The words you use when defining your values or asking questions determine how likely you are to have that request fulfilled or live up to the values you set. The arduous path to lasting change is through sheer willpower. It is much easier to start paying attention to your self-talk and use your words to harness the power of disillusionment.
Some words are hard, while others are soft. In the soft corner, we have “should” and “can,” while in the hard corner, we have “do” and “will.” You should adopt a longevity mindset, but will you?
When motivating yourself and others, the words you use are crucial. You should focus on using words soaked in commital energy instead of those that make you feel good before accomplishing anything.
Brené Brown defines shame beautifully as an: “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” This sensation often causes us to accidentally should ourselves.
We say something like, “I shouldn’t have had three pieces of cake on Saturday,” or “I should exercise more.” Sentences such as these help us eliminate shame by giving us an instant dopamine hit for having had a healthy. However, they do little to materialize those thoughts.
Instead, change occurs when we stop should-ing ourselves, rub our proverbial noses in the shame of doing or not doing those activities and start using the three gears of habit change described by Dr. Judson Brewer in Unwinding Anxiety.
The gears of habit change
These three gears are awareness, disenchantment and replacement. Awareness comes from tracking your habits – mental and otherwise. Observe the cues of your life, the patterns they cause and most importantly, the reward of those habits.
In his book, Dr. Brewer illustrates many examples of habit loops we can fall into, particularly concerning overeating, addiction and anxiety. An anxiety habit loop may look something like this:
- Cue: see a stressor.
- Habit: ruminate on that stressor.
- Reward: feel anxious about that stressor.
Anxiety is not a desirable reward, but it leads our brain into a false sense that it is helping. Our brain thinks the anxiety we feel about that stressor will help us handle it. In reality, the more we stress about something, the less likely we are to accomplish anything.
I see this often in my work. As the days get busier and the work starts to pile on, I try to multi-task to complete more things simultaneously. This multi-tasking only increases my stress about the workload. It slows me down as I constantly lose my train of thought and must find it repeatedly.
The better option is to observe these habit loops and switch into second gear to see what they give you. In the case of the above example, the only benefit of stressing about how much work I have to do is the stress it causes, which is not a desirable reward.
By noticing the reward of the habit loops, you start to disinterest your brain as it observes that the rewards of those habits are bad. Seeing these rewards is easy when negative, such as stress and anxiety; it gets more complicated when the reward is a tasty piece of chocolate.
Our brains always crave more of a good thing; it’s a fallacy of consumerism. Chocolate is highly rewarding, so you must find a bigger, better offer if you hope to cut back on your chocolate consumption.
This bigger, better offer brings us to the third gear of habit change, which is, as previously mentioned: replacement. You can replace an entire milk chocolate bar with a single piece of dark chocolate; if you do so mindfully.
By meditating on the chocolate, you replace the habit of mindlessly eating chocolate with eating it mindfully mindfulness. It is easy to mindlessly dive into a jar of Nutella with a spoon and keep going until you feel sick. Conversely, a single piece of dark chocolate eaten mindfully is deeply satisfying as you take the time to appreciate its subtle flavours.
Furthermore, the bitterness of the dark chocolate makes mindful eating the bigger better option as it is far more rewarding than chomping on it, cookie monster style. This reward is evident when eating eighty or more percent dark chocolate. High-percent dark chocolate is most delicious when you let it slowly melt on your tongue; otherwise, it is simply bitter.
Will yourself to motivation
Will and do, along with their negative counterparts, won’t and don’t, are the most valuable words for motivating yourself. If your goal is to take a cold shower, you should phrase that goal as: “I will take a cold shower.” This affirmative statement increases your chances of turning the tap to cold when the time comes. Especially when compared to “I should have a cold shower.”
As previously mentioned, saying you should do something is rewarding in itself. Therefore, it won’t help you commit yourself to get uncomfortable. Saying you will do something makes you consider when to do that action.
The simplest way to set a goal is to make it concise and specific. Example are:
- I will meditate in the morning.
- I will go for a jog after work.
- I will fast in the mornings.
These goals would make for a healthy day, but these are not necessarily fun things to do; that is why how you word it matters. Compare those goals to these:
- I should meditate more.
- I should jog more.
- I should fast more.
How good do those statements feel when you say them? They almost bring a smile to your face. But what level of commitment do they demand from you? None, that’s why they will often lead to inaction.
Avoid conflict by staying away from can
Should is only one of a list of words to strike from your vocabulary. Can is the next one on our list of words to eliminate, especially if you want healthy relationships.
Relationships should be a collaboration, but “can” can turn them into a zero-sum game. When you ask someone if they can do something, they feel good confirming their ability to complete that task, and you get misled into thinking they will do it. It is zero-sum because nothing comes out of the interaction.
John Gray highlights this point in: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The answer to “can you” questions is almost always yes. For example, when your spouse asks: “can you do the dishes?” You’ll answer yes because you are capable of doing them, then do nothing.
There is no commitment made when they confirm their ability to do something. But, without this commitment, you will be unpleasantly surprised by their inaction towards the task they – in your mind – so plainly agreed to do.
By answering your question positively, they get instant gratification. Having already been rewarded for answering your question, they are unmotivated to accomplish the task you have asked of them. They are not doing it to spite you; it’s just how their brain works.
The same thing happens when you tell yourself you can’t do something. Let’s return to the cake example because it’s delicious, and saying no is hard. When you say, “I can’t have another piece of cake,” it sounds more like a challenge than a statement. Are you sure you are incapable of having another piece? There is always room for one more.
Wording your statement, “I can’t have another piece,” opens you up to decision fatigue because it is still a choice rather than a rule. Deciding between your desire to not have cake vs. your desire to have it is a recipe for failure. You don’t need fantastic willpower to avoid the cake trap; you only need to reword your values and mindfulness of your habit.
Would is stronger than a can
It’s common to use interchangeably would or can when asking for favours. People often interpret “can” as being more polite because it is indirect. However, politeness can interfere with motivation 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 go back to our dishes example. When you ask, “would you please do the dishes?” you ask your spouse to commit to that task. It always helps to say please, and this time the answer to the question is “I will” instead of “I can.” The difference here is subtle but crucial.
When they answer “I will,” they will not be gratified by their answer. Instead, the reward comes after they complete the task. Finishing the dishes and having a clean kitchen is much more satisfying than confirming one’s ability to do it. This increased satisfaction becomes the bigger, better reward and transforms the habit of inaction into a habit of action.
Additionally, asking for favours this way will make the other person realize when they cannot commit to the task. When asking if they “can” do something, they might answer yes without considering if they have the time to do it; it’s irreverent to their abilities. But they will consider their availability before saying they will do it.
Either you do or don’t, but anyone can
Jeff Haden outlines the power of “don’t” in The Motivation Myth. In it, he elaborates on what I have touched on above. He writes 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 cannot, you are left asking yourself, “why not?”. On the contrary, when you say you “don’t,” that activity is not something you do; it is against your values.
When you tell someone, “I can’t eat meat,” they will ask you why you cannot, and unless you have a strong reason for your decision, you are unlikely to always follow through with it. Meanwhile, if you had answered them, “I don’t eat meat,” they would understand that it is against your values and respect it.
You should write your values with these words to ensure you follow them. Do is often unnecessary but leaving out the “can” can boost the impact of your statements. Compare the following examples:
- I can take cold showers – I take cold showers
- I can wake up at 5 am – I 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 ice cream
Say these sentences out loud; which ones were more impactful? The can/can’t examples all have a bit of a question mark after them when you say them out loud. Meanwhile, the sentences without can and don’t sound like the solid values you want in your life
If they are habits you want to deliver and would enjoy an additional boost, my coaching might be right for you. Send me an email, and we can schedule a session. If you sign up for my newsletter below, I’ll even give you a free introductory session.
The words you use to define your values, ask questions and answer them matter. Use words that clearly describe your position and ask for favours in a way that leads to action. It is a simple trick but can significantly improve your odds of sticking to new habits and accomplishing your goals.
Additionally, when trying to eliminate unsustainable habits, you can pair these strong values with increased awareness about your habits using Dr. Judson Brewers’ three gears. These gears will bring attention to the reward of your habits and unwind them from your life.
Noticing where you put the reward of your actions and goals is the first step to lasting change.
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