Changing Self-Talk to Get Things Done

Posted by Maura Henry on 8/14/19 8:33 AM

Being stuck and unable to get motivated can be a terrible feeling, but you have the power to change your mindset by changing your self-talk. We all have internal speech (self-talk), which is prominent in the following situations:

  • taking a test
  • during a sports game
  • waking up in the morning
  • falling asleep at night
  • having to be patient for something or with someone

What do you tell yourself in those situations?


Blog Title (15)-1


In today’s blog post, I am going to ask you to examine your self-talk in certain situations, specifically in those where you find yourself putting work off. (You know you’ve been there! We all have!). We’re going to focus and examine three possible scenarios:

  1. Putting something off because you don’t feel like doing it.
  2. Putting something off because you are afraid you will do it poorly.
  3. Putting something off because it’s hard, boring, or otherwise unpleasant.

(NOTE: The strategies we will examine are adapted from the work of Heidi Grant, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University.)


1. I Don’t Feel Like Doing it



Imagine something you often don’t feel like doing. In this situation, what does your self-talk sound like? In other words, what is your inner monologue at times like these? For instance, I often say things like, “I just CAN’T get myself to exercise.” But is there really anything keeping me from it? Is someone blocking the door to the gym? No. I just don’t feel like it. The question is… Who says you need to wait until you feel like doing something in order to start doing it? Seriously, think about that for a moment… Why do we believe that to be motivated and effective, we need to feel like we want to take action?

In his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman points out that many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators became so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired they might have felt. For example, Maya Angelou writes every day from 7 am until 2 pm. Kafka wrote from 11 pm to 2 am nightly. Frank Lloyd Wright worked on his designs from 4 am to 7 am every day. Beethoven composed from (approximately) 6:30 am until 2:30 pm daily.




In order to mimic these prolific creators, you need to take emotion and feeling out of the equation so you can get your work done. You need to change your self-talk in order to motivate yourself. I might say to myself, “Get moving - just go outside and walk” and that could be the beginning of my exercise routine.


2. I'm Afraid I'll Do It Poorly



What does your self-talk sound like if you’re afraid you’ll do poorly? In my own case, my thinking tends to follow along to the worst possible outcome: I can’t do A, B, or C, because then D, E, and F will happen, which will cause X, Y, and Z, which is the worst thing imaginable. To solve this, some people adopt a Promotion Mindset. A promotion mindset refers to a person who is motivated by the thought of making gains or getting ahead. Their self-talk might be something like, “If I complete this assignment well and on time, I will impress my teacher.” That’s all well and good… but that’s not what I am going to advocate for today.

Instead, I want you to consider a Prevention Mindset. A Prevention Mindset means you focus on hanging onto what you already have and avoiding loss. Your self-talk might be, “If I don't turn in this assignment, then my teacher will be upset and I will fall behind in the class.” I know you’re thinking, Wait a minute - is she trying to scare me into doing work?!?! The truth is, well, sort of. What I’m saying is, your anxiety is telling you to do nothing. Instead, you should harness the power of your anxiety to determine the consequences of inaction, and then do something to avoid those consequences.




In her book, Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence, Heidi Grant Halvorson notes, “I know this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs… but there is probably no better way to get over your anxiety about screwing up than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of doing nothing at all. Go on, scare the pants off yourself. It feels awful, but it works.” I like to think that as long as fear and anxiety are going to be a part of my mindset about a task, I might as well use them for good.


3. It's Hard, Boring, or Unpleasant



Imagine something you often find difficult, boring, or unpleasant. What is your inner monologue at times like these? For me, I hate writing thank-you notes. I know they make people feel appreciated, but I also know they’re not really a requirement - a text or email can do the same job much faster. Still, I really feel like this is a tougher one to solve because...

  • I have no emotions connected to writing a thank-you note...
    • so I can’t try to take the emotion out of it.
  • The consequences of not writing a thank-you note are small…
    • so I can’t use a prevention mindset.
  • The benefits of writing a thank-you note are small…
    • so I can’t use a promotion mindset.

If I still want to get those notes written, I’m going to have to adopt some If-Then Planning. This means that I will develop a specific plan to accomplish the task. If-Then Planning requires you to decide:




You have to think of these things as RULES. I use an “If _________, then _________” statement to motivate myself to get started. For example, my new self-talk could be, “If it is Thursday night at 6:30 pm, then I will sit at the table and write 3 thank-you notes.” You might be thinking, “Wait a minute… Can’t I just trust my will power to get me through?” Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson points out, “Too often, we try to solve (problems like this) with sheer will: ‘Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner.’ Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.” The next time you encounter something you’re putting off, consider making an If-Then rule for yourself - it can get you out of a rut and help you accomplish tasks that are boring, hard, or unpleasant.

Remember, we’ve all been there before, but the beginning of a new school year presents you with the opportunity to be proactive when you find yourself in any of these scenarios. Listen to your inner monologue and change it when you find yourself unable to accomplish something. You have the power!


Maura Henry is a Skills and Academic Support teacher at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School in Waltham, MA. Learn more about the Skills and Academic Support curriculum at CH-CH.

Topics: Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall, Student Skill Building, Studying Tips, Study Guide and Strategies

New call-to-action