[This is the 4th installment in our series, Language Matters. If you missed the others you can find them here, and here and here. Also, confession-time: I thought this was going to be a 3 part series. But here we are on the 4th piece and I still keep thinking of other ways that the language we use matters! So let’s just see where this takes us.]

Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you uttered the words “I didn’t have time”? Or “I’m bad at”…? Or “I can’t”? Or “I failed”?

I’m going to take a wild guess that it wasn’t that long ago! (Am I right?)

When you use these phrases, how do you feel? Stuck, frustrated, paralyzed, guilty, defeated?

Why? Because these phrases don’t give you any agency. They are, at best, excuses. They’re not helping you move forward (which is the only direction you can go). And worse, when we repeat messages to ourselves that don’t serve us, it becomes a vicious downward spiral, a slippery slope towards complacency.

But here’s the thing: The language you use? Well, you have the power to change it. And when you change the language you use, you change your actions as well.

So today, let’s talk about practical ways to get out of your own head and out of your own way so you can move in the direction of your goals.

Following are some of the most common phrases that I hear that are holding people back, and what you can do to turn these around and push yourself forward instead:

“I don’t have time/I didn’t have time time to…”

Now, this is one that I hear ALL THE TIME. And heck, I used to be guilty of saying this as well. But several years ago I started saying something different. Instead of saying “I didn’t have time for”, I started saying “I didn’t prioritize that”. Instead of saying “I don’t have time for”, I started saying “that’s not a priority for me right now”.

This might seem like a subtle change. But in my experience, it made a huge difference. It brought me a sense of agency. Instead of feeling that I was at the mercy of my to-do list, I started to feel in control of it, and my time. I was the one making decisions about my own priorities.

And I was accepting reality. Because time is finite.

As much as we would like to, we can’t do all the things all the time. You and me? We’re both going to die someday (in a long, long time, hopefully) with a big, long list full of things we didn’t do. That’s just life. But I want to feel good about what I did. Don’t you? I want to know that I chose to do things that were more important to me than all the things I didn’t do. I want to know that I used my finite amount of time in a way that serves my goals and values. And when I stopped saying “I don’t have time for” and started saying “that’s not a priority”, I took back that control.

“I’m bad at…”

This is another one I hear almost daily. Usually in the form of “I’m bad at time management” or “I’m bad at the organization”. This phrase can be really self-defeating. You’re down on yourself before you even get started!

Have you read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset? This book changed my worldview.

(TLDR: If you have a “fixed mindset” you believe you have an innate set of skills (or lack thereof) that is static and therefore can not be changed. And if you have a “growth mindset” you believe that you can improve. People who foster a growth mindset tend to welcome a whole host of benefits, including the ability to improve their skills and perform better. Those with a fixed mindset tend to limit their own growth and performance simply because they believe that their skills are static and innate.)

I’m going to quote one of my clients here because I think he said it best: “All my life I’ve self-identified as someone who inevitably struggles with organization and procrastination…Alexis helped me see that I don’t have to be a disorganized person — I can learn, and I can improve.”

Through practice, we improve.

So the next time you’re saying (or thinking), “ugh, I’m just so bad at this”, I want you to try something different instead, say “I just need to practice”. This switch in language put you back in control. It increases your agency.

(You know what else? You can cultivate a growth mindset. You’re not stuck with what you’ve got. Just swap “I’m bad at” with “I need to practice” and you’ll be on your way.)

“I can’t/It won’t work”

It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut, in our own (limiting) beliefs, our constraints, our circumstances or how we think the world works. We shut options down before we’ve given them the old college try.

As a kid, I remember starting questions with “Can I…” and being answered with a question: “I don’t know. Can you?” Annoying, yes. But also helpful. Because who gets to decide whether I can or I can’t? Me.

So, the next time you find yourself saying or thinking “I can’t” or “It won’t work”, I want you to put on your scientist hat and get curious. Ask yourself:

  • Why can’t I?
  • Who says?
  • How do I know I can’t?
  • Have I tried this yet?

The best way I know to figure out if something will work is to try it. And it’s pretty darn hard to know if something will work or if it won’t until you do try it. When you think you can’t, instead, try to think of how you might experiment like a scientist!

Now, what if the reason you “can’t” has nothing to do with you?

We often say “I can’t” or “It won’t work” because other people are involved and we don’t know (yet) whether they’ll be amenable to our plan. So let me share something that I learned from my mom a long time ago: “You don’t get what you don’t ask for”.

Is it comfortable to ask for something you’re not sure you’re gonna get? Nope. Should you do it anyway? Yep? What’s the worst that can happen? You’re in the same position you were before you asked.

If you think something won’t work because you think someone else might say no, or not like it, how about just asking them?

“I failed”

This is a big one. When we fall short of our goals or our expectations of ourselves, it’s easy to think that we’ve failed. And then it can be hard to pick yourself back up and get back at it. But there’s a huge silver lining every time we screw up. You just have to look for it.

The next time you feel like you’ve failed go ahead and wallow in your feelings for a few minutes (you’re human, after all). But then, do a little post-mortem with yourself by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What did I learn here?
  • What could I do differently next time?
  • Was my goal actually realistic and achievable given the resources and time I had available?
  • What actually did go well? (Things are not usually ALL bad and you want to notice what did go well so you can double down on it next time.)

Do answering these questions change the fact that you “failed”? Yes and no. The outcome is still the same. This time. But life only moves forward. So if you’ve learned something that will help you next time, that you couldn’t have learned any other way but experience, well then, have you really failed? Or have you actually made progress?

What phrase are you going to try replacing first?