Have you ever purchased a self-help book, attended a seminar, or watched a video where the presenter shared techniques such as affirmations, promising you unlimited potential, financial freedom, the body of your dreams, or perhaps total freedom from guilt?

You gave your full attention to the program in anticipation of all of the miraculous changes you were going to make. But what if you dutifully practiced your affirmations and your life or your body still hasn’t been transformed? There’s probably a voice telling you surely it’s entirely your fault, because after all if someone’s published a book they’re clearly an expert.

Ibrahim Senay, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a series of experiments to determine how our self-talk affects our behaviors. A group of volunteers were split in half. The first group was told to think about whether or not they would stick to an exercise program. The second group was given an affirmation that they would stick to their new program.

Which group performed better? Wouldn’t you expect it to be the second group, which had the power of affirmation?

Surprisingly, it was the first set of volunteers who showed much more commitment. Senay conducted the same type of experiment repeatedly, with the same results each time.

The difference between “Will I do this?” and “I will do this” is subtle, but it’s significant. Senay interviewed his participants to try to find out why. He learned that volunteers with the affirmation anticipated feeling guilty or ashamed if they failed. In contrast, the group that had the open-ended question “Will I?” felt a greater sense of autonomy and accountability for making decisions that benefited their wellbeing.

Guilt and shame, despite their popularity, are ineffective motivators. They won’t encourage you to achieve your goals, and leave you feeling…well, guilty and ashamed. Instead, the question “Will I?” encourages exploration of the values that drive you to achieve a goal.


While you could resign yourself to affirmations in the belief that false hope is better than no hope at all, try the following three steps instead.

  1. Be open. Instead of a definitive affirmation, try using more contemplative open-ended questions such as “Will I?”
  2. Be specific. “Will I exercise more?” is hard to measure, because it’s relative. Instead, try questions such as “Will I drink 75 ounces of water today?” Specific behaviors are measurable, easier to stick to, and motivating because you know whether you’re on track—and what to do if you’re not.
  3. Be short-sighted. A goal such as losing 20 pounds can seem daunting and distant. Consider shorter-term goals such as participating in a group exercise class or losing a single pound, which bring the reward of achievement close enough for you to grab hold of it.

Questions direct our mental focus, which is critical to our ability to do anything. A catchy way to remember? “Where focus goes, energy flows and then the result shows.” Robert


Here’s why affirmations don’t always work.

  1. Declarations are final. “I will” cuts off any other possibilities, as well as a sense of freedom of choice. That’s in addition a sense that anything short of fulfillment is…total failure.
  2. We’re subjective about our past. We might be saying, “I will” today, but we remember past failures. Fear of judgment or criticism about the gap between what we say and what we do can be enough to stop anyone from following through.
  3. Affirmations create performance anxiety. “I will lose 20 pounds” focuses on the outcome. But “Will I lose 20 pounds?” gives you room to concentrate on the process, so that you feel more in control and free to approach change at your own pace.