Boost the Odds of Achieving Your Goals by Replacing This One Word

I have no idea who coined the saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” – but I think they were mistaken.

Words totally do matter.

Imagine being in a relationship for instance, and saying the words “I love you” for the first time. And then imagine your sweetheart replying with the words “I love…spending time with you.” How’s that going to feel?

It’s the same phrase, but the extra three words added in the middle changes the implicit message in a big way.

So while it may not be surprising that words can affect how we feel, do words have the power to change our actions/behaviors too?

Whether we are trying to be more diligent about staying focused in the practice room (i.e. avoiding Facebook distractions, chatting with friends in the hall, or practicing mindlessly), sleeping better1, or eating more healthily in advance of an upcoming performance, can the words we use affect how likely we are to avoid distractions and stay on track to realize our goals?

Dang metabolism

I’ve noticed that with each passing year, I can’t eat as much as I could before. Or more accurately, I can eat just as much, but the consequences to my waistline are more noticeable than they used to be.

So I’ve experimented with taking bread, pasta, and rice out of my diet. Which seems straightforward enough, but it turns out all the fun stuff has bread, pasta, or rice somewhere in the mix. And then, people want to know why you’re eating only the middles of sandwiches. The most convenient response is to say “I can’t eat bread, rice, noodles, cake, brownies, donuts, etc.”

People accept that response just fine, but consider how “can’t” feels as a word. When you say it out loud (or even in your head) does it feel like an empowering word? Or a disempowering word?

I can’t chat with you now; I should be practicing. I can’t check Facebook now; I’m supposed to be studying.

Linguistically, there’s a similar word that could also be used in this context. The word “don’t.” As in, “I don’t drink soda.”

I don’t socialize when I’m in the middle of a practice session. I don’t check Facebook when I’m studying.

Feel any different?

The latter suggests that we are acting in a certain way because we have made a personal choice and commitment, which reflects our own internal set of priorities and objectives.

I can’t,” on the other hand, sends the message that there is some external force or pressure that is preventing us from doing what we would otherwise want to do. Which paints a picture of us being less motivated from within.

All very interesting of course, but does swapping out a word actually make a meaningful difference in our behavior?

Linguistic framing

Researchers from the University of Houston and Boston College, were interested to see if linguistic framing (can’t vs. don’t) would make individuals more persistent in pursuit of their goals.

Granola vs. chocolate

A group of 120 undergraduate students were asked about the degree to which eating healthily was important to them (on a 1-9 scale, where 1=not at all and 9=extremely). Next, they were given an explanation of either the “don’t” strategy or the “can’t” strategy, and asked to rehearse the strategy out loud in a hypothetical scenario where they are tempted by an unhealthy snack (i.e. by saying “I don’t eat X” or “I can’t eat X”). Then, before moving on to an unrelated study, they were asked how empowered the strategy helped them feel in achieving their eating goals (1=not at all empowered, 9=very much empowered).

When the participants were finished with both studies and turned in their questionnaires, they were given a choice of snacks as a thank you for participating. Either a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar2.

Innocuous though the little intervention may have been, it seemed to have an impact. 64% of the “don’t” group participants chose the healthy option. Only 39% of the “can’t” folk chose the healthier snack, with 61% of them opting for the chocolate.

Intriguing…but what about something that requires a little more effort over a longer period of time?


The researchers also conducted a study with 30 working women who had long-term health improvement goals. The women signed up for a health and wellness program, and were asked to submit progress reports for 10 days. To help them stay on target with the program, the researchers gave them one of three strategies to utilize if they were tempted to skip a day of their program or drop out altogether.

One group was instructed to utilize the “don’t” approach. A second group was encouraged to use the “can’t” strategy. A third group (the control group) was simply instructed to “just say no.”

As predicted, the “can’t” group did rather poorly. Only 1 of the 10 (10%) participants made it to day 10.

The “don’t” group, on the other hand, had an 80% (8 of 10) success rate. Significantly greater than either the can’t group or the control group (which had only 3 of the 10 participants get to day 10).

Take action

Next time you feel tempted to stray away from the goals you’ve set out for yourself, monitor your self-talk and try using the word “don’t” instead of can’t.

I don’t miss a day of practice. I don’t practice with the TV on. I don’t skip my warmups. Etc.

But also keep in mind that this is not some sort of magical jedi mind trick. It works best with goals that you are already internally motivated to pursue. So it may not be a bad idea to take a few moments to clarify those – and perhaps even write them down on a post-it to place on your music stand.


  1. Here’s an Easy Way to Help Your Brain Learn Faster
  2. A bit of an oxymoron, as it turns out.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
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16 Responses

  1. I always prefer using a positive response–neither “can’t” nor “don’t.” “I prefer to drink soda water this evening” instead of “I don’t drink alcohol.” I want to eat healthily; I’ll take an apple, please; I want to focus completely on my practicing for the next hour; I’m going to think hard about putting my 4th finger on F# in the fourth measure of page 17, instead of “I don’t ever play that passage correctly–I always screw that place up.” I require my students to say what they want to do, what they should do, not what they just did that they shouldn’t have done. The results are consistently better than focusing on or articulating what it is you shouldn’t have done, or don’t want–can’t do. In all of my teaching I focus on what students are to do, “Please find a pleasant place to enjoy your lunch–the dining hall, snack bar, cafe. These are really the best places to eat a meal!” “Please finish your cell phone calls and texting before coming to class. We will all enjoy a good learning environment free from any distraction specific to a single individual.” There’s very little in the way of setting rules or providing directions that doesn’t sound better, more friendly and inviting, when stated as a positive.

    1. Great to know there are people like you in the world!! We need more! -Speak in the positive of the outcomes we want.- So glad more people are encouraging this kind of mindset. 🙂

    2. Hi Lee,

      Training our mind to focus on what we want vs. what we don’t want is a valuable skill indeed. I once heard a conductor talk about communication from the podium, and this is something she emphasized as well. That the way she verbalizes requests to the section has an impact on how they receive them as well as how they execute.

  2. Excellent article, Noa! Words do have tremendous power. Similar, but not identical to your piece is the psychological art of reframing. In my book, MIND MATTERS (Modern Drummer Publications, 2011) I devote a good deal of ink to reframing. A few examples: “My drums are old.” Reframe to: “My drums are vintage.” “This club is small” Reframe to: “This club is quaint.” “The audience is sparse.” Reframe to: “The audience is intimate.”

    Lastly, I recently learned from my friend world-class percussionist, Taku Hirano, that during his stint with Cirque du Soleil that ALL the performers (musicians, aerialists, gymnasts, contortionists, etc.) referred to their daily practice regimen as “training” rather than “practice.” Practice carries with it many negative connotations–drudgery, obligation, boredom–while training sounds and FEELS so much more positive and carries with it a sense of constant improvement and may have positive ripple effects into nutrition and mental training.

    Keep up the great work, Noa!

    1. The word “training” has much more positive connotations for me! It also, to me, emphasizes the athleticism and physical-mental conditioning that I want to maintain as a cellist through my daily work. Thank you.

  3. So that’s two words we should avoid using now – can’t & should. Can’t because it makes us feel like we’re not in control, and should because we assume goals are set in stone and can never be adapted to circumstance.

  4. This article would seem to me to be the least helpful of the many other amazing ones on this website.
    For one thing research has shown APPROACH oriented (positive) statements help people achieve their goals even better than inhibiting statements like don’t or can’t, so while it’s interesting research has shown don’t is better than can’t it makes little sense to suggest that replacing negative self talk with don’t is better. One should replace negative self talk with positive self talk like others suggest in comments above.

    1. I’m not sure you understand. This isn’t just about talking to yourself; this has to do with talking to other people.

      Example: “Hey, there’s a party at 9 PM on Friday; wanna come?”
      You: “No, sorry, I don’t stay up late anymore. I’m preparing for an early-morning audition next week.”

      Can’t instills a feeling of powerlessness, like something is making you do this, whereas don’t puts you back in the driver’s seat and makes it clear this is a choice _you_ alone are making to adapt to your circumstances & goals. That, as I understand it, is the point of this article.

    2. Good observation, Andrew. Along those lines, one general rule of thumb that I like is to consider our language in terms of whether it’s self-enhancing vs. self-defeating. As in, is thinking/saying this helping me get where I want to go? Or holding me back? I think we usually have a pretty good intuitive sense of what’s what, and can start to form better more performance-enhancing verbal habits from there.

  5. The immortal words of my father, as said to me growing up: “I can’t never did nothin’!” I go off on students and friends, in a diplomatic way, when I hear, “I can’t”. I tell them to be honest with themselves and take responsibility for the fact that what they mean to say is, “I don’t”. Make a decision and own it. Be honest about weather or not you want to practice… or anything else for that matter. “I can’t”… PFFFFFFFFFT!!! I know a one handed trumpet player who can! (And kicks @…!)

  6. I agree with some of the other commenters. I would probably say “I am avoiding alcohol (sugar – bread – sweets – etc.) right now. Or, “I am trying to focus on my technique”,,, or something like that. I remember an incident many years ago,,, I had written a composition for orchestra,,, had spent many, many hours on this,,, a labor of love, as anyone knows who has done this…. and when I wanted to record the concert performance, the Music Director said, “we don’t allow that.” Mind you, this was before the days of palm-sized recording devices. Think of how I felt then!!! It sounded – and was, in fact – a dictatorial decision, and that performance is forever lost.

  7. Yes. Totally makes sense.

    Without exception, I call out students whenever they use the word “can’t” during a lesson in my studio. Even the youngest students can understand the impact of choosing the most helpful words.

  8. Hi, Noa.
    Being a clinical psychologist and guitarist and opera aria singer, I teach patients and students to say “will not” rather than can’t or don’t — then they have explicitly told themselves and everyone else that this is a conscious mindful choice made with their WILL online.

  9. I agree that words do matter. We have to reflect upon the words we use, too.
    The verbs “to win”, or “to achieve my goal” are not ordinary verbs : they are not action verbs.
    Well, when you win, you don’t actually do something. This is rather a matter of fact.
    This would be more correct to say, I want to be the winner. To be the winner is a state of being, more than an action.

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