Learning how to say no is one of the most useful skills you can develop I found, especially when it comes to living a more productive and healthy life.

Saying no to unnecessary commitments can give you the time you need to recover and rejuvenate. Saying no to daily distractions can give you the space you need to focus on what is important to you. And saying no to temptation can help you stay on track and achieve your health goals. In fact not being able to say no, is one of the most biggest downfalls that successful entrepreneurs claim as their own key mistakes.

But how do we actually get past the urgencies of everyday life and avoid distraction, so that we can focus the things that are really important to us?

It seems like a big task, I wholeheartedly agree. And yet, research is starting to show that even small changes can make a significant impact for a better way of saying no. In fact, here’s one change you can make right now that will make it easier for you to say no, resist temptation and improve your productivity and your health:

How to Say No: Research Reveals the Best Way

In a research study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, 120 students were split into two different groups.

The difference between these two groups was saying “I can’t” compared to “I don’t.”

One group was told that each time they were faced with a temptation, they would tell themselves “I can’t do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I can’t eat ice cream.”

When the second group was faced with a temptation, they were told to say “I don’t do X.” For example, when tempted with ice cream, they would say, “I don’t eat ice cream.”

After repeating these phrases, each student answered a set of questions unrelated to the study. Once they finished answering their questions, the students went to hand in their answer sheet, thinking that the study was over. In reality, it was just beginning.

As each student walked out of the room and handed in their answer sheet, they were offered a complimentary treat. The student could choose between a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar. As the student walked away, the researcher would mark their snack choice on the answer sheet.

Here’s what happened:

The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time. This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.

Makes sense right? Now the findings didn’t stop there, here is what happened next:

How the “Right Words” Make It Easier to Say No

The same researchers were also interested in how the words “can’t” and “don’t” affect our willingness to say no when faced with repeated temptations and distractions. After all, most of us can turn down a candy bar once, but eventually we slip up. Similarly, you might be able to focus on your work when you’re pressed for time, but what about avoiding unproductive behaviors on a daily basis?

In other words, is there a way to say no that makes it more likely that we’ll stick to good habits and avoid bad ones? You bet!

The researchers designed a new study by asking 30 working women to sign up for a “health and wellness seminar.” All of the women were told to think of a long–term health and wellness goal that was important to them. Then, the researchers split the women into three groups of 10.

Group 1 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals they should “just say no.” This group was the control group because they were given no specific strategy.

Group 2 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “can’t” strategy. For example, “I can’t miss my workout today.”

Group 3 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “don’t” strategy. For example, “I don’t miss workouts.”

For the next 10 days, each woman received an email asking to report her progress. They were specifically told, “During the 10–day window you will receive emails to remind you to use the strategy and to report instances in which it worked or did not work. If the strategy is not working for you, just drop us a line and say so and you can stop responding to the emails.”

Here’s what the results looked like 10 days later…

  • Group 1 (the “just say no” group) had 3 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10 members who persisted with her goal for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an incredible 8 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.

The words that you use not only help you to make better choices on an individual basis, but also make it easier to stay on track with your long–term goals.

Why “I Don’t” Works Better Than “I Can’t”

Your words help to frame your sense of empowerment and control. Furthermore, the words that you use create a feedback loop in your brain that impacts your future behaviors.

For example, every time you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that is a reminder of your limitations. This terminology indicates that you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do.

In comparison, when you tell yourself “I don’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that reminds you of your control and power over the situation. It’s a phrase that can propel you towards breaking your bad habits and following your good ones.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is the director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. Here’s how she explains the difference between saying “I don’t” compared to “I can’t”:

“I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I can’t” isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

In other words, the phrase “I don’t” is a psychologically empowering way to say no, while the phrase “I can’t” is a psychologically draining way to say no.

How You Can Apply This To Your Life

One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.
—Leonardo Da Vinci

There are situations everyday when you need to say no to something. For example, the waiter who offers you a dessert menu… or the urge to skip a workout and stay home… or the distracting call of texts, tweets, and updates when you should be focusing on something important.

Individually, our responses to these little choices seem insignificant, which is why we don’t make a big deal about telling ourselves that we “can’t” do something. But imagine the cumulative effect of choosing more empowering words on a consistent basis.

“I can’t” and “I don’t” are words that seem similar and we often interchange them for one another, but psychologically they can provide very different feedback and, ultimately, result in very different actions. They aren’t just words and phrases. They are affirmations of what you believe, reasons for why you do what you do, and reminders of where you want to go.

The ability to overcome temptation and effectively say no is critical not only to your physical health, but also for your daily productivity and mental health.

To put it simply: you can either be the victim of your words or the architect of them. Which one would you prefer?


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Written by James Clear

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to help you master your habits and improve your health. For useful ideas on improving your mental and physical performance, join his free newsletter.

Or, download his free guide: Transform Your Habits.

  • InertiaDone

    This made total sense. A worthy read!

  • Hassan Majeed

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  • Robbie Williford

    This is great stuff. I think more people need to know how to say the word “no”. This article is a good example of how the smallest of things can make the biggest of differences.

    Very thought-provoking too!

  • I really liked this article. I find my clients benefit so much when I assist them in phrasing something that has been difficult to say. I’m always looking for ways to do this better.

    One thing that stands out to me about the “I can’t” phrasing, besides the disempowering aspect, is that it’s a lie. You *can*, actually. That creates an integrity issue that doesn’t seem as problematic with “I don’t.” Even if you sometimes *do*, you can choose not to this time.

  • Good stuff. I wonder if the positive flip side of this applies as well. I’ve been running every day for 906 days and counting. I don’t even think about missing a workout anymore. Instead of saying, “I should run today,” I just think, “I run every day.” Works for me.

  • This is a identity-level shift. “I’m not the kind of guy/gal who does X.” It works because we desire to stay consistent with our identity (in integrity.) Very powerful stuff and works regularly with my coaching clients. Great summary of the research!

  • OK. I don’t check Buffer Analytics for my twitter account while working. No sirree, I do not…

  • Donitta Booth

    This goes right along with a workshop I teach about Living with Intent. Instead of doing something because we “have to” – I explain that we choose to do it because of the results we want. Ie: You don’t ‘have to’ wash the dishes, you choose to do them so that your kitchen is clean when you want to fix dinner. It makes such a difference in how you feel when approaching a task.

  • Graham Southorn

    I can see how this applies to saying no to yourself. But what about saying no to other people? If someone asks you: “can you spare 5 minutes to talk about my project” and you’re really busy, wouldn’t it be a bit rude to say “I don’t do meetings like this.” Maybe you could say “I don’t do unscheduled meetings”.

    • A

      I don’t have time right now. Maybe we could schedule a meeting.

      • RealHoopyFrood

        Better: “Unfortunately (expresses regret), I don’t have time at the moment (honesty). Would you like to schedule a meeting? (Puts the decision in their hands and takes the pressure from you. It’s also less brusque.)

  • Today


  • valiantsheep

    I found life in this article. Thank you for a whole new perspective on overcoming temptation and creating healthy habits.

  • I believe Tony Robbins mentions something similar to changing behavior. Basically saying not only don’t you do that any more, you are not even that type of person. Great article.

  • Imagine, for a moment if you may, if the campaign was “Just Say I Dont” instead of saying “Just Say No”!!
    Great insights James. Thanks man!

  • Phil

    I was distracted by the use of “you” and “we” rather than “I”. For example:”they are affirmations of what you believe” rather than what I believe. Or does the author not believe his own conclusion? Self-ownership is self-expression. Self-expression is first person speaking.

  • rupertius

    I don’t see how the last section tells us anything about applying is to our life: so the waiter asks if we want dessert, and we say “I don’t eat dessert”? But I do sometimes. Also if you say that you just sound like a knob.

    • I think the point is, whilst you are telling the waiter, ”No thanks,” in your head you are telling yourself, “I don’t eat dessert.” I think it could also be said that the application of the technique is meant for breaking habits; so if you sometimes have dessert and this is not a habit you wish to break, I don’t think this would apply?

  • Jamie

    Great article! I almost stopped reading when I got to this part in the second paragraph, “In fact not being able to say no, is one of the most biggest downfalls…” Comma would go after “in fact” and “most biggest” is redundant. I promise I’m only trying to be helpful and honest! 🙂

  • Really nice article. It’s really astonishing how much words matter in respect how we think and act.

    ps. Buffer is the best thing since the invention of bread and butter. So glad that I found your buffy puffing application 🙂


    Great article James!

  • دانلود
  • Hmm – Very interesting difference between can’t and don’t.

    I wonder what the effect is when someone says instead of don’t, they affirm in the positive, I make all my workouts. I show up to all my workouts.

    Since our brains have trouble processing the negative, this hopefully make it more positive to make something happen.