Getting what you want starts with the story you tell yourself.
It’s true what they say: We create things twice. First in our heads, then in reality.
The problem is that many of us are talking ourselves out of what we really want by making excuses, denying possibility and felling obligated to others.
“I can’t wake up early. I’m just not a morning person.”
“I have to go to for a walk. Ugh.”
“I wish I could paint more often but I just don’t have the energy in the evening.”
“I should clean up the house in my spare time for my family.”
These are some of the stories I’ve told myself this week. They keep me stuck. When I think this way, I inevitably feel pretty lacklustre. I feel like I’m letting everyone down and not living up to my potential.
These stories play as a loop and I start to believe this is true and permanent state.
It’s hard to take action from this place. It seems a forgone conclusion that I can’t.
Luckily, though, I have a slight edge habit that helps empower me to change my thinking: I read 10 pages of a good book everyday. This week, Daniel Pink and Tracy Litt have reminded me of the power linguistics play in my stories and thoughts.
The good news is that a small change can lead to massive results by inspiring action.
How do I create momentum and start taking positive action?
If you can talk yourself out of taking action, you can talk yourself into taking action too.
These small linguistic changes alter the meaning of the sentence. Instead of justifying your circumstances to keep you stuck, your attention is directed to how you can move forward.
Let’s check these out in a little more detail.
From Excuse to Choice
When I say I can’t do something, I’m making an excuse.
“I can’t…” subconsciously says, “I’m powerless.” Our brain proves us right by responding: “Alright. I guess there’s nothing we can do. May as well watch another Netflix episode.”
The alternative is easy in the moment. Seductive. Attractive. We don’t have to change or do anything, just relax stay still. But in the long run, excuses are costly. The price is our pride, our progress and our power.
Instead, substitute the word “can’t” for the word “won’t”.
When we say we won’t do something, we’re making a choice.
Won’t suggests our ability or capacity to take, or not take, action.
Our subconscious says, “You won’t? Huh. Why not?”
At this point, you can justify your position and fight for your limitation or you can look for alternatives and change your mind. Either way, it’s a choice that you’re responsible for, not something happening to you.
By choosing, you retain your power – pride and progress is enabled by choice.
Let’s see this change applied…
can’t won’t wake up early. I’m just not a morning person... But I do wake up early for important things. If I reconnect with the importance of waking up to write, I’m sure I could wake up early more often. Perhaps I can choose to wake up early 2 mornings a week.”
From Burden to Opportunity
The story “I have to…” is a burden.
This phrase makes me think of a boy playing soccer with his friends. His Mum calls him home to wash up for dinner. He wants to stay and keep playing but instead, he says to his friends, “I have to go home now”. He throws the ball back to his team and drags his feet as he walks back home. Heavy with FOMO and hearing the laughter echo after him.
“I have to” is heavy, laden with obligation. “I have to” is a chore. It’s not much fun.
When there was someone else holding us accountable, like our Mum, we would follow through on “I have to…” for fear of the consequences that were swift and severe: a grounding or being yelled at.
When we’re the ones saying we have to, it’s easier to wriggle our way out of it.
“I have to go to the gym,” you think. “But it is a bit far away. Maybe just this time I’ll stay home.”
The consequences are no longer swift and severe. They’re future-you’s problem. They compound little-by-little until suddenly you’re 10kgs overweight.
Instead, swap “have to” for “get to”.
When I say, “I get to…” we’re in the land of opportunity. We get to do things others don’t. We get to do things that are good for us and that we like doing. Instead of fearing consequences, we feel grateful for the opportunity.
have to get to go for a walk. Ugh... Great. I love having some time to myself and I always think of good ideas when I’m outside.”
I’m way more motivated to take action (because gratitude is amazingly powerful) and I am doubly rewarded by the endorphins, dopamine and other delicious neurotransmitters produced from exercise. The benefits are compounded because I feel proud of my choices and comfortable and strong in my body. Exercise is also a keystone habit that influences me to eat better and think happier. (all the more reason to make this linguistic change).
“I get to write a blog post today…”
From Denial to Acceptance
When I say but I deny possibility.
“These linguistic changes seem simple enough, but…”
Yes, which excuse are you going to defer your power to? Is it too much effort, too little to make a difference, too boring?
What if you accepted your excuse and tried it anyway?
That’s where this substitution works magic. Swap “but” for “and” and suddenly, your excuse is an obstacle – another piece of the puzzle that needs to be considered when creating the solution.
“I wish I could paint more often
but and I just don’t have the energy in the evening. Maybe I should try waking up early to paint or perhaps time-block some time over lunch once a week.”
From Obligation to Desire
I’ve saved the best for last. The dreaded Should.
Should is a lot like ‘have to’. It’s usually inspired by what someone else wants or what you think someone else wants.
Things we ‘should’ do usually make their way onto our to-do list to save us from some perceived unpleasant experience, to reinforce our identity or to help us belong. For example:
- If I do this, it will make them happy and protect me from their temper.
- I’m the kind of person who is trustworthy and so I should do this pointless task I’ve been assigned.
- I don’t want them to think less of me and so I should pretend to be like them by doing this thing.
Should’s are motivated from a place of obligation which has a way of by-passing reason. To take our power back, first challenge “should-do’s”. Follow your curiosity.
Ask, “Why is this urgent and/or important?”
If there’s not a reason to do it, consider striking it off your list. If there is a reason, make sure it’s valid…
Ask, “Is this true?”
If the reason is not true, (eg, this is important because it will protect me from being left-out. Is this true? Actually, maybe not. I haven’t tried) be open to trying a new approach. Test this assumption.
If it is true, then maybe it’s not something you should do but rather something worth doing.
In this case, swap ‘should’ for ‘want to’.
Want to suggests a desire and comes from a place of ownership and choice. It is your decision and motivated by your connection to the purpose of the activity.
Let’s try it…
“I should clean up the house in my spare time for my family.”
Why is this urgent and/or important? “It’s important that my family and I are healthy and happy. A clean, uncluttered space creates the environment where we can be healthy and happy.”
Ok. Is this true? “It’s true that the house should be clean, but it’s not true that it’s only my job.”
Ok. Time to try a new approach and take ownership.
“I want to clean up the house. I will ask my husband to help me for 30 minutes this evening and I’ll give Zooey a little clean up project too. We can do it together, we all created this mess, and it will happen much more quickly.”
That’s it. Deceptively simple, but it works.
By the way, practice some self-compassion when developing this awareness and making these changes. It takes attention and energy (which we have in a limited supply). There will be times when you don’t catch the old story in time: these are mostly subconscious and habitual so they tend to happen on autopilot.
This is meant to be empowering, not another whip to beat yourself with. Start by choosing one word to listen to or use the positive, intentional words when setting your weekly or daily goals.
Noticing these stories gets easier and soon you will build new thought loops with the positive action words.
Be brave and curious,