Talk yourself into success
In the privacy of our minds, we all talk to ourselves—an inner monologue that might seem rather pointless. As one scientific paper on self-talk asks: “What can we tell ourselves that we don’t already know?” But as that study and others go on to show, the act of giving ourselves mental messages can help us learn and perform at our best. Researchers have identified the most effective forms of self-talk, collected here—so that the next time you talk to yourself, you know exactly what you should say.
Self-talk isn’t just motivational messages like “You can do it!” or “Almost there,” although this internal cheering section can give us confidence. A review
of more than two dozen studies, published in 2011 in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science
, found that there’s another kind of mental message that is even more useful, called “instructional self-talk.” This is the kind of running commentary we engage in when we’re carrying out a difficult task, especially one that’s unfamiliar to us. Think about when you were first learning to drive. Your self-talk might have gone something like this: “Foot on the gas pedal, hands on the wheel, slow down for the curve here, now put your blinker on…”
Over time, of course, giving yourself instructions becomes unnecessary—but while you’re learning, it does
three important things. First, it enhances our attention
, focusing us on the important elements of the task and screening out distractions. Second, it helps us regulate our effort
and make decisions about what to do, how to do it, and when. And third, self-talk allows us to control our cognitive and emotional reactions
, steadying us so we stay on task.
In a recent study
of students learning to throw darts in a gym class, Athanasios Kolovelonis and his colleagues at the University of Thessaly in Greece found that self-talk is most effective when incorporated into a cycle of thought and action. First comes forethought, when you set a goal f
or yourself and make a plan for how to get there. That’s followed by performance
, when you enact the plan to the best of your ability. Last comes self-reflection
, when you carefully evaluate what you’ve done and adjust your plan for the next time.
Self-talk can play a key part in this cycle. During the forethought phase, consider carefully what you’ll say to yourself. You can even write out a script. Repeat these self-instructions during the performance phase. With practice, you may find that your self-instructions become abbreviated; research has found that these so-called “cue words” can become powerful signals. In a study
of elite sprinters, for example, the runners spoke certain words to themselves at certain times: “push” during the acceleration phase of the sprint, “heel” during the maximum-speed phase, and “claw” during the endurance phase. When they used these cue words, the athletes ran faster.
After the action is over, consider how you might change your self-talk to improve your performance next time—so that at the moment it matters, the right words are ringing in your ears.
Brilliant readers: When you talk to yourself, what do you say? Are there certain phrases or cue words you use to motivate or instruct yourself? Please share your thoughts on my blog, here
I love to hear from readers. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit my website, follow me on Twitter, and join the conversation on Facebook. Be brilliant!
All my best,
This Week's Brilliant Quote"The conventional wisdom on career success—follow your passion—is seriously flawed. It not only fails to describe how most people actually end up with compelling careers, but for many people it can actually make things worse: leading the chronic job shifting and unrelenting angst when one's reality inevitably falls short of the dream. But if 'follow your passion' is bad advice, what should we do instead? The answer begins with recognizing the importance of ability. The things that make a great job great are rare and valuable. If you want them in your working life, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return. In other words, you need to be good at something before you can expect a good job. This argument flips conventional wisdom. It relegates passion to the sidelines, claiming that this feeling is an epiphenomenon of a working life well lived. Don't follow your passion; rather, let it follow you in your quest to achieve mastery."—Cal Newport, So Good They Can't Ignore You
Annie's comment: I think Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, makes a useful point here. I've seen many people flounder in their professional lives because they were pursuing some ephemeral sense of "passion" that their jobs never seemed to deliver. But I also want to supplement Newport's observations with another point: passionate interest in a subject actually helps us become "good at something." It helps us achieve that all-important mastery more easily and effectively (as I write in "The Power of Interest," here). Perhaps it's more accurate to say that passion and ability often act in a reciprocal fashion: we first become interested in something, which then motivates us to become knowledgeable and skilled in regard to it; as our knowledge and skills grow, we become still more interested in the subject, willing to invest ourselves in getting ever better at the endeavor we love. Passion and ability grow in tandem.
Brilliant readers, do you believe in the value of "following your passion"? Has such passion helped you achieve your goals, or has it led you astray? Please share your thoughts on my blog, here.