Motivating yourself through positive self-talk seems kind of, well, hokey. (Standing in front of a mirror and shouting, "I'm awesome!" is fine... but if you haven't done the work, it's impossible to actually be awesome.) 

Yet research shows that some forms of self-talk are effective: Take the difference between saying "I can't," and, "I don't," to yourself (something I've written about extensively before.)

One group was given a simple temptation and told to say, when tempted, "I can't do (that)." The other group was told to say, "I don't do (that)." 

Here's what happened: 

  • Participants told to say "I can't" gave in to the temptation 61 percent of the time.
  • Participants told to say "I don't" gave in to the temptation 36 percent of the time.

Simply switching one word, "don't" for "can't," made participants twice as likely to stay the course.

Then the researchers conducted a second experiment: Participants were told to set a personal long-term health and wellness goal. When their initial motivation flagged -- as initial motivation always tends to do -- one group was told to say, "I can't miss my workout." A second group was told to say, "I don't miss my workouts." The third group, the control group, wasn't given a temptation-avoidance strategy. 

After 10 days: 

  • 3 out of 10 control group members stuck to their goal.
  • 1 out of 10 "I can't" group members stuck to their goal.
  • 8 out of 10 "I don't" group members stuck to their goal.

Not only was "I can't" less effective than "I don't"; "I can't" was less effective than using no strategy at all. 

According to the researchers:

The refusal frame 'I don't' is more persuasive than the refusal frame 'I can't' because the former connotes conviction to a higher degree...

Perceived conviction mediates the influence of refusal frame on persuasiveness.

Or in non researcher-speak, saying "I can't," naturally leads to negotiating with yourself. "I can't have dessert... but then again, if I work out later... or if I skip breakfast tomorrow..."

Once you start to negotiate with yourself, you need willpower to win that argument.

But "I don't" leaves no room for argument. "I don't" doesn't reflect a choice; it states who you are.

One word makes a huge difference.

Especially when that word is a pronoun.

The Power of "You"...

Science shows the difference between using "I" and "you" when you talk to yourself can be dramatic. 

Take public speaking: Research shows that second-person self-talk -- saying "You can do this" to yourself instead of "I can do this" -- will improve your performance.

Why? One theory is "self-distancing," a science-y term for gaining perspective by stepping outside yourself, which will naturally improves your ability to regulate your thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress. (Basically, you turn yourself into a supportive friend.)

The same is true for making a good first impression: Using "you" instead of "I" in positive self-talk led to less anxiety, more confidence, and less "maladaptive post-event processing," a fancy term for "beating yourself up later."

And then there's this: Swapping "you" for "I" can also improve your willpower and endurance. Researchers had participants undergo a number of 10k cycling time trials. After a baseline was established, researchers encouraged them to frame their self-talk differently. Like:

  • Replacing "I need to keep going" with "You can keep going."
  • Replacing "No pain, no gain" with "You can work through the pain."
  • Replacing "I can do this" with "You can do this."

While the differences seem insignificant, the results were not: 13 out of 16 participants rode faster, and the average person's time improved by 2.4%. 

Just by saying "you" instead of "I."

... Can Be Applied to Any Task

Obviously a cycling time trial has little to do with business performance.

But then again, professional success is often based on perseverance and determination. Staying the course when others falter. Putting in that little bit of extra effort that transforms "good enough" into great.

So if you're struggling to finish a proposal, stop saying, "I need to get this done." If you need to prepare for a meeting, stop saying, "I need to make sure I review my notes." If you're wading through dozens of resumes, stop saying, "I can't stop until I find the right person."

Instead, say, "You will make this a kick-ass proposal." Say, "You will be ready for anything that happens in the room." Say, "Somewhere in this pile is a superstar -- and you will find her."

We're are all capable of more than we think.

Especially when we step outside ourselves by saying "you" instead of "I."

Published on: Jul 22, 2019
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