Here’s what I learned when I worked to remove can’t, maybe and need from my vocabulary.

Eliminating terms that reinforce distress, hesitation, and inability has given me greater surety in the world, higher confidence in my language and decisions, and a sense that I really own what I say.
This says, "I Need: "

For the past 30 days, I have been working on removing some words from my vocabulary. Those words are can’t, need, and maybe.

I had a friend help to keep me accountable. This meant reporting in every Sunday. As good accountability buddies do, Chris asked great questions along the way that helped me to think about the shifts in my inner narrative.

And he also had some (valid) concerns about how well I could track something so subjective. There’s not much more subjective than your own thinking.

Paying attention to your inner narrative means paying attention.

In order to change anything about what you’re thinking, you have to be aware that you’re thinking.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? In truth, you have to be mindful of what you’re thinking in order to do this. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that my meditation practice has been a very strong sidekick this past month!

However, you do need a method of tracking what you’re doing.

Given I carry a notebook with me almost 24/7, and always have one near me, my version of tracking involved keeping a series of line-strokes in a table over the course of a week.

Keeping track means exactly that: Keep track.

It doesn’t mean: Sighing about it, beating yourself up about it, or telling yourself off about it. Noticing your inner habits is the first stage in changing them, no matter what those habits are. Therefore, tracking was Numero Uno.

Why would you bother, Leticia?

For the past couple of months, I’ve been studying negotiation techniques, going hard on motivation, and reading about power, seduction, and persuasion.

Then, at the end of a hard week, I started pepping myself up with motivationals.

In one of those, a line stuck out at me. It was:

Instead of saying ‘can’t’, winners ask, ‘how can I?’.

It’s obvious as hell, right? But what hit me was that I wasn’t asking how can I? I was railing inwardly at my inability to do things instead.

That’s how this got started.

Language is magical: Here’s why

The language that you use is magical. It contains meaning that has accumulated over hundreds of years. Each word that you use is a symbol that conveys meaning in a particular way.

When we go back and look at the etymology and meanings of the word Need, for example, we find that it has origins in a whole lot of really negative things:

Middle English nede, from Old English nied (West Saxon), ned (Mercian) “what is required, wanted, or desired; necessity, compulsion, the constraint of unavoidable circumstances; duty; hardship, emergency, trouble, time of peril or distress; errand, business,” originally “violence, force,” from Proto-Germanic *nauthiz/*naudiz (source also of Old Saxon nod, Old Norse nauðr“distress, emergency, need,” Old Frisian ned, “force, violence; danger, anxiety, fear; need,” Middle Dutch, Dutch nood “need, want, distress, peril,” Old High German not, German Not“need, distress, necessity, hardship,” Gothic nauþs “need”).


It goes on from here. Need is also related to older terms meaning poverty, subsistence, famine, shortage, death, rape, and even slave.

The word itself is a nest of vipers, in other words. It is an extreme word, one that has become normalised. Is it unsurprising that the word itself leaves you feeling uncomfortable?

As for the word maybe, I wanted to remove it simply so I would be more definite about things. As they say, it’s either fuck yeah or it’s no. None of this maybe bullshit.

The data

Here is a nice chart that demonstrates what has happened with these words in my life over the past 30 days:

You understand “said” to mean thought, said out loud, or wrote. This includes in writing for clients, text messages, journal entries, and any other writing that I may have engaged in. (And I do a lot of writing. I write almost all day every day.)

At the end of Week 1 I left myself a note that said: Outcome: More precise communication. Simply by being aware of what I was thinking and writing, I was thinking more clearly about the words I was using. The result was that I became more precise almost immediately.

At the end of Week 2, the word Maybe had all but disappeared. It turned out that I had no problem with getting rid of this one. It just moseyed on out the door. However, I did notice that while can’t dropped off, need increased.

Why might that be?

Any speculation at this point is highly subjective and untested. But my theory is that, in shifting to how can I, I gained a greater sense of survivalism: Somehow, looking to overcome problems became a need to overcome problems.

My accountability buddy asked me whether this was a bad thing. It’s a good question, and I don’t think it is. I would be interested to see if anybody else experienced the same pattern, though. If you try this experiment, I’d love you to email me and tell me.

By the end of Week 3 my subconscious was getting on board. I found myself erasing the words before even realising that I’d started to write them. I stopped myself saying them, and found other terms to say instead–and it was only afterwards that I realised it.

However, it’s towards the end of Week 3 that it becomes very challenging to remember to document what’s going on. Your brain has almost had enough, and because it’s becoming habit not to use them, it’s easy to let it slide. I discovered this, and made sure to reassert my personal observance.

Yet by the end of Week 4 almost every one of these words was gone.

You want to know the amusing thing? When my accountability friend suggested I ought to add should to the list, and I agreed—thus kickstarting a second 30 days—both need and can’t reared their heads again.

The second 30 days will serve to reinforce the habit of not using these words. A lifetime of use is difficult to change in just 30 days, after all. Weirdly, in this first week of the second set, maybe also came back.

The outcome

The outcome of this experiment is that my thinking has become clearer, and my opinions feel much more strident than they did a month ago. Somehow, removing these terms has stopped me from becoming lazy in my speech and in my writing.

This is not a small achievement, by the way. For perhaps the past year, I have been plagued by a feeling that I am becoming less eloquent thanks to a heavy reliance on a particular set of words. In writing, I am excellent most of the time; but in speech? Not so much. Since engaging in this exercise, becoming mindful of the words I use and why I use them, I’ve been able to express myself with greater clarity and ease than at any time in the previous three years.

In Summary

This 30-day experiment to remove the words need, maybe and can’t has resulted in my ability to see what I’m thinking more clearly, to notice what I write and what I say.

In turn, it has yielded a major increase in self-confidence. This will no doubt be related to how mindful I am about what I’m doing, true. But there will also be a good measure of a change in how I am programming myself.

Instead of programming myself with distress, hesitation, and barriers, I’ve begun the process of removing them, of rediscovering possibilities, and affirming confidence. The words that you use do impact on how you think, how you behave, and how you show up in the world. Eliminating terms that reinforce distress, hesitation, and inability has given me greater surety in the world, higher confidence in my language and decisions, and a sense that I really own what I say.

It’s an incredible personal outcome, and I highly recommend this experiment to you on that basis.

If you attempt your own 30-day word-eradication program, contact me to tell me how you get on.

And in the meantime, I’m continuing with the next 30 days. I’ll update this post when I’ve reached the end.

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