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 last year 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…”
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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 for 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.
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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.