How to Say a Proper No to Temptation and Reach Your Goals

When it comes to good mental health practices, saying a proper or healthy “no” to unnecessary commitments and frequent temptations can free you to focus on what is important to you and help you reach your goals.

Often, though, we try to refuse a temptation offered to us by using language that robs us of our empowerment. For instance, using the word “can’t” takes away your empowerment while using a word like “don’t” strengthens your refusal and motivates you to reach for your goals.

Framing our choices with the correct words can greatly improve your ability to resist temptation. Let’s take a look at the difference between “can’t” and “don’t” when refusing temptations and the research behind the power of these words.

Research Reveals the Best Way to Say No to Temptation

The words you use to respond to temptation determines how you perceive the amount of control you having over your decision. Using the words “I can’t” indicate that something is beyond your control, influenced by an outside agent or person. “I don’t” indicates that you have agency or control over your decision.

In a research study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt took 120 students and split them into two different groups. Group 1 was the “I can’t” group and Group 2 was the “I don’t” group.

Both groups were given a set of seemingly unrelated questions designed to measure how strongly the goal of healthy eating related to each person. Next, each participant was given instructions on how to respond when faced with temptations.

Group 1 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 chocolate cake, they would say, “I can’t eat chocolate cake.”

When Group 2 was faced with a temptation, they were told to say “I don’t do X.” For example, when tempted with chocolate cake, they would say, “I don’t eat chocolate cake.”

After both groups finished the empowerment phase, each student answered a set of questions unrelated to the study. As each student walked out of the room and handed in their questionnaire, they were offered a snack as a token of appreciation. The student could choose between a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar. As the student walked away, the researcher would discreetly mark their snack choice on the answer sheet.

The results?

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.

By simply changing one word from “can’t” to “don’t”, the study showed that it significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice when empowered.

Using the Right Language Works For Long-Terms Goals, Too

In previous studies, research has shown that individuals who feel that success is in their control are less likely to withdraw from a goal-oriented strategy. So, 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.

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.
  • 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 using an online diary. 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.”

At the end of the 10 days, the researchers recorded some amazing results:

  • 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 a staggering 8 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.

The takeaway: by using the correct words when faced with temptation, it is easier to stay on track with your long–term goals.

Why Using the Right Word is Vital To Attaining Your Goals

Your words help to frame your sense of empowerment and control.

Researchers Patrick and Hagtvedt believe that using words like “I don’t”, you become empowered to reach your goals, giving you an overall positive feeling, which increases the resources available within you to reach your goal.

Conversely, pursuing a goal that is not within your control (”I can’t”) depletes your resources. From the outset, you have to strive to overcome your own feelings of inability to reach your goals, feelings which are demotivating. “I can’t” means someone else is in control of your destiny.

By choosing the right words when faced with temptation, you can say no and stay on track to meet your goals and succeed in life.


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