You are the story you tell yourself. Our narratives shape who we are and guide our direction in life – for better or worse. Our self-talk, therefore is monumental in sparking action that will help us live a better, healthier and leaner life. Here are 3 self-talk strategies – all backed by science – that will help propel you towards success.
Use Interrogative Self-talk (aka “Bob the Builder” method).
I first read about this strategy while reading Daniel Pink’s excellent book “Drive”. This is whereby instead of making a declarative statement such as “I can do this”, one instead asks the question “can I do this?” So termed the “Bob the Builder” method (after the children’s animated character whose catchphrase is “Can he build it?”), this strategy is more of a self-challenge. By asking the question, it activates the circuitry of the brain involved in thinking about the “how’s” of the journey. When we think about the process we map out specific action steps. It’s the difference between an active and a passive cognitive response. Asking a question prompts action, whereas a declaration or a mantra prompts a passive response.
As an example; When you wake up in the morning, you may be thinking about how you will make healthy choices that day. By saying “I can do this”, you are only temporarily revving yourself up – with no direction on specifics. By asking “can I do this?” you begin to think about ways in which you will execute. You may start to think about your opportunities; packing some healthy snacks, hitting a grocery store, ordering the chicken salad instead of the burger and fries.
So next time you are tempted to say “I got this”, ask a question instead.. And then map out the steps. Research has demonstrated much better follow-through on tasks with interrogative self-talk than declarative.
Refer to yourself in the Second or Third Person
While this may seem a tactic reserved for cocky professional athletes (Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, Wade Boggs, Cam Newton, Ricky Henderson – to name a few), it turns out that referring to yourself in either second or third person (using your name, “you”, “he/she”) can help with compliance on tasks.
The theory as to why it’s effective might lie in the concept of mindfulness – the very essence of which is looking outside oneself. Referring to yourself in second or third person give you some psychological distance – enabling you to have a clearer mind and a more concentrated picture of your direction. This can help improve emotional regulation and self-control.
This 2014 study showed that using second person self-talk strengthened both actual behavior performance and prospective behavioral intentions more than first‐person self‐talk. These experiments demonstrated better outcomes with speech preparation, anagram puzzle solving and yes, exercise intentions. Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and foremost researcher in the realm of psychological distance, proposes the following explanation;
“When people are feeling anxious or stressed, they can try talking to themselves internally using their own names… this enhances the ability to read more rationally into situations, which improves people’s ability to control their thoughts, feelings and behavior under stress.”
So even if it feels unnatural or egocentric, there is certainly some sound theoretical basis for referring to yourself as “you”, “he/she” or simply by your own name when faced with day to day tasks.
Using “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”
This small, yet profound switch can make all the difference in the world when it comes to consistently making great decisions about your health. It comes down to the concept of locus of control. When you have an EXTERNAL locus of control, you believe that your life is mostly controlled by outside forces and factors and ergo you believe there is no point in putting forth effort in any meaningful venture. An INTERNAL locus of control, conversely is one where you feel like you have a great deal of sway when it comes to what happens to you. When you believe this, you are better equipped to take charge and be responsible for your actions and inactions.
To say “I can’t” is to be a slave to some arbitrary rule whereas to declare “I don’t” takes root who you are as a person – how you see yourself and your priorities. Other verbiage you might consider; “I choose to” or “I choose not to”, “I am” or “I am not”. The difference can be quite remarkable when it comes to quelling overeating, with this study of college students offered chocolate showing those who said “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the bar 61% of the time, as opposed to 36% from those who said “I don’t eat X”.
As an aside, and given the insights from strategy #2 – consider modifying the above phrases to second or third person narratives. “You don’t”, “Jane doesn’t”, “he doesn’t”. This might just give those declarations some extra power.
The following chart is a cheat sheet for re-framing certain scenarios using the wording above.
Take Home Points
- Your self talk is your inner monologue – your voice that guides and shapes how you see yourself and the world around you. It can have a positive or negative affect on your long-term health pursuits depending on how your voice operates.
- Instead of making a statement, ask a question. Asking “Can I do this”? Activates the mechanisms in the brain that figure out how to execute the task at hand. Conversely, “I can do this” is closed-ended and tends to be fleeting in nature – not leading to any further productive self-dialogue.
- Consider referring to yourself in second or third person. Instead of “I”, use “you”, “he/she” or your name. Doing so gives you the mental distance – which allows for clarity and better decisions.
- Use “I don’t”/”I choose not” statements in place of “I can’t”. This shifts the locus of control on to you. When you take ownership of your actions and and see yourself as a fit and healthy person, your dialogue reflects this.