It’s not uncommon for us to focus on the things we’re not doing when we aim to develop as leaders and as people. However, it’s also possible to grow tremendously if you focus on addition by subtraction: identifying and undoing the unconscious habits holding you back.
Some of the bad habits easiest to overlook are related to the words we use to describe ourselves, our work, and what we hope to get from other people. Language matters. The things we say and how we say them have an impact on the people around us — and on ourselves. No one hears more of what you say than you do.
You need to be aware of how easy it can be to slowly diminish your worth with your own words. I’ve found that your effectiveness and ability to empower others is often negatively impacted by unconsciously overusing five specific words and phrases.
“Just” is one of the most dangerously overused words in a leader’s vocabulary, specifically when utilized in its most common form — as a minimizer:
- “I just have to go finish up my emails.”
- “I just have to get through this meeting.”
- “I just have to run and pick up my kids.”
We often use “just” to trick ourselves. We make tasks seem small to minimize how much time they will take before we can get to the “real work.” When you’re juggling an incredibly busy career and life, you can end up applying “just” to almost every task you undertake. There is a psychological cost to continuously minimizing the importance of the tasks to which the majority of your day is dedicated. You can go through incredibly productive days and at the end feel like you never got to the “important stuff.”
In addition, we often unconsciously employ “just” as a softener to the requests we’re making of others: “I just need you to take care of a couple of things for me.” The rationale seems to make sense: The goal is to make the request seem like less of an imposition, to show respect for the time of the other person. However, the message can be perceived as the exact opposite: “This isn’t important, so I’m using you to do it.”
Whether you’re tackling a task yourself or assigning it to someone else, avoid minimizing the importance of the task by removing “just” from your vocabulary. Instead, try a phrase like “This isn’t big, but it’s essential.” Essential things aren’t little — they’re not “just” anything.
2. ‘We Need To’
How often have you found yourself trying to convey a sense of urgency and importance using this phrase?
- “We need to get this done today.”
- “We need to knock this presentation out of the park.”
- “We need that funding to come through or we’re screwed.”
Ultimately, each of these statements means something like: “We are far more likely to realize our long-term goals if this happens.” However, using “we need to” can create a feeling of false desperation, leading to hasty and poorly considered decisions.
Once again, consider using the word “essential” instead to reframe these tasks. This word can convey urgency and importance while keeping the focus on larger collective goals: “It’s essential we get this done if we’re going to be successful with our plan to achieve [X goal].”
The phrase “we/I need to” puts the focus only on accomplishing “Task X.” “It’s essential” is a reminder that while X is important, it is part of the larger Goal Y. This keeps your decision-making focused on options that serve the larger goal, rather than those made for the sake of expediency or a small victory.
I have adopted a three-word mantra that has really helped me when dealing with decisions where I am not yet comfortable making a call: “Maybe is lazy.”
When people hear “maybe,” they don’t hear “There is a possibility this will go either way.” They hear, “I can’t or won’t make this decision now, and I may not ever.” “Maybe” projects uncertainty and indecisiveness. It offers no specific course of action for those waiting on an answer. It does not clearly indicate what needs to be accomplished to move from “maybe” to “yes” or “no.”
It’s fine to acknowledge you are not yet certain about a course of action, but it’s important in those moments to clarify for yourself and others how you will make the decision and what you need to do so.
Instead of “maybe,” be specific about what needs to be known, completed, or delivered for a decision to be made:
- “We’ll do that if …”
- “We’ll make that call when …”
- “I’m holding off on that decision until I see if we can get greater clarity on X, Y, and Z.”
This approach makes clear you are not waffling, but are truly committed to making the best decision and moving forward as soon as you have all the information you need to make the decision.
4. ‘It Is What It Is’
This phrase and its more well-established cousin, “Everything happens for a reason,” strip individuals and organizations of their agency.
Leaders don’t resign themselves to what they cannot change — they accept what they cannot change. Acceptance is an act. It requires strength and consciousness. You have agency in acceptance. Resignation is a surrender. It brings with it a feeling of powerlessness.
There is nothing wrong when recognizing continued effort will not yield results, but the bar for using this phrase should be much higher. Overuse creates acceptance of the idea that if something proves extremely difficult to accomplish, the status quo can be accepted as an inevitability. You can just throw your hands up and say, “It is what it is.”
5. ‘I’ll Stay Up and Get That Done Tonight’
Leadership is not martyrdom, and failing to get adequate sleep kills you.
I’ll put it simply: Sleep is the most commonly squandered resource among professionals. You may be completing more work by shunning sleep, but you are dramatically reducing the work’s quality — not to mention harming your health and your overall capacity to be a productive, high-performing professional.
Sadly, the health argument rarely sways driven, type-A personalities, so here’s an economic one: The highest-earning years in your career will likely be the final 10. Failing to get consistent, adequate sleep makes it less likely you will be at your best in those years — if you have them at all.
The “burning the candle at both ends” lifestyle is often accompanied by caffeine consumption, the most commonly consumed drug on the planet. Used in moderation, it can be a helpful addition to your workflow. But ask yourself: “Do I enjoy coffee, or do I need coffee to function?” If it’s the latter, try the healthier, less expensive path to alertness: sleep.
Drew Dudley is the CEO of Day One Leadership and the author of This Is Day One: A Practical Guide to Leadership That Matters.