stick to goals

How To Get 80% To Stick To A Goal

Stick to a goalIn a recent study posted in The Journal of Consumer Research, Authors Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt found that changing one word helped people stick to their goals 266% better (from 30% to 80%)! What was that change in wording and how can we use it to help ourselves stick to our goals and help our clients stick to theirs?

To explore the reasons this simple word change is so powerful, it’s good to understand how people are motivated.

What Motivates People?

In general, people are motivated toward ‘good’ feelings and away from ‘bad’ feelings. They do things that make them feel good and avoid things that make them feel bad. And those behaviors and feelings are sometimes tied to moral codes or a sense of identity. Let me give you an example…

Let’s suppose there are two people, Joe and Jane. Jane is deeply committed to environmental issues. Joe is not. Joe might choose to wash his  dishes in the dishwasher because it’s convenient. Jane washes her dishes in the dishwasher because she’s concerned about the environment and she’s heard that using a dishwasher uses far less water. As you can imagine, it might be far  easier to get Joe to change his behavior than Jane.


Because, with Jane, you’d be battling one of her core values. So, she’s going to have more powerful feelings about how she washes dishes.

So, What Was The Powerful Word Change?

In the study, they changed the word “can’t” to the word “don’t.” Instead of “I can’t do that,” people were instructed to say, “I don’t do that.” Can’t seems like a choice. In fact, ‘can’t’ is part of a class of words we call ‘modal operators of necessity and possibility’. It implies possibility and choice whereas ‘don’t’ does not. Try it on. Say these two phrases to yourself…

  1. “I can’t turn homework in late.”
  2. “I don’t turn homework in late.”

Do those feel different to you? They do to me. But we can do better than they did in the study.

Clarifying A Sense Of Identity

Talking about things you do or don’t do is a greater level of conviction than talking about things you can or can’t do. But it’s still talking about behavior. Using the word ‘don’t’ implies that it’s a more central value, but we can tie it more directly to our sense of self. Jane could say, “I’m an environmentalist, I do the dishes in the dishwasher.” That ‘I am’ statement is an identity statement — it’s how she sees who she is.

Stick To A Goal

The more we can attach goals to a person’s sense of identity and not achieving those goals as counter to that sense of identity, the more powerful the motivation will be toward achieving those goals. If we can turn a statement about a goal into an ‘I am’ statement rather than an ‘I do’ statement, that will help us stick to a goal.

We can also anchor that feeling of identity and fire off that anchor when they’re making the statement. And/or, we can find submodalities related to identity and use them to map across a behavior to an identity.


About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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  1. I’ve thought that when saying “don’t do a thing” that then mind only hears “do that thing”. In the above example what prevents the mind from processing I only hand in homework late?
    Just curious.
    thanks for the great articles!

    1. Hi Mike,
      Good comment. Stating something in the positive makes it easier for the mind to understand but saying something in the negative doesn’t prevent the mind from understanding completely. It just makes it harder.

      The study looked at the effectiveness of “don’t” vs “can’t”. Both words would result in negatively phrased statements. I suspect “don’t” wins because “don’t” (for most people) is a more serious commitment. These scientists probably don’t even know about stating things in the positive.

      You’d probably do even better if you created positively-phrased identity statements.

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