Why Trying “Not to do” Something Seldom Works – and What Does


In my law school class on leadership, my students teach themselves a lot about their natural strengths in leading as well as their areas of challenge.  Two third year women posted online an identical point of frustration and determination:  they hated being late and were determined to do something different in their next job.  They were really judging themselves, as somebody puts it, “should-ing” all over themselves.  I suggested to them — and share with you — a simple and powerful mental shift if this is one of your issues.  It applies as well to almost any behavior that you’re “trying hard not to do.”

Here’s the key:  Instead of fixating on the negative energy and how it makes you feel, shift to the positives of acting in a different way.  First, here’s how I’ve experienced and processed this kind of behavior:   I have had the awful feeling of barely making it to a speech on time; I’ve been driving (too fast), chastising myself for being behind and telling myself, “I’ll never do this again.”  I get there — sweaty, distracted, worried the Power Point slides won’t work, unfocused on the people who are greeting me, etc.  It’s terrible.  But vows to not do that again were like the vows of a smoker who at the end of a pack says, “not again.”  Oh, sure.  A speech or two later I’d find myself in the same situation, chastising myself and insisting — to my own disbelief — that I wouldn’t do it again .  I was always skating on that edge, as if some inner saboteur delighted in the danger, and seemed able to ignore all my “should’s” the next time around.  Fear and danger just weren’t useful.

Then I found the simple shift.  I arrived at a speech at a conference an hour early.  I got my Power Point set up right away — that worry gone.  I caught a little of the breakout sessions.  I chatted with people in the hall about what the highlights of the conference had been for them.  I asked questions relevant to themes I would speak on.  I even had time to use the men’s room.  And wow did it feel great to have such luxury!  And here is my image, which I think is more than an image, but a very very deep human experience:  I positively owned the space. When I spoke I was focused, at ease and in control; it was my house.

I watch students who come in 5 minutes early and see their calm in my class.  I watch the ones who come in 3 minutes late and I suspect they will spend their whole day in this self-imposed agony and crazy drama – never at home or owning the space.  I watch what it’s like when a boss is there for a meeting on time – they own the space, say hello, catch the vibe, informally converse and get key data – and I watch what it’s like when a boss comes in late — and the whole group catches their anxiety and/or expects further unprofessional behavior from their erstwhile leader.

So, I invite you to return your focus to the positive and think about cultivating that positive picture.  Indulge two different aspects of coming early.  You can satisfy and exploit your competitive nature  when you arrive first at the conference room – the course, the field of battle, the arena. Let your competition be frazzled; but you’ll be ready, looking calm and confident. Second, by getting there early you can satisfy and exploit your intuition and people-sense.  If first, you get to be the welcomer.  You can sense how people are feeling. You can individualize your attention on the early comers (something that’s nearly impossible if you’re the last one there).  Now, instead of not wanting to be late and incurring some supposed downfall, you shift to WANTING to be early, because it creates great things for you.

Cultivate a sense that by a simple shift to the positive — repeated, of course, as all good habits must be — you can become more credible, more relaxed, and more purposeful as you

Lead with your best self,


  • I really liked this one. It reminded me of a lesson taught in an early parenting class I attended years ago (but I often forget some of these simple lessons). Tell kids (or adults or anyone else) what you want them to do, not what they should or should not do. Frame things in a simple, and if possible, positive way. Example: Tell kids to “Walk” around a pool “because it is safer” instead of saying “Don’t Run.” I need to constantly remind myself at work to frame things in a similar way.

  • I have had perennial stack(s) of things to do on my desk. When one stack got to high I started another one. Last week it really got to me. I looked at my employees desk and saw her stack trays and organization and said “Self you used to be like that.” The next day I came in and told her I was going to borrow her idea. We have stack trays galore in the utility room. She helped me stack the trays. I grabbed the first of four stacks and started the sorting. It took the better part of two days to rid myself of two stacks. This week has been so much better. The desk is neater I can find things exactly where they are instead of where I think they are. I am accomplishing more and leaving with a good feeling. I arrive at work the next day not to face a myriad of papers but find a clean desk and ready to start work. I also reclaimed my scanner to keep those papers I need later. Yes I have two more stacks but I haven’t started any new ones. This time instead of leading I followed and what a payoff.

  • I enjoyed this article and I think it is very important to emphasize the importance of time management. I would say most stress emanates from not allowing enough time to organize and complete a task…….or even enjoy a moment of success!!!. Influences beyond our control can screw up a schedule but the ability to adjust, reassess and reclaim ownership of what needs to be done is a great tool. Case in point, an extra 30 minutes of alone time in the office this morning has reaped the benefits of just reclaiming and prioritizing what needs to be done. I already feel like my weekend will be better because I am not carrying around the weight of what is waiting for me at work on Monday!!!!

  • KAB and Carla,

    Great points! Here’s an additional perspective to think about your experience. As they say in time management courses, you can’t manage time. Time is time, and it marches on. All we have of time is the present moment; we can’t go back and can’t go forward. You can take a few “present moments” – as you have both done to such great satisfaction and peace of mind — to manage your priorities and tasks. As Stephen Covey reminded us: put first things first.

    I’ve been pondering what it means to work hard. In the physical world, I know what it means to try to run harder, lift more, and even to focus my vision or tune in my ears. But in knowledge work, which most RFL readers do every day, what does it mean to work harder (and by contrast “smarter” or smoother)? I think a lot of the hard work is the mind screening out distractions, doubts, worries, PREoccupations (work that your mind is demanding you do NOW). This is STRESS – when we can’t be in the moment, without some mental guards beating back the competing priorities, doubts, needs. And lowering stress is one of the 3 main things researchers say cuts down on cancer (in case lowering stress isn’t motivation alone).

    So it seems to me that to “work smarter” and not “harder” requires two things:
    1. Choose your priorities from time to time, so that you basically know you’re doing the right things.
    2. Be in the moment, releasing other distractions. I imagine a “gentle guard” who says to the distracting thoughts, “yes, I know; I’ll be there later, but right here I’m now.”)

    Thanks for commenting. What do you think?


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