I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to uttering the words “I can’t…”. That’s almost never actually true, though.
Here are some things I know that I can’t do:
I can’t fly by flapping my arms
I can’t speak Mandarin
I can’t eat my weight in Oreos
Here are some things I’ve claimed that I can’t do:
I can’t take a break to eat lunch
I can’t help you find a solution to problem XYZ
I can’t work on your project
The first list contains physical or scientific impossibilities. The second list contains choices. Unless you are locked in a room, we all can take a break to eat lunch. This represents a choice to temporarily stop doing one thing and start doing another.
There are influences that go into all of our choices and there are consequences to all of our choices. By joining a meeting we may be making a choice to skip a phone call or hold off on sending an email. There are plenty of reasons why one activity may be more important than another.
So instead of claiming that you cannot do something, start making your choices explicit. “I can’t take a break” instead becomes “I am choosing not to take a break because task XYZ is more important right now”. Recognize that you have a choice. Decisions are easier when we aren’t held hostage by what we claim we can and cannot do.
PS – The same goes for saying “I have to”. You don’t have to work late. You don’t have to send that email right now. Most of the things we have to do boil down to trade-offs.
Believe me, there is much that you “can’t” do or “have” to do