Looking For Motivation? The Simplest Strategy May Also Be The Best

Which motivational techniques really work is a topic of endless debate–but one trick may eclipse the rest, according to new research. Motivational “self-talk” reigned supreme in an expansive new study that evaluated three popular techniques.

More than 44,000 people participated in the study—an unprecedented number for this flavor of research—that tested self-talk, “imagery” and “if-then planning.” A simple example of self-talk is someone doing poorly in a job interview and telling him or herself, “I’ll be more confident in the next one.” Or someone preparing for a race and saying, “I’m ready for this.” Using imagery, someone might visualize how they’ll win the race. Someone using if-then planning might engage the technique while dieting: “If I order a salad for dinner tonight, then I’ll feel better about my choice.”

Participants were divided into 12 groups, plus a control group, and asked to use the techniques to accomplish a competitive task online. The task included playing a “concentration game” against a computer opponent, which previous research has shown to be effective in evaluating multiple components of how people engage competitive challenges.

The results showed that people using self-talk performed best across the elements of the task when compared to the control group, with imagery coming in as the next most effective technique overall. If-then planning was least effective. Self-talk and imagery are closely related (in order to envision how you’ll improve, you’ll probably also tell yourself that you will), so the difference in performance between those techniques was less significant than either with if-then planning. But self-talk seemed the more natural “fit” for the majority of participants.

“While findings show the positive effects of imagery and self-talk strategies when focused on outcome and process, it appears self-talk process had additional advantages in that participants believed it was an effective mental preparation strategy to use,” said the researchers. “Self-talk and imagery are both skills people use organically, that is without formal training; however, it appears that self-talk is perceived to be beneficial possibly because it is simpler to learn than imagery.”


Which is to say, self-talk is easy to do, and it’s the quickest resource to engage when we need it.

Quoting the researchers on the study’s big takeaway: “A key message from the findings is that a brief self-talk intervention focused on motivational outcomes just prior to performance intensified pleasant emotions, arousal and effort and led to improved performance.”

So, giving yourself that little pep talk before a big challenge is actually worthwhile. Self talk: just do it.



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