Why it’s important to say “I don’t” rather than “I can’t”

The late Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) used to give good advice to “just say no” to unhealthy behaviors like “recreational” drugs (see the March 28, 2016 Daily Dispatch “Nancy Reagan knew the key to a healthy lifestyle”).

Science and modern events have proven just how right she was with her basic message of abstinence, despite the ridicule of politically correct public health experts.

That’s why I always share with you my common-sense personal tips for saying no to unhealthy behaviors. This month I am also reporting some interesting new research on the topic of how to “just say no” when subjected to peer pressures.

The easy way to establish a personal wellness policy

A few years ago, two professors of marketing set out to determine how much the language we use for saying “no” helps—or hinders—us in reaching our goals.

These professors conducted four studies in which they divided people into groups that used either “I can’t” or “I don’t” phrases.

For instance, in one study, 30 women participated in a wellness challenge that involved goals like exercising more or making better food choices. When faced with a temptation, one group of women was instructed to tell themselves “I can’t.” For example, “I can’t eat pie.” The other group used phrases like “I don’t eat pie.”1

After 10 days, only 10% of the “I can’t” group was still meeting its wellness goals. But 80% of the “I don’t” group remained on track.

The researchers think this happened because saying “I don’t” involves someone’s personal identity.  Whereas saying “I can’t” involves factors seemingly outside the person.

To put it another way, using “I don’t” phrases establishes a personal policy. For instance, you might have the personal policy of “I don’t eat sugar.”

This sets expectations for both yourself and others, and provides a set of simple guidelines to help you take control of your health, and have others respect them.

The death of abstinence—and the frightening toll on public health

Of course, I’ve known this basic truth almost as long as Mrs. Reagan did. But by the 1980s, the experts no longer wanted to rely on personal policies of abstinence and discipline, at least as a starting point, for addressing the drug epidemic. In essence, they weren’t encouraging the “I don’t use drugs” personal policy I just told you about.

That’s still the case today, and look what it’s done to us. Use and abuse of both prescription and so-called “recreational” drugs has reached epidemic levels and raised alarms at the local and national levels.

In fact, in the March Insiders’ Cures (“Alert: New research shows pain pills are creating a deadly epidemic”), I reported about research showing how death rates among white, middle-class Americans have changed for the worse by a whopping 38% over the last 30 years, with use and abuse of both prescription and illegal drugs being the major factor.

But the current government so-called solution is to just spend more taxpayer money on treatment programs, rather than any abstinence and discipline initiatives.

And that’s not the only health and wellness issue for which abstinence is now discouraged. As I wrote in a February Daily Dispatch (“The critical abstinence advice the government WON’T promote”) abstinence is not even an option in many public-school sex-education programs.

Minors (well under the legal “age of consent”) are taught everything about sex—except not to have it. And girls are being prescribed birth control prior to the “age of consent,” and being injected with dangerous HPV vaccines that cause ovarian failure, with incalculable long-term damage to their reproductive and general health.

Bottom line: Abstinence is no longer considered part of our nation’s arsenal against unhealthy behaviors (except when it comes to tobacco!). And that myth discourages the development of the personal policies that research shows are critical for healthy lifestyles.

Learning how to set your personal wellness policies

Of course, abstaining is sometimes easier said than done. Why? Well, much of it has to do with evolution.

Humans and canines are unique among apex predators (“top of the food chain”) because we live (and eat) in groups. Other apex predators, such as bears in Eurasia and North America or the big cats in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, typically are solitary hunters.

They require a great deal of foraging range to supply the calories and nutrients they need. Meaning that many environments can only support a few of them. (So when they say, “There’s room at the top,” they don’t mean apex predators.) Here in Florida, conservation biologists recognize that even some of the large state park lands are not large enough to provide forage for a single panther.

But humans work in groups, which has its pluses and minuses. It helps us survive, but it also works against establishing policies for setting personal boundaries. That’s because saying “no” goes against the grain needed to form and maintain social relationships. The person being rejected doesn’t feel good, and the person who’s doing the rejecting can feel guilty and uneasy.

The way to get around this problem is to cite your personal policy. After all, how many times have you heard that something is “just policy” and “nothing personal”? If governments and institutions can totally paper over our lives with their impersonal policies, then we can certainly have a few personal ones for ourselves.

The benefit to these policies is they take away the onus of having to say “no” on a personal, individual basis. For instance, rather than telling someone you don’t want to talk to him or her, you can just say, “Sorry, my policy is not to take phone calls at such and such a time.” Such policies also provide an element of professionalism and predictability.

So how can you establish your own healthy lifestyle policies? Let’s use the growing social epidemic of “busyness” as an example.

Practical tips to put personal “just say no” policies into action

It seems everyone is busy all of the time these days. But a large part of this problem stems from the inability to “just say no.”

Sometimes, we all need to just say no to endless “meetings” that just waste time. Say no to volunteering at public school activities that focus on interacting with adult bureaucrats instead of with children. And say no to involvement in “charitable” health, environmental, and other “nonprofit” causes that are wasteful, misdirected, meaningless—and even border on the fraudulent, as I have often warned about.

Hemingway once wrote, “Never mistake motion for action.” Running around in constant motion does not automatically equate to meaningful action, accomplishments, or results.

In other words, the old admonition, “Don’t just stand there, do something” (stated more than once to doctors in training during surgeries—with potentially dangerous consequences) does not always hold. Rather, John Milton’s observation that “they also serve who only stand and wait” may often be the healthier policy.

So how can you accomplish this goal?

One option is to not accept work-related calls on Sunday, or Saturday, or both, depending upon your faith. Don’t take phone calls outside of business hours. Encourage people who will be disruptive to your train of thought to communicate by email, instead of randomly picking up the phone, so you can get back to them at your convenience when you can focus on their issues (but still within a regular or predictable timeframe). Not everything is a fire that has to be put out. Tell them you are not a “fireman” or “emergency responder.”

An added benefit to “talking” by email rather than phone is that you can communicate with people without fearing you are interrupting them, or calling at a bad time. And it’s easier to just say no in an email than it is in a phone call or face-to-face.

You could also take a page from the late writer Edmund Wilson. He sent back a standard letter for the constant requests that took him away from his writing: “Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to… read manuscripts, give interviews, contribute to, or take part in, symposiums or panels of any kind.” Altogether, his amusing form letter listed 21 common time-wasting requests made of writers in which he would not take part.

Whichever method you choose, remember, “just say no,” may represent your simplest mind-body practice of all in today’s busy world.  Nancy Reagan was right after all, may she rest in peace.


“’I Don’t’ versus ‘I Can’t’: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research. 2012; 39(2): 371-381.