Self-help has become a major industry complete with books, seminars, and life coaches galore. But you might be able to skip all of that hoopla, because one simple motivational technique has just been proven to work. Best of all, you can use this technique anytime, by yourself, and for free. Learn how it's done and say hello to a new, improved you.
An interdisciplinary team of researchers from several universities in the U.K. conducted an experiment to determine how people might improve their performance at competitive tasks. The team was able to tap into the huge participant base provided by the BBC Lab UK website, which encouraged the public to get involved in various scientific experiments online. For this experiment alone, almost 45,000 subjects were exposed to online motivational skill training (except the control group) to see which kinds could motivate them the best and boost their competitive performance the most.
The researchers' findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Better performance in the online competitive task turned out to be the product of increased effort put forth by participants plus increased positive emotion while completing the task. But how exactly can you get people to work harder while enjoying it more in the first place?
As summarized by Christopher Bergland in Psychology Today:
The researchers found that the greatest improvements were seen in those who used: self-talk-outcome (telling yourself, "I can beat my best score"); self-talk-process (telling yourself, "I can react more quickly this time"); imagery-outcome (imagining yourself playing the game and beating your best score); and imagery-process (imagining yourself playing and reacting more quickly than last time).
To Bergland, this is more than just academic work. As a former professional athlete, Guinness World Record holder in running, and professional coach, he understands what works motivationally in practice. Bergland explains in Psychology Today that, in his extensive experience, the distillation of these findings is to simply tell yourself "I can do better."
Essentially, "I can do better" is a form of self-talk that encompasses both outcome and process, because "better" could refer either to your efforts or your achievements. For instance, if you're a writer, "I can do better" might mean both that you'll send more pitches this week (process) and that you'll sell more pieces (outcome). You might amp the motivation up even more by simultaneously visualizing yourself hard at work at your desk first thing tomorrow morning (imagery-process) and dreaming of what it'd be like to see your byline in a high-profile publication (imagery-outcome).
Whatever you do, stay away from "if-then" reasoning, which was the least effective form of motivational intervention in this experiment. Other research suggests that backup plans can prevent you from reaching your goals, and the "if-then" statement can easily become a way of accidentally thinking about your backup plan ("oh well, if I don't pass this test, then I'll take the class again next semester and study harder that time").
At some point, the internalized urging that "I can do better" could theoretically become too much. If you're waking up every day telling yourself "I can do better" even after you've broken a literal world record, as Bergland found himself doing, it may be time to reassess your goals and whether they're genuinely excessive. Until then, though, it would be smart to make "I can do better" your mantra.
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