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Our bad habits have an uncanny ability to get in the way of doing our best at work and in life.

But a new study has found a simple, yet effective weapon in the fight against our very worst vices.

Researchers writing in The Journal of Consumer Research looked at the differences between people who say “I don’t” versus those that say “I can’t” and found surprising results.

The study’s researchers found that when framing a refusal to do something–from checking Facebook when you should be working to eating a cookie when you’re on a diet–using “I don’t” is more psychologically empowering than using “I can’t” and can actually motivate goal pursuit.

Most of us use “I can’t” and “I don’t” interchangeably, without really thinking about the meaning of what we’re saying. But the study found that this tiny change can actually have huge outcomes.

Here’s how it went down:

Researchers gave 120 undergraduate students a questionnaire meant to gauge how they handle temptation, specifically when it came to eating healthy options. One group was instructed to use the words “I can’t” while the others used “I don’t” when considering unhealthy snacks.

When handing in their completed questionnaires, each student was offered either a chocolate bar or a granola bar as a reward. The researchers covertly tracked their choices and found that 64% of people in the “I don’t” group picked the granola bar, versus only 39% from the “I can’t” group.

This simple word swap works for a number of reasons:

1.) Saying “I don’t” psychologically persuades you to actually follow through with your promises:
The researchers found that saying “I don’t” has the same persuading qualities as other framing language used in marketing, such as saying a product has “3% fat” versus being “97% fat free.”

2.) Saying “I don’t” makes you feel like you have control over your choices:
Multiple studies have confirmed that even just perceiving you have control over your situation can increase psychological empowerment and make you more likely to pursue your goals.

3.) Saying “I don’t” commits you to make a long-term difference:
The study found that we’re more likely to stick to changing our bad habits in the long-run if we say “I don’t” as it “connotes a firmly entrenched attitude rather than a temporary situation.”

So the next time you’re trying to say no to a bad habit, remember it’s not just what you say, but how you say it!

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