On and On About Self-Talk

Remember when you were a kid, and you didn’t want to go to school, and you’d have to try saying you were sick? You couldn’t just announce you were staying home. School was non-negotiable. Now that we are adults, we sometimes feel the same way about work. But for the most part, we go no matter how we feel. We don’t debate in our heads, weighing the pros and cons, finding ways out, lying to ourselves about the value of work. We go.

A year ago I decided to study the psychology of fitness. As part of my field work, I took notes about the ways people talk to themselves when attempting to exercise regularly. The following self-statements were the most popular:

  • I can’t find the time to get to the gym
  • I have no willpower
  • If only I could get myself to do it
  • It’s inconvenient
  • I have to get back to it

I don’t know about you, but none of these statements makes me want to go run, jump and play. Instead, they engender helpless feelings about future success.

When people seek my assistance in self-motivation, I ask them first to listen carefully to what they feed themselves in order to ignite into action. They are surprised to find that much of what they say to themselves for inspiration winds up working against them.

Self-talk like “I just have to make myself do it” offers no information, hope or solution. Similarly, an innocent and even well-intentioned nudge like, “I’ve gotta get myself on the bike” assumes the activity is optional, and therefore disposable.

When I hear stuff like this, I say “Oh, you consider exercise a negotiable activity?” Then we proceed to uncover all the ways they persistently bargain with themselves to either do it or not.

At this point you must be wondering what to say to yourself instead. Well, it’s not that easy. Because actually getting on the bike takes a complex series of decisions and actions. You have to choose a day, a place and a time. You have to move everything else that’s important out of the way. Most significantly, you have to negotiate with all the voices that want to convince you that doing something else is so much more fun or urgent.

Declaring your fitness program non-negotiable doesn’t stop the discouraging mind chatter. Listen to how you whine, resist and distract yourself:

  • I don’t feel up to doing cardio today
  • Geeze, they need me at the office this afternoon
  • A few cookies won’t hurt
  • I don’t have the right kind of sneakers

Refusing to negotiate with yourself renders all internal arguments irrelevant. When you stop the deliberations in your head, you can only move to action. So try this for self-talk: “Of course you don’t want to do it, but you’re going anyway.” Or, “Sorry, this is not a democracy.”

Hey, it works on little kids who don’t want to go to school.

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