How to Construct Effective Self-Talk

Tips for getting your inner dialogue "on message."

Posted Mar 29, 2018

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When people think about positive self-talk they typically think about affirmations and phrases to pump themselves up (e.g., "you got this"). However, it can also be useful to construct self-talk to specifically counteract any patterns of self-sabotage you have.   

This type of helpful self-talk is very personal.  What works for you might not work at all, or even backfire, for someone else. You need to judge by your personal results. Moreover, what's most relevant to you will change with time, depending on what you have going on in your life and work. You'll need to periodically update your self-talk to address the self-defeating patterns that are most problematic for you at the time.

I thought I'd share some of the self-talk phrases I'm finding most useful at the moment and why.  Hopefully, this will give you inspiration to identify your own phrases.

The goal of your self-talk should be to balance self-compassion and self-responsibility. Here's a few of my examples.

My problem: Not finishing things.

I often run out of steam towards the end of a task. I might get something 90% finished and then think "I'll finish the last bit later." However, this is an inefficient way to work. Those almost-completed tasks end up sitting around undone for days or more, while hanging around on my mental to-do list and consuming precious cognitive resources. Therefore I use the self-talk below.

My self-talk: "If it feels hard to finish this now, what are the chances it'll feel easier later?"

This phrase helps remind me that finishing my task off will feel just as effortful either way, but finishing now is the better choice. so I may as well do that. I mostly apply this self-talk to non-creative tasks like washing dishes where I've got a habit of cleaning everything but leaving one or two items.

When I use this phrase it has an element of humor and playfulness. I've caught my brain up to its usual tricks trying to convince me that the task will magically feel more appealing later.

My problem: Overcomplicating solutions and overthinking decisions.

I tend to overlook easy solutions to problems.  

My self-talk: "What's the easiest/simplest way to get this done?"

This phrase reminds me to look for fast ways to get tasks completed without overthinking decisions.

My problem: Thinking I'm not working hard enough, when that's not true.

Even though pretty much everyone views me as someone who works hard or even overworks, my self-perception is often that I'm lazy. Reading this you might be thinking I'm trying to disguise a brag as a weakness, but this isn't the case. Overworking has a negative impact on the quality of decisions I make. When I work less, I see the big picture more easily and make far better strategic decisions about what I'm spending my time on. Overworking is easier and more psychologically comfortable for me than working less, but it's not effective. It's self-sabotage.

My self-talk: "You think you're not working hard, but that's your bias. What's reality?" 

This phrase helps remind me that just because I have the thought "I'm not doing enough" that doesn't make the thought true. It helps me catch my thinking bias/error.

How You Can Construct Your Own Self-Talk Phrases

1. Identify your self-sabotaging patterns.

2. Identify what the best course of action tends to be when those patterns arise.

3. Pick a phrase that directs you to that course of action. 

4. Try it out!

Tip: Your phrase should feel nurturing. It typically will feel nurturing if it's directing you to what you know is the best course of action. If your phrase feels self-critical or harsh, revise it. Likewise, if your self-talk lets you off the hook too much, revise it so that it directs you towards the most useful behavior to do in that circumstance. 

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