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“I think I can.” vs “Can I?”

Guest posts

Today’s guest post is from Kari Wolfe, whose blog Imperfect Clarity passes on everything she’s learning as she works toward building a writing career, interviews fascinating people, parents her daughter in ways she never expected, and forges her own habits of success.

I can haz Thunderbird too?

Does it really matter how we phrase things when we think about them?

According to researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it matters.

Albarracin’s team tested this kind of motivation in 50 study participants, encouraging them explicitly to either spend a minute wondering whether they would complete a task or telling themselves they would. The participants showed more success on an anagram task, rearranging set words to create different words, when they asked themselves whether they would complete it than when they told themselves they would.

Further experimentation had students in a seemingly unrelated task simply write two ostensibly unrelated sentences, either “I Will” or “Will I,” and then work on the same task. Participants did better when they wrote, “Will” followed by “I” even though they had no idea that the word writing related to the anagram task.

Why does this happen? Professor Albarracin’s team suspected that it was related to an unconscious formation of the question “Will I” and its effects on motivation. By asking themselves a question, people were more likely to build their own motivation.

(Emphasis mine.)

Let’s look at exactly what the experiment was.

Instead of saying “I will complete this task,” half the students asked themselves “Will I complete this task?”

The students who questioned whether they would complete the task had a higher success rate than the ones who told themselves they would complete it.

Intuitively, I think this makes sense.

Questions allow us think about the reasons behind what we do. By asking ourselves if we will do a task, we realize that there are two answers to that question: either “yes, we will” or “no, we won’t.”

I have often heard it said you must have the ability to fail in order to be able to succeed. By asking ourselves whether we will complete a task, we give ourselves the opportunity to be able to fail. In fact, we can choose to fail, should we so desire.

Questioning allows us to list our own private reasons whether we want to do something. Those reasons, whether we choose to admit them to anyone else or not, are the most important reasons we have to do anything. Ultimately, they are what motivation is all about.


1. Think of something you want (or don’t want) to do. Write the task at the top of a piece of paper.

2. Write it in the form of a question, ex. “Will I finish my book in June?”

2. Draw a line down the center of the page.

3. List your own private personal reasons for doing the task on one side; on the other, list your own private personal reasons for NOT doing the task. Be honest with yourself–at least, in your mind, even if you don’t want to write it on the paper.

4. Do this for a stated period of time. (Personally, I find that deadlines–self-imposed or otherwise–help motivate me to write down what I’m thinking.) 10 minutes, 15 minutes… Even 5 minutes. Choose your own amount of time and set an alarm to ring when it is finished.

5. When your time’s up, finish up your last thought and stop writing.

6. Review your list and decide which side has the best reasons for you.

By listing those reasons, both for doing the task and not doing the task, we can strengthen our own thought processes where that task is concerned. We can stop and think whether our goal is even possible. If I haven’t started writing a book and I’m questioning if I will get it done by tomorrow, more than likely, most of my reasons are going to consist of the fact I won’t have time to finish it. Is it possible?

Having a goal that you want and that is possible for you to complete will help you be more motivated to finish those goals.

What do you think?

Kari Wolfe is a stay-at-home mother of a very curious three-year-old daughter who happens to be autistic. She is a writer and maintains her own blog, Imperfect Clarity where her focus is becoming the best writer (and person) she can be by living her life to the fullest 🙂


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