How your word choices cause motivation

The words you use when defining your values or asking questions determine how likely you are to have those requests fulfilled or to live up to the values you set. Some words are hard while others are soft.

When seeking to motivate either yourself or others it’s important to use the hard ones and avoid the soft ones. Hard words are soaked in commitment energy and lead to action while soft words make you feel good but don’t motivate you to accomplish anything.

 In the soft corner, we have “should” and “can” while in the hard corner we have “do” and “will”. To avoid getting too wordy, I have left out the negative forms of these words but they are also counted in both categories.

Why you should abandon should

Saying “I should do this” or “I shouldn’t do that” does hold much weight in the realm of values. When you say “I should drink more water” or “I shouldn’t eat a piece of cake” you get an instant kickback. 

Being the type of person that thinks these things feels great. The only problem is: you are instantly instant gratified and feel good by simply having had the thought. As previously mentioned in The fallacy of consumerism, pleasure is addictive and the more you get used to getting it being instant, the more instant you need it to be. 

As gratification comes with the thought, there is no reason to commit to the value. Fulfilling the value will not provide additional pleasure. Instead, the thinker is likely to seek out another pleasant experience immediately; probably by having that piece of cake. 

What you can avoid by avoiding can

It is particularly important to avoid using “can” when asking someone to do something they don’t want to do. According to Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray this is because the answer is almost always yes. If you ask your spouse “can you do the dishes?” They will most likely answer yes. 

No commitment was made by this answer, they simply affirmed that they are capable of doing the dishes. They are capable of the task, so there is no reason for them to say no. But as they have not committed to doing it, you will likely be very unpleasantly surprised when you see the sink still full of dishes later on. 

This will sound familiar ‒ because it is ‒ but by answering your question with a yes, they get gratified instantly. Furthermore, having already received their reward for answering your question, they are unlikely to be motivated to accomplish the task you have asked of them. Mainly because you asked too softly. 

The same thing happens when you tell yourself you can’t do something. Let’s bring the cake back in here, because it’s delicious and hard to say no to. When you say “I can’t have more than one piece of cake”, it sounds more like a challenge, a decision that needs to be made in that moment rather than a value.

There are only so many decisions you can make in a day. Having to decide between your soft values or taking the easier path is a recipe for failure. But don’t worry. There is a solution, and you don’t need amazing willpower to implement it, you just need to reword your values so that they become hard.

Would or would not, there is no can

Would and can are often used interchangeably when asking for favours. Can is often preferred as it is softer and seen as more polite. When you want someone to do something for you, it’s better to ask “would you” instead of “can you”. 

For easy comparison let’s carry on with our dishes example. This question becomes “would you do please the dishes” ‒ it always helps to say please ‒ this time the answer to the question is “I will” instead of “I can”. This difference is subtle but important. 

By them answering “I will” they are committing to accomplishing that task. Unlike when they answered “I can”, now they need to accomplish the task before they can be satisfied with their answer. 

The reward comes after they have completed the task, instead of when they answered the question. They have committed to you. Another great benefit of asking for favours this way is that it will make the other person realize if they are unable to commit to the task. 

When asking if they “can” do something, they might answer yes without taking the time to consider if they have the time to do it. Whether or not they have the time is irrelevant to their ability to get the task done. But they will consider their availability before they say they will do it.

Will yourself to motivation

Will and do along with their negative counterparts won’t and don’t are the most useful words for motivating yourself and others. Values don’t need to be complicated. Using “will” and “do” is all you need to make sure you follow them. 

If your goal is to take a cold shower ‒ because they are so much fun ‒ then saying “I will have a cold shower” makes sure that when the time comes you turn the tap to cold. Compare this statement to saying “I should have a cold shower”.

The same statement with “should” makes you feel good when you say it, but is soft and lacks the commitment required so that you do the difficult action. Saying you will do something makes you consider when you will do that action. 

The simplest way you can set a goal is to make it concise and specific. Example goals are:

  • I will meditate in the morning.
  • I will go for a jog after work.
  • I will eat a salad for dinner.

This would make for a very healthy day, but I know these are not necessarily fun things, that’s why how you word it matters so much. When you compare with:

  • I should meditate.
  • I should jog.
  • I should have a salad for dinner.

The difference in the level of commitment given by those statements is immediately visible. You wouldn’t accomplish any of them, aside from maybe having a salad with dinner. Although this would be a good start to your new habits, it is not quite what you are aiming for. 

Either you do or you don’t

I learned about the power of “don’t” in The Motivation Myth by Jeff Haden ‒ it’s a great read for anyone looking for a straightforward guide to getting things done. In it, he specifies that you should word your goals and answers with “do” or “don’t” rather than “can” or “can’t”. 

As previously mentioned, saying you “can’t” is saying that you are not unable to. But when you say you are unable to you are left acting yourself “why not?”. On the contrary, when you say you “don’t” then that activity is simply not something you do, it is against your values. 

When you tell someone “I can’t eat meat” they will ask you why you are unable to and unless you have a very strong reason for your decision, you are unlikely to always follow through with it. Meanwhile, had you answered them “I don’t eat meat” they will understand that it is against your values and will respect your position.

The same goes when setting your values. Wording them as statements rather than capabilities ensures that you adhere to these values. Here are some examples of Can’t vs. Don’t sentences:

  • I can take cold showers – I do take cold showers
  • I can wake up at 5 am – I do wake up at 5 am
  • I can’t miss a run – I don’t miss a run
  • I can’t eat ice cream – I don’t eat icecream

Say these sentences out loud, which ones were more impactful? The can/can’t examples all have a bit of a question make after them when you say them out loud. Whereas, the do/don’t sentences sound much more like solid value statements. 

The words you use to define your values, ask questions and answer them matter. Use words that clearly define your position and ask for favours in a way that will lead to action. It is a simple trick but can significantly improve your odds of sticking to new habits or accomplishing goals. Go on, you are almost there.

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2 thoughts on “How your word choices cause motivation

  1. I came across this similar idea a few years ago and it changed my life. Abandoning « Should » helps instill action, and makes you a person of action. It is so effective yet so simple. Thanks for reminding me of these language tips that impact values. Thanks for sharing.

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