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,