“If you have disconnected from your soul’s desire and are drowning in an ocean of ‘have-to,’ then rise up and overthrow your master.”—W. Timothy Gallwey, motivational coach and author

In a television interview, former news anchor, Diane Sawyer asked Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence if she would ever get married. Lawrence replied, “I don’t feel a need to, but I might or might not.” Sawyer responded, “When you don’t need, you get to chose.” A very wise correspondent. And new research bears out Sawyer’s sage advice. Overuse of self-talk—such as should, need-to and have-to triggers oppositional feelings and reduces goal motivation; whereas, the use of could and want-to empowers the freedom to choose. Science shows that want-to (vs. have-to) motivation leads to more successful goal attainment with fewer obstacles in the way, making it more likely that you will stick to your goals for 2023. Notice the difference between “I should have been more welcoming to the new team member” versus “I could have been more welcoming to the new team member.” The first sentence conveys blame; the second conveys freedom of choice.

The Science Behind Sticking To Resolutions

How many times have you resolved to improve your habits and set career goals? Or how often have you promised yourself to eat healthier, lose weight or exercise more? Then a month down the road, your vows are distant memories. The words we use to set goals shape our attitudes and feelings and can either foster or reduce our motivation.

Overuse of oppressive words like need-to, have-to, oughtto, must or should both contribute to and reflect our motivations, driving our actions accordingly. When you oppose yourself with words such as should or must, you might not realize it but you’re scolding yourself with shame-based messages. “You should have gone to the office party” or “You must be a better employee.” Psychologist Clayton Barbeau called these shame-based messages “shoulding yourself.” And the late psychologist Albert Ellis coined the term “Musterbation” to describe when we bow to the mind’s oppressive self-talk or put those pressures on others.

Want-to’s are internally motivating when a goal has personal meaning to us. An example might be “I really want a job as a supervisor.” Have-to’s are externally motivating when someone else demands that we accomplish a goal or our own “should” or “must” voice requires us to do so. An example might be “I have to please my boss to get the promotion.” A recent study found that when we pursue a goal with want-to motivation, we tend to have fewer obstacles and an easier time reaching our goals. In contrast, when we pursue a goal for have-to reasons, we tend to have more obstacles and struggle to reach our goals.

Strategies To Stick To Your Resolutions

A large body of research shows that the more self-compassion and self-encouragement we bring to a task, the greater our emotional arsenals and chances of success. Pep talks, affirmations or an arm around your shoulder are good medicine for sticking to your New Year’s resolutions. Studies also show that when you self-soothe through the inevitable setbacks—instead of attacking yourself—you are more motivated to get back in the saddle, stick to your goals and scale the challenges.

The first step in reaching your resolutions is to make sure you target something you want-to do. If that’s not possible and it’s something you have-to do at work, find one thing about the task that is personally meaningful and motivating. Then ask if your words oppose or support the goals you set. Replace mandatory statements with empowering words to enhance the chances that you will stick to a New Year’s resolution or accomplish your career goals. Mere word substitution can re-frame a dreaded work situation. When you replace mandatory statements such as “I should” or “I must” with empowering words such as “I could” “I get to,” “I want to” or “I choose to,” it puts you in charge instead of at the mercy of challenges, making it more likely that you will follow through.

By making micro-adjustments, it’s possible to change long-held habits by simply associating them with a positive experience. To change hard habits, sometimes all you need is a perspective shift. For example, you remind yourself that you get to spend time with your loved ones (spouse or partner and maybe the kids) but only if you choose to leave the laptop and stack of files you brought home in the trunk of your car instead of piling them on the kitchen table. Another example of a micro-adjustment is to alter your language, as I mentioned earlier, which James Clear also suggests in his book, Atomic Habits, “We often talk about everything we must do in each day. You must wake up early for work. You have to make another sales call for your business. You must cook dinner for your family,” he points out. “Now imagine changing just one word: You don’t ‘have to’. You ‘get to.’ You get to wake up early for work. You get to make another sales call for your business. You get to cook dinner for your family. By simply changing one word, you shift the way you view each event. You transition from seeing these behaviors as burdens and turn them into opportunities.”

Another baked-in motivational strategy is known as the if-then plan, which inoculates you from the proverbial “what-the-hell-attitude” and from giving up before reaching your goal. Research conducted by Peter Gollwitzer at New York University shows that having an action plan for what you intend to do before you encounter a situation can triple the chances of accomplishing your goals. One study found that 91% of people who used the if-then plan stuck to their plan, compared to 39% of those who didn’t use the formula: If X happens (the event), then I’ll do Y (my action). You’ve got to admit those are pretty good odds. Let’s say you’re trying to avoid procrastination on a job task. Your plan to be more timely goes from a vague, “I will stop procrastinating,” to applying “If X happens, then I’ll do Y.” The X is the situation and Y is the action you take when X occurs. Plugging your idle vow to stop procrastinating into a specific action plan might look like this: “When I have an important project due, I will finish it a day before the deadline to create a cushion to account for unexpected interruptions.”

It’s A No-Brainer

Next time you set a career goal or New Year’s resolution, don’t let your thoughts run roughshod over you. Take charge of them. Try to have an If X, then Y plan. If you have a setback when you’re trying to break a habit or reach a goal, remember that setbacks are part of moving forward. Be mindful of whether your self-talk is compassionate or oppressive and become aware of what it requires of you. If “Musturbation” is blasting you, choose more supportive, comforting words such as “I can”; “I want to;” “I plan to;” or “I choose to.” Once you realize you don’t have to live up to the oppressive voice’s demands, you can take a breath, step back and chill. By intentionally bringing motivational awareness to your career goals and work challenges, you sidestep stress and create a calmer, more successful career trajectory.


  • Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Journalist, psychotherapist, and Author of 40 books.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

    Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, psychotherapist in private practice, and award-winning author of two novels and 40 nonfiction books that have been translated into 15 languages. His latest books are CHAINED TO THE DESK IN A HYBRID WORLD: A GUIDE TO WORK-LIFE BALANCE (New York University Press, 2023)#CHILL: TURN OFF YOUR JOB AND TURN ON YOUR LIFE (William Morrow, 2019), DAILY WRITING RESILIENCE: 365 MEDITATIONS & INSPIRATIONS FOR WRITERS (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). He is a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Psychology Today, and Thrive Global. He has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, ABC's World News Tonight, NPR’s Marketplace, NBC Nightly News and he hosted the PBS documentary "Overdoing It: How To Slow Down And Take Care Of Yourself." website: https://bryanrobinsonphd.com.