One of the most exhausting parts of working toward a goal is resisting temptation.
If you’re trying to stop procrastinating at work, for example, it can seem like you spend all day trying not to give in — to your Facebook newsfeed, to Wikipedia spirals, to sort-of-funny videos of your friend’s new cat.
And while you have limited power to prevent those temptations from arising (short of disconnecting yourself from the internet and social media), you can do a lot to change the way you approach them.
That’s according to a 2012 study, cited recently in The Harvard Business Review, which found that telling yourself “I can’t” — as in “I can’t check Facebook” — doesn’t work nearly as well as telling yourself “I don’t.”
To test this phenomenon, researchers at the University of Houston and Boston College conducted three separate studies.
In one study, 120 undergrads completed a series of survey questions before they were given one of two strategies for maintaining healthy eating. Every time they were faced with a temptation, they would tell themselves either “I don’t do X” or “I can’t do X.”
Before the students left the experiment room, they were offered either a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar as a seeming token of appreciation.
Sure enough, nearly two-thirds of the participants who were told to think “I don’t” chose the granola health bar, compared to less than four in 10 who were told to think “I can’t.”
In another study, researchers recruited 30 women for a health and wellness seminar. Everyone would learn a new strategy for reaching their goals and report whether it was working for them every day over the course of 10 days.
One-third of the women were taught the “I can’t” strategy; one-third were taught the “I don’t” strategy; and one-third were told to “just say no” to temptation.
Results showed that the participants who said “I can’t” were unlikely to persist for the full 10 days — even less likely than participants who learned to “just say no.” Yet eight of the 10 participants who said “I don’t” stuck it out for the full study.
Taken together, these findings suggest that the way you frame your resistance to temptation has a huge impact on how successful you are at achieving your goals.
And while this study focused specifically on healthy eating, the takeaways could apply just as easily to tough work-related goals, such as procrastinating less.
One important caveat: The study found that the strategy works best when your motivation for achieving the goal is internal rather than external.
In other words, if you say “I don’t procrastinate because my boss doesn’t like it,” you probably won’t be as successful as you would if you said, “I don’t procrastinate because I care about giving my full attention to this project.”
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