How Replacing “Can’t” With “Don’t” May Help You Break Your Worst Habits


Contributed by Beth Rush

People have habits that they want to get rid of. Whether it’s stress eating, procrastination or neglecting self-care, it’s common for people to fall into these unhealthy patterns.

In your journey to self-improvement, you might have heard that replacing “can’t” with “don’t” can help break bad habits.

Discover what causes these unpleasant patterns, why it’s so hard to quit them and how the magic word “don’t” might be your best weapon against continuing them.

What Causes Bad Habits?

Before diving deeper into how to break bad habits, understanding how they form is essential. There are many factors for taking up unhealthy actions, but the following are among the most common.

  • Stress: About one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as eight or more on a 10-point scale. There are many ways people cope with stressful situations — with women being more likely to turn to food and men to smoking or alcohol.
  • Boredom: Some people turn to unhealthy habits for entertainment when there’s nothing else to do.
  • Learned behavior: When you see your family member, friend or role model engaging in a bad habit, you may feel compelled to imitate it. This feeling stems from the need to fit in and feel accepted. When people see peers, especially their leaders, engaging in unhealthy behaviors without censure, they will likely imitate them.
  • No sense of purpose: When you don’t have a specific goal or structure, you might turn to bad habits to fill the void.
  • Poor emotional regulation: People turn to unhealthy behavior to cope with negative emotions.

If you’re unaware of the underlying reason for your unpleasant habits, it can become a complicated pattern to break.

Why It’s Hard to Break Bad Habits

You might have told yourself it’ll be the last time you impulsively shop. You may find it hard to give up your addiction to fast food. Regardless of your unhealthy practice, people struggle with the same problem — bad habits are hard to shake off.

These habits are routines, like driving to work or eating breakfast, making living life more manageable. When you try to break it, the limbic system in the brain activates the fight-flight-or-freeze responses, and your initial reaction is to avoid this threat. You may immediately revisit old habits, even though they don’t benefit you.

How to Replace “Can't” With “Don't”

Now that you’re ready to break your worst habits, knowing why you want to change is essential. Whether it’s a personal reason, such as wanting to be healthier for your future family or being more fit, having a motivation to refer to during struggles is essential.

However, you might need more than motivation to keep you grounded. Despite your best intentions, you might find yourself dancing with those familiar habits again somewhere along the way. When faced with a temptation, replacing “can’t” with “don’t” is a powerful strategy to help you stay grounded.

Imagine this: You’re ready to face the day without drinking soda. Instead of saying, “I can’t drink soda today” when your workmate offers you your favorite root beer, say, “I don’t drink soda.” While these words seem synonymous, they are worlds apart.

The words “to do” means to execute an action. Therefore, when you say, “I don’t bite my nails,” even if you’re a notorious nail-bitter, you’re consciously choosing not to perform the action anymore.

Check out the benefits of making this small yet powerful change.

It Empowers Others

When you say you no longer drink soda, you inspire people around you to do the same and support your journey. They will admire your self-control and self-discipline. Speaking up about what you’re going through is an effective way to spark change with your loved ones.

It Reframes Your Mindset

The word “don’t” can reshape your belief in yourself. Replacing self-limiting sentences like “I can’t drink soda” with an empowering alternative such as “I don’t drink soda anymore” can alter your mindset and give you control over your thoughts and actions.

It Motivates You to Track Your Progress

This short switching of words can contribute to a motivated mindset, facilitating tracking your progress. Aside from “don’t,” you can also sprinkle in some descriptive words to help you more efficiently stop bad behavior in its tracks. Instead of saying, “I want to quit spending impulsively,” you can jot down, “I will track expenses and make informed spending decisions.”

How to Replace “Can't” With “Don't”

Here are some ways you can swap your “can’t” for “don’t” to break your worst habits:

Practice mindfulness: Try to become more attuned to your inner thoughts. When you catch yourself saying “I can’t,” pause and quickly rephrase it to “I don’t.” Taking a few breaths in this situation makes it easier to focus on your current state and keep anxiety at bay.

Be assertive: The word “don’t” implies you have a choice and control over your actions. On the other hand, “can’t” makes you feel that something is controlling you. In other words, saying “don’t” gives you more self-control and autonomy.

Celebrate small wins: Pat yourself on the back whenever you say you don’t engage in that unhealthy habit anymore.

Share your progress: Don’t hesitate to share your progress with a trusted family member, friend or professional. Someone who supports you in your journey will better motivate you to stay on track.

Break Your Worst Habits With the Power of “Don’t”

Breaking bad habits is challenging but possible. It’s a long process requiring time and effort. Remember to start your journey by replacing your “can’t” with “don’t” and revel in the power it gives you.


by Beth Rush • Managing Editor at Body+Mind


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