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Writers Talk About Writing

How to Give Yourself a Pep Talk That Actually Works

As we approach the end of February, the time when many new year’s resolutions have to be officially pulled off of life support, you may be facing feelings of regret or, perhaps, even dread. Do you find yourself thinking or saying any of the following comments?

I didn’t achieve any of my new year’s resolutions.

Or, worse: I’m never going to achieve anything I’ve planned for this year.

Or, perhaps: Why is time slipping so quickly through my fingers?

If any of these sentences cross your lips, I think it’s time to give yourself a pep talk.

A pep talk is a short speech designed to help you feel more courageous or productive or enthusiastic. Usually, we can give the best pep talks to ourselves because we know our own minds — including our strengths and shortcomings — better than anyone else.

Here’s how to give yourself a pep talk that actually works.

  1. Talk to yourself in the third person: I know, this may sound weird or counterintuitive, but research available from the National Library of Medicine has shown that people who speak to themselves as another person (in my case, by using the word “Daphne,” or “you”) perform better than people who use the word “I.” When people talk to themselves this way, “it allows them to give themselves objective, helpful feedback,” says Ethan Kross, associate professor of psychology and director of the Self-Control and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Michigan. In fact, Olympic athletes do this all the time. They say things to themselves like, “Come on!” or “Let’s go,” or “You can do this!” This type of voice allows you to address yourself as an apparent “outsider” which amps up the value of the message.
  2. Focus on positive language: It’s easy to give yourself orders like, “don’t check your cellphone every five minutes” or “don’t get distracted by Facebook” but anyone who’s been a parent knows that negative messages usually don’t work. Instead, we all tend to respond more positively to a positive framework: “Spend 15 minutes writing then check your cellphone as a reward.” Doesn’t that sound more doable?
  3. Take plenty of deep breaths: We all know we need to breathe to stay alive but writers (including me!) often put themselves in a separate superhero category: people who don’t need to breathe. Writing apnea is a real thing and neither writing nor pep talks is helped by lack of air. Our brains are oxygen hogs and if you want your pep talk to have an impact, make sure you do plenty of deep breathing while delivering it.
  4. Be specific, not vague or cliched: When we give ourselves a talking to, it’s tempting to fall into banal, imprecise or all-or-nothing language. Instead of saying, “everything will be okay,” [platitude] or “you need to be a more productive writer” [vague] say: “you’re going to sit your butt in a chair and write for 15 minutes every morning.” If you can accomplish that action — and produce a mere 200 words in those 15 minutes —you’ll have accumulated 52,000 words by the end of a year, even if you take weekends off. That’s very specific and heartening to know.
  5. Give yourself plenty of autonomy: We all feel more motivated when we understand our fate is in our own hands. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that our pep talks should emphasize the choices we can make and the freedom we have in pursuing them. You don’t want to feel controlled; you want to feel motivated. Don’t say, “You really blew it by failing to write yesterday so you need to do double today.” Instead, try: “You had a hard time writing yesterday. Try cutting your goal in half today and see how that works.”
  6. Plan time for a regular review of your goals: I’m the volunteer chair of a board and, as a result, have had the great good fortune to work with a strategic planner. (I’m looking at you, Jim!) For our board, Jim has taught us the value of preparing a rolling three-year plan. This means you plan for three years at a time and, each fall, you review how you’ve been doing and tweak the plan for the next three years. One of Jim’s watchwords is that a business plan must never gather dust. “Don’t leave it on a top shelf,” he says. “Review it regularly.” Following his excellent advice, I now review my own business plan once a week. It takes me less than five minutes but it keeps me on top of what I want to achieve and doesn’t allow me to forget anything. You might want to consider setting up a similar review.
  7. Give yourself a pep talk every morning: Then, do it again, whenever you need a boost. People often say that motivation doesn’t last. “Well, neither does bathing,” says Zig Ziglar. “That’s why we recommend it daily.”
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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.