get your identity handled and you can figure out the rest relatively easily. Thanks for reading, my man.

  7. I really enjoyed this one, James.

    I used to smoke a pack a day of cigarettes. When I quit smoking, one of the important ways of thinking about it was thinking that “I don’t smoke” instead of “I can’t smoke”. When you think about it as “can’t” it’s like you’re losing out on something. When you think about it as “don’t” then you have power over it…just like you wrote.

    By the way, I haven’t smoked a cigarette in over 2 years.

    • Mike — it’s great to hear from you, buddy. Obviously, I love the story of your transformation. Keep up the good work. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  8. I love how the simple “I Don’t” allows for such control. It takes all the deliberating and doubt out of the equation, so we can make a good choice each time. I am going to see where else I can apply this in my life. I do it with fitness, diet and guitar practice, but I know there are more opportunities to us this simple trick with myself. Thank for another marvy post, James!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, CJ. And you’re right — without deliberation and doubt, we force ourselves to take a stand for something. Sometimes declaring your beliefs, intentions, and actions is all we need. A little clarity and sense of purpose can go a long way.

  9. Great article, James. I never thought of using the phrase “I don’t” as such an empowering statement. Going to share this with the world.

    Make it a great day!

  10. Thank you, James.

    I teach goal-writing, professional development classes as part of my work, and I’m going to include the “I can’t vs I don’t” discussion. It’s a great tool for clarifying our thought processes.

    Thank you again!

  11. I just heard the same thing on the Fat Burning Man show a couple of days ago, but the show didn’t give all of those study results, which to a nerd like me, are nice to see. Anyway, I’ve been struggling with sugar lately, and the few days since I’ve implemented I don’t, instead of I can’t, it has been much easier to turn down the sweets!

    • That’s awesome, Kelly. I didn’t know that Abel was covering that topic too, but I guess great minds think alike! Thanks for sharing your experience and keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Andy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

  12. Thanks again, James! Great post. Reminds me of the difference I felt when switching from gluten-free diet mentality (I can’t eat all my faves anymore) to a Paleo mentality (I don’t eat the foods that aren’t good for me.)

    • Yep — that’s a great example, Judith. Thanks for sharing your experience. Feel free to drop a line here anytime.

  13. “Can’t” is an admission of some sort of limitation, inability, or weakness, while “Don’t” reinforces what you’re already engaged in not doing, thus something you’re successful at. Helpful reminders that self talk can either build you up or tear you down.

      • I don’t think “can’t” is always a label of limitation; often instead it is a lie. “I can’t eat x”. Really? Well, you can, but should you? I think this is why the mind often rejects it as a concept also.

        • That’s a good point, Brandon. Deep down we probably know it’s not true from the beginning and since we know we’re lying to ourselves anyway, we never fully buy into the idea. It’s just another reason to be bold, move forward with purpose, and take a stand for what is important to you — whether that be with words like “don’t” or simply through the way you act.

          p.s. Welcome to our little community! Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. Feel free to drop a line here anytime.

  14. I like the play on wording. I use the ‘committed to nothing’ psychology.

    I tried to quit smoking for 20+ years. (seriously, I tried “quiting smoking” 10-15 times) and failed. I realized I’d been committed to “not doing something”. Or to put it bluntly, I was “committed to nothing”. That is a huge impossible black hole to try to fill.

    Instead, I got seriously committed to my health. I started working out regularly. I started eating better. I even went to a doctor for a checkup for the first time in 15 years.

    Quiting smoking became a part of ‘being committed to my health’. I quit smoking cold turkey after 20 years. Whenever the cravings started, I would substitute in something healthy to demonstrate my commitment to health. To this day, I am stunned that I quit.

    I am coming up on the 10th anniversary of – not quiting smoking – of “being committed to my health”. Since then, I have run several half marathons, and even a full marathon. I am in the best shape of my life since high school.

    Every time I hear myself say “I can’t do X” or “I don’t do Y”, it is a red flag to me that I am trying to be “committed to nothing”. (Which we know is an impossible task). Instead, I remember “what am I committed to” and list off the reasons and foundation for that commitment. It is a much easier task.

    • Brett — first, thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s great to hear about your progress and congrats on your health transformation. Keep up the good work.

      I like how you phrase your failures as being “committed to nothing” … that’s a useful way to think of it. You’re also switching our focus from what we shouldn’t be doing (what we’re running from) to what we should be doing (what we’re working towards). That’s a powerful shift and your experience is a good indication of what can happen when we focus our energy in the right direction.

      Feel free to leave your thoughts here anytime. It’s great to have you in our little community.

  15. I agree with “can’t” vs “don’t” but my mind is a little tricky. When I say “I don’t do X” part of me says “Oh yes you do!” so it doesn’t work all of the time. Last night I said “I won’t do X” and it worked like a charm. It acknowledged that this was something that I have done in the past, and that I had a choice in the matter, and it played to my stubborn side. My stubborn side likes to be challenged!

    • Ginny — this is a good example of how to adapt the general strategy to fit your life. I love that you looked at the strategy, determined why it wasn’t perfect for you, and then tweaked it to work in your situation.

      Keep up the good work! And thanks for reading.

  16. Wow!! this article on how one can be the architect of the terms one uses is extremely insightful!

    Keep them coming James. Cheers!

  17. I’m a nurse and of course do A LOT of education about chronic diseases and the lifestyle changes that need to be made to manage these issues. This article and study results are incredibly interesting and I plan on trying these out. Thanks!

    • Kimberly — that’s great! I’m glad to hear that you are using lifestyle changes in your work. I’d love to hear more about what has worked well with your patients in the past. I’m always looking to learn about useful and effective approaches in the real-world.

      If you’re willing, feel free to share more by contacting me here: http://jamesclear.com/contact

      Thanks for reading!

  18. In addition, I’ve noticed that saying ‘I don’t’ tends to put an end to people trying to coax you to join them in things you’ve decided are not good for tou. It’s unequivocal and when said pleasantly but firmly leaves no room for argument.

  19. Just to let you know that I don’t vs I can’t has been incredibly powerful and useful for me, just in the past two days of me using it. You’ve got a great talent for finding small but very useful pieces of information for habit change.

    I’ve known for years that if I want to change, I have to believe I can do it. That’s not very specific though, whereas this one tiny concept is intensely so. This is a long way off saying thank you, and keep it up!

  20. I wish I had read this article just 15 minutes ago before I went and ate a cookie I didn’t even really want!

    I will make sure to start using this method right away though, rather than always saying I’ll do it tomorrow!!

    Thanks for your advice!! :)

  21. I like your articles, and really love how you incorporate “how to apply this in real life” … it makes it that much personal. :)

    Darlene

  22. Great article, James. I love the distinction between “I don’t” and “I can’t”. It marks such a huge difference in a person’s perspective to be able to make healthy choices.

  23. Wow this is truly amazing James! There’s really a clear distinction between both statements.

    This is my first time commenting on your blog. I’ve stumbled upon your blog from BufferApp blog and been reading your posts every.single.day and this post really amazed me.

    Keep up the good work James! And like many readers from your blog, I’m also give your updates a special place in my Inbox, labelled “James Clear Awesomeness.”

    P.S. – I am a reader from Malaysia :)

  24. I don’t spend money friviolously. I don’t eat junk food. I don’t miss workouts.

    This would be great paired with the self affirmation and self belief concept that you’ve blogged about.

    “I don’t eat junk food because I’m the type of person who is really healthy”; “I don’t spend money friviolously becuase I am the type of person who spends money in line with my values”; “I don’t miss workouts because I’m the type of person who is strong, fit, and takes health seriously”.

    Do you just tell yourself these things, or do you write it down, or how do you really drill it into your own head?

  25. Just came across you via the toobs yesterday, and now devouring your words James.

    But as Ginny commented, sometimes you just have to subvert the stubborn, contrarian brain by other means, so mine will be “DON’T say CAN’T or you WON’T.

    Hopefully, that’ll do the trick when simply saying don’t, won’t do. ;-)

  26. I have to agree with Eric “Wow, Great timing.” I replaced my coffee with my healthy coffee and have lost 83 pounds, since the beginning of June, as of last week November 5th. It has been fun too. I agree that what you say is important. I don’t eat breads, pastas, fried foods, or desserts. When people ask if it’s hard, I say, ” it’s easy!” If I have a taste for something sweet I drink my hot chocolate or mocha. Thank you James!

  27. I know how obvious this is, but I never thought about what I think. I just think about the action or I don’t, usually when I give in to temptation my head is blank and I’m watching my body very vividly.

    This is really weird and is giving me a better way to look at what I’m doing. Thanks for the article.

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