Advice & News

January 6, 2021

How a Self-Talk Routine Can Help Remote Workers


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Among the many pandemic-induced disruptions to higher education work life are changes to conversations and daily routines. There's more self-talk as people work in isolation, and with fewer commutes to campus, "working from home" can now be considered "living at work."

Your self-talk paired with a daily routine can affect how well you can, as the trendy catchphrase goes, "live your best life." But done right, they can also help you work more effectively and find career success.

What Is Self-Talk?

Self-talk, according to Psychology Today, is an inner voice that provides a running monologue of a person's life throughout the day that combines conscious thoughts and unconscious beliefs and biases to provide a way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences. In other words, it's the story inside your head, and when that narrative is positive it can boost confidence and effectiveness. Negative self-talk can be debilitating.

Psychologists often identify two types of self-talk: instructional, to talk through a task, such as saying "keys, keys, keys" aloud as you're searching for a way to unlock a door; or motivational, to increase effort or change thoughts from negative to positive, like when you say, "I can do this!"

Researchers have also found that self-talk spoken out loud can have even greater benefits than keeping self-talk only as an internal narrative.

"Talking out loud can be an extension of this silent inner talk, caused when a certain motor command is triggered involuntarily," wrote Paloma Mari-Beffa, a senior lecturer in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology at Bangor University, for The Conversation.

Who Should Use Self-Talk?

It might be easy to dismiss self-talk and the process of self-affirmation as psychotherapy for people who feel inadequate. A satirical example of self-talk is the "Saturday Night Live" sketch with Stuart Smalley saying into a mirror, "I'm good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." However, there's more utility for self-talk than simply boosting self-esteem.

"The way you talk to yourself affects how you feel and how you behave," said Ann Kearney-Cooke, a licensed psychologist from the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, in an interview with the Today Show.

When you think of self-talk as a tool to increase performance, talking out loud to yourself might not seem so touchy-feely. It's something everyone, at all confidence levels, can benefit from. Just make sure your self-talk is not annoying coworkers if you're back on campus.

How Should You Use Self-Talk?

Identify areas of your work life that need improving. Especially while working remotely, you might lack motivation, focus, or the ability to stop ruminating about work because there's no longer a separation from the home and the office.

"Language provides us with this tool to gain distance from our own experiences when we're reflecting on our lives. And that's really why it's useful," Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times.

Develop a Self-Talk Routine

To make sure that you're continually using self-talk, build it into your daily routine, like brushing your teeth. Incorporate a saying into your day or set an alarm on your phone to remind you to say your morning, afternoon, or evening affirmation. If you don't know what to say, below are three suggestions that support the three areas of improving mentioned above:

"(Student's name), I'm going to work for you today."At the start of the pandemic, there were no students on my campus. Sadly, the only "students" I saw were stock-image models on a billboard advertising off-campus housing that I passed every morning along my commute. I named the students "Kyle" and "Tracy." On days when I lacked motivation, I'd say aloud that I'm going to work for them today. That self-talk was my daily reminder of the institution's mission to serve students and not to simply answer my boss's email requests, fulfill an accreditation requirement, or improve some metric on a spreadsheet. Each morning, say the names of two or three students from a class roster or the names of alumni that appear by scrolling through your university's LinkedIn page. Every higher education professional could use a reminder why they do what they do.

"(Your name), get back to work."Lunch breaks when working from home can be like falling down a rabbit hole, diverting your attention to important tasks, like child care, or the trivial, like doomscrolling through your Twitter feed. Returning your concentration to work can be difficult. Try summoning yourself by name. Kross and his fellow researchers found that those who referred to themselves in the second or third person regulated stress and performed tasks better because of "self-distancing." This is similar to why it's easier to give a friend advice about their problems because you're not troubled by their burden and can think more clearly. Sometimes you need someone else -- even if it's technically you -- telling you to get back to work.

"Schedule shutdown, complete." Every remote worker could use a shutdown ritual, something to separate work from home. There are physical rituals, like changing your clothes, but for self-talkers you need a saying. When Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer science professor and author of "Deep Work," closes his computer down for the day he says aloud, "schedule shutdown, complete." Once he utters these magic words, he doesn't chase any work-related thoughts because he said his daily termination phrase. Think of it like punching a time clock with your word -- how strong is your word? "If you strictly follow this after-work routine, you'll soon discover that not only are you working harder when you work, but your time after work is more meaningful and restorative than ever before," Newport wrote in a Forge article. "To shut down (after-hour) rumination, you can simply remind yourself: 'I wouldn't have said 'shutdown complete' if I hadn't completed the shutdown ritual that convinced me I'm fine to avoid work until tomorrow.'"

Microsoft is already planning to roll out ways to encourage daily rituals and "virtual commutes" for users of Teams in 2021 by giving them prompts to reflect on their day or meditate. But you can start now by simply talking yourself into a better routine. All you need to do is speak up.