How to Say No to Temptation and Destructive Behavior

One of the most important skills we can learn in life is saying NO to things or situations that are counterproductive or bad for us. This vital skill affects our productivity, happiness, and overall success. It helps us to maintain good habits and eradicate bad ones.

We can apply the skill of saying NO to many different areas of our lives. Here are just a few:

  1. You feel like skipping your daily workout because you are feeling lazy but you say no to that option.
  2. You want to watch TV instead of getting your work done but you say no to watching TV.
  3. You go to the grocery store and are tempted to buy the cheesecake but you are able to say no since you know that it is unhealthy.
  4. Your friend offers you a cigarette and, even though you feel like smoking, you decline the offer.
  5. You are tempted to sleep in rather than wake up early and be productive, but you say no and jump out of bed.
  6. Your kids are being loud and bothering you and your first instinct is to scream at them. However, you say no to your initial impulse and choose to exercise patience and understanding instead.
  7. You are tempted to buy the latest electronic gadget even though you do not really need it, so you resist the urge and say no.
  8. You do not feel like taking your daily vitamins because you are comfortable on the couch, but you say no to your feeling of lethargy and get up to take your vitamins anyway.
  9. Your friends invite you to go on a vacation with them when you are trying to save money to buy a new house, so you say no to their invitation.
  10. Your phone and Facebook notify you that you have messages to check while you are eating dinner with your family, so you resist the urge to check the messages and focus your attention on the family meal instead.

The list can go on. As you can see, the ability to say no and resist temptation is an integral skill that affects almost every aspect of our lives. Possessing this skill can be the difference between success and failure, happiness and dissatisfaction, being healthy or unhealthy, and achieving your goals or falling short.

As we all know, it is not always easy to resist temptation and say no consistently. Our willpower is not always as strong as we would like it to be. So what is the best way to say no and overcome temptation? According to scientific research, there is one method that works most effectively:

Saying “I Don’t” Versus “I Can’t”

Our internal dialogue is very influential over how we act. We are constantly talking to ourselves, regardless if we are aware of it or not. In a joint study conducted by the University of Houston and Boston College it was discovered that the words we use when we speak to ourselves have immense power over how we act.

The research showed that when people said “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”, they were more successful in fending off temptation. For example, instead of saying “I cannot eat this cheesecake”, one could choose to say “I don’t eat cheesecake”. This one difference in terminology produced significantly different results.

When we tell ourselves that we cannot eat the cheesecake, it implies that we are restricted in some form or another. It comes from a place of limitation and sends the message that we are forcing ourselves to do something that we really do not want to do. It reinforces the notion that we want to do something but cannot or should not. When we tell ourselves that we cannot eat the cheesecake, it has the connotation that we are being deprived of something we want but simply cannot do. Saying “I can’t” also suggests that the restriction might be temporary. After all, I can’t eat the cheesecake today, but tomorrow is a different story.

On the other hand, when we tell ourselves that we do not eat cheesecake, it comes from a place of empowerment. It reinforces the fact that we are not the type of person that eats cheesecake. Saying “I don’t” implies that it is a choice we have made beforehand and it affirms our willpower and discipline. It highlights control over our own behavior and has a positive vibe to it. There also is a permanent ring to it. In other words, it does not matter when you tempt me with the cheesecake. I simply do not eat cheesecake (or whatever the temptation may be)!

The research revealed that people who use “I don’t” as compared to “I can’t” are twice as successful in resisting identical temptations.The words we choose to use in our internal dialogue are extremely powerful even though we may not realize it. In this case, “I don’t” is positive while “I can’t” has a negative connotation.

Let’s look at how we can apply this in our daily lives:

  • Instead of saying you can’t miss your gym workout today, you can tell yourself that you are the type of person that does not miss a workout.
  • Instead of telling yourself that you cannot cheat on your spouse or significant other, you tell yourself that you are type of person that does not cheat.
  • Instead of sending yourself the message that you can’t neglect your work, you send yourself the message that you are the type of person who does not neglect your work.
  • Instead of telling yourself that you cannot sleep in and waste the day, you tell yourself that you do not sleep in and waste precious time.
  • Instead of saying that you cannot shout at your kids or at other people, you say, “I don’t shout at others”.

I have experimented with this in my own life and my own findings have backed up the research. When I am tempted (and this happens often) to skip a workout, procrastinate, eat unhealthy food, forgo my daily meditation, etc, I remind myself that I am the type of person that does not do those things. It helps to reinforce my sense of control by reminding me of the person I am. Just by changing my words from “I can’t” to “I don’t”, I am better able to say no to temptation and destructive behaviors. While I still sometimes fall short, I have been able to significantly increase my success rate by learning to say no in an empowering way.

When we use “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”, it bolsters our choice to be ‘completely one hundred percent committed’. It makes it easier to say no because we have established a rule for ourselves that reminds us of our principles and values. “I don’t” reinforces our willpower and discipline.

The words we choose to use when we speak to ourselves are extremely powerful. Try saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” the next time you are having a difficult time saying no and find out for yourself.

If you found this useful please share it.

  • Mason Bilbrey

    well done! the i dont vs i cant was very valuable

  • David Naidu

    Thank you, Mason! I am glad you found it useful. Please share it with others. I appreciate your kind comment!

  • Jenny Capps

    I never would have thought this but it makes so much sense! Thank you…great article!

  • David Naidu

    Thank you, Jenny. I am glad you found it helpful!

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