SCIENCE: Adding one word to your vocab doubles your chance of breaking a bad habit.

Have you ever tried to change your behaviour?

Of course you have.

Every day, millions of people worldwide try to eat less junk food, try to stick to an exercise regime, try to check Facebook less often, and so on.

But changing behaviour can be hard. It’s why most of us continue to make unhealthy food choices, go to bed too late, and opt for a sleep in over a morning run. But there is a magic word that you can use that will make you 50 per cent more likely to stick to any kind of change you want to make in your life.

That word is “don’t”.

The power of ‘don’t’.

When we learn new ways of working, or new “rules” and have to leave behind old behaviour, we tend to default to the word “can’t”. For example, when trying a new diet, we tell ourselves (and other people) that we can’t eat chocolate, or we can’t eat white food, or we can’t eat food beginning with the letter B.

Thankfully, Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick investigated the impact of the word “can’t” versus swapping the first two letters for “d” and “o”.

She suspected that the way we talk to ourselves and others actually impacts our ability to say no to temptation. And let’s face it, temptations are a big reason behind why changing behaviour is so hard. It’s just so tempting to do things as we have always done them.

In one of Patrick’s experiments, 120 university students were recruited and asked about how relevant setting goals around healthy eating was to them. Participants were then taught about a strategy for managing unhealthy food temptations. One group was taught to say “I can’t eat X” whenever presented with an unhealthy snack. The other group was taught to say “I don’t eat X”.


Participants were then asked to turn their attention to a completely different (and irrelevant) task, but then when they got up to leave the room, the crux of the experiment happened: they were offered a choice of two snacks – one was a chocolate bar, and the other was a healthy granola bar. The experimenters quietly noted which participants picked which bar.

It turns out there was a big difference between the strategy people were taught and the bar they picked. 39 per cent of those who were taught to say “I can’t eat X” when presented with a temptation chose the healthy granola bar. In contrast, 64 per cent of those in the “I don’t eat X” group picked the granola bar. In other words, changing one simple word increased the chance of selecting the healthy snack by over 50 per cent.

When the researchers delved deeper into this very significant effect, the reason they uncovered for the huge shift in behaviour was that those in the ‘I don’t’ group felt more empowered to say no. Saying you don’t do something sounds like you are the one in control of your choices, whereas saying you can’t do something sounds like someone else is calling the shots.

So when you are thinking about making a change to your life, the language that you use when talking to yourself is critical. Become a ‘don’t’ person, instead of a ‘can’t’ person, and you will be well on your way to making some positive changes to your life.

Dr Amantha Imber is an innovation psychologist and the founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Amantha recently wrote a report about the 10 steps to creating your perfect workday, including how to eliminate distraction, turbo-charge progress on your most important projects, and the ideal way to end your workday.