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Strategy: 9 words and phrases that are undermining your success

  • The language you use when you're talking to yourself affects your behavior. Certain words can make it harder to achieve your goals.
  • Your language also affects how other people perceive you. Certain words and phrases can make you seem less intelligent.
  • To that end, we collected a series of words and phrases to avoid whenever possible.

It's not just what you say; it's how you say it that matters. Even if you're only talking to yourself.

And there are certain words and phrases that are often counterproductive. Below, Business Insider has rounded up a series of those words and phrases to avoid, based on recommendations from psychologists, engineers, and workplace experts.

Read on to see which items to eliminate immediately from your vocabulary — and what to replace them with.

Instead of 'I can't' say 'I don't'

Instead of 'I can't' say 'I don't'play

Instead of 'I can't' say 'I don't'


A 2012 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research and cited in The Harvard Business Review, found that telling yourself "I can't" doesn't work nearly as well as telling yourself "I don't."

That means "I don't eat brownies" works better than "I can't eat brownies" — though the strategy helps with any goal, whether it's procrastinating less or working out more.

In one experiment in the study, women participating in a 10-day health and wellness seminar were given different strategies for reaching their goals. Results showed that the participants who said "I can't" were unlikely to persist for the full 10 days — even less likely than participants who learned to "just say no." Yet eight of the 10 participants who said "I don't" stuck it out for the full experiment.

Instead of 'but' say 'and'

Instead of 'but' say 'and'play

Instead of 'but' say 'and'


In his book "The Achievement Habit," Stanford engineering professor Bernard Roth explains why "but" is generally a word to avoid when you're talking to yourself.

He writes: "When you use the word but, you create a conflict (and sometimes a reason) for yourself that does not really exist." Meanwhile, when you use the word and, "your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence," Roth writes.

For example, instead of saying, "I want to go to the movies, but I have work to do," Roth suggests telling yourself, "I want to go to the movies, and I have work to do."

The word swap helps you see that it's possible to do both activities — you just need to find a solution, whether that's seeing a shorter movie or delegating some of your work.

Instead of 'have to' say 'want to'

Instead of 'have to' say 'want to'play

Instead of 'have to' say 'want to'

(stock_photo_world /

In the same book, Roth recommends a simple exercise: The next few times you say "I have to" in your mind, change have to want.

"This exercise is very effective in getting people to realize that what they do in their lives — even the things they find unpleasant — are in fact what they have chosen," Roth writes.

For example, one of Roth's students felt he had to take the math courses required for his graduate program, even though he hated them. At some point after completing the exercise, he realized that he really did want to take the classes because the benefit of completing the requirement outweighed the discomfort of sitting through classes he didn't enjoy.

Instead of 'why' say 'what'

Instead of 'why' say 'what'play

Instead of 'why' say 'what'

(Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr)

In her book "Insight," psychologist Tasha Eurich advises readers to use the word what instead of why when they're facing a difficult situation.

Eurich elaborated on this strategy when she visited the Business Insider office in May 2017. Instead of asking yourself, "Why did I go so wrong in that meeting?" or, "Why did I mess that up?" you'd say, "What can I do differently in the future?" or, "What can I learn from this particular event that will help me be more successful next time?"

Eurich explained:

"What I've found, in my research and others', is that when we ask ourselves those 'why' questions, it takes us down a spiral of self-loathing.

"It makes us depressed; it tends to make us beat ourselves up in a non-productive way. But if we can ask the question of 'what,' that's more future-oriented. That can make all the difference in the world."

Instead of 'I'm such an idiot' and other kinds of self-deprecation, use positive self-talk

Instead of 'I'm such an idiot' and other kinds of self-deprecation, use positive self-talkplay

Instead of 'I'm such an idiot' and other kinds of self-deprecation, use positive self-talk

(Wikimedia Commons)

A growing body of research suggests self-compassion — being kind to yourself when you mess up — is a key to success.

For example, instead of saying, "How could I have done this? I'm such an idiot!" you could say, "I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that's okay." The idea is to talk to yourself as you would talk to a colleague or a friend who's failed.

That way, instead of shooting yourself down, you learn from the experience and have a chance to bounce back.

Instead of 'I don't know,' say 'I don't know and ...'

Instead of 'I don't know,' say 'I don't know and ...'play

Instead of 'I don't know,' say 'I don't know and ...'

(Flickr / Funk Dooby)

Admitting you don't know the answer — instead of feigning knowledge — can make you look smart. But you never want to leave it at that.

Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner broke it down on a 2014 episode of the Freakonomics podcast.

"Let's be clear: Simply saying 'I don't know' isn't a solution," Dubner said. "It's just a first step. You have to figure out what you don't know — and then work like a dog to learn."

One option, according to a former naval officer who wrote in to the Freakonomics blog, is simply to say, "I'll find out." Another is, "Why don't we ask [someone else's name]?" if you're not the best person to answer the question.

Instead of 'yes' all the time, say 'no' on occasion

Instead of 'yes' all the time, say 'no' on occasionplay

Instead of 'yes' all the time, say 'no' on occasion

(marc falardeau/Flickr)

Successful people have mastered the art of declining requests. In fact, when psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote to a series of creative professors to interview them for a book he was writing, one-third responded "no," typically citing a lack of time.

You can even say "no" to your boss on occasion — as long as you frame it the right way.

For example, if your boss assigns you a project but you're already overloaded with other projects, national workplace expert Lynn Taylor recommends saying something like: "I would be happy to do that project, but what that could mean is that [whatever other project you're working on] will have to be put off until tomorrow, because I was actually going to spend the next three hours finishing that proposal. Would you like me to put that off?"

The idea here is not to blindly agree to every request that comes your way — even if it seems impossible to decline.

Instead of 'fine,' say something more specific

Instead of 'fine,' say something more specificplay

Instead of 'fine,' say something more specific

(AP images)

Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of "Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results," previously told Business Insider that it's wise to choose a word other than "fine" in professional contexts.

For example, if someone asks, "How's the project coming along?" you might say something like: "On time and under budget! May I give you a quick update?"

Of course, if things are not fine, you'd be wise to say so — and to come prepared with a potential solution to the problem.

Instead of using complex words, use succinct language

Instead of using complex words, use succinct languageplay

Instead of using complex words, use succinct language

(AP Photo / Adam Butler)

Using fancy words in order to look smart can backfire, according to a 2005 study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

In one experiment, researchers selected a sociology dissertation abstract with lots of long words and created a "simplified" version by replacing every word of nine or more letters with its second shortest entry in the Microsoft Word 2000 thesaurus. Then they asked 35 Stanford undergrads to read the dissertation and rate both the author's intelligence and how difficult the writing was to understand.

Results showed that the simplified version was perceived as less complex — and its author was judged as more intelligent.


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