Self-talk and persistence. What do you say to yourself?

Published on Dec 5, 2017

by Dr. Duck

When I decided to embark on a marathon it was not the result of a strong desire or goal. I can’t remember having a clear plan or even a strong drive. It was just something that I decided to do one day.

I was never encouraged much either. Most people thought the whole idea was a whole lot of effort for not really much reward. You potentially damage your body, waste a lot of time training when you could be spending time with family and friends. Nevertheless, I kept one foot in front of the next and somehow got to the end.

In the last few kilometres, I experienced pain I didn’t expect. It was unpleasant. The voice inside my head was ‘never again’. But I decided to run another one the year after and have since retired.

I realised that there’s a lot to learn about how you can motivate yourself during a run (or similar activity) using self-talk.

Here are some things I would say to myself that helped me persevere.


The Postponement Self-Talk

…or I’ll just get this one out of the way today

When I was pounding the side of the road week after week in preparation, I sometimes enjoyed the time to myself and the satisfaction of running great distances. But then there also many days I persisted out of recognition that I simply needed to clock up the kilometres.

When we think of someone who is motivated, it suggests enthusiasm and positivity. A motivated employee, for example, is someone who surely enjoys his or her job. But, of course, motivation is more about being goal driven.

You can feel flat, tired, and even outright depressed but still work towards a goal tirelessly. In part, you are postponing the rewarding experience. You won’t feel great today but tomorrow you’ll feel better having got through the difficult days.

I’m probably not alone as a runner who sometimes feels obliged to run not because it is enjoyable. If anything, you are probably less likely to pursue many goals if the aim is for pleasure. Pleasure and enjoyment are often fleeting experiences that are fun but if you anchor your motivation to fun then the moment it stops being fun, the faster you will give up.


The ‘Switch-off’ Self Talk

Why is this taking so long…

When I set a goal to run six kilometres, that last kilometre sometimes feels longer than it should. Strangely, I start to check the time and expect the kilometre to move past much faster. But if the goal is 12 kilometers, this kilometre feels different. It seems trivial, smaller, and easily overcome. In context to the larger journey, it doesn’t feel as long.

I liken this to a trip from Melbourne to Sydney. The flight is short so we end up expecting to be there faster. Twenty minutes into the flight and we start checking the time. But if we travel overseas, our minds expect a long journey, we switch off and time can seem to move more swiftly.

If you expect something to be quick and easy, you will get frustrated much more easily. Instead, if you assume that something is going to take a lot more time and effort, you may be more tolerant of keeping a slower pace (pardon the pun).

This essentially means that you also need to sometimes switch off your self-talk when you are persevering at a task. If you constantly check-in on how much progress you are making, it can make it feel like it’s taking forever.


The Lying to Yourself Self-Talk

Just one more and I’m done…just one more…just one more

One way you can persevere with a task is simply lying to yourself. You might have a rough idea that something will take a long time but you refrain from committing to yourself the long-term goal and simply agree to meet smaller goals.

As a runner, you can lie to yourself about a big run. You can plan to run 20 kilometers but say to yourself that you’ll do 15 and then stop. Then when you hit 15, you can always add one more kilometre to your run. Of course, at 16, you can add one more and so on.

When training I would be in a constant negotiation with myself. Part of me knew I would be running 20km, but I could stop myself from being overwhelmed by doing a deal with myself, renegotiating the extra kilometres as the goal got closer.

Selecting your work goals is important but it’s essential that you can slowly add to an idea or improvement one step at a time (pardon the pun). It’s important that you don’t overwhelm yourself with ambition otherwise your mind will not be able to cope with the stress. Persistence is not about being the most driven, energetic and enthusiastic. It may simply be the ability to gently keep moving along.


The Acceptance Self-Talk

Perfect. Now an excuse to rest

Obstacles aren’t bad luck or fortune. In my training on both occasions I was burdened with blisters, cramps and the occasional cold. People who end up running marathons don’t avoid injury and illness. They actually expect it as a part of the training. I once had a week off due to a chest infection but thought about it as forced, guilt-free rest rather than an obstacle.

There are, of course, many obstacles in life that are truly debilitating, unlucky and unfair. But for many of us, we receive as many lucky moments as we do problems that can be overcome. Motivation can be about turning the problems into opportunities or, at the very least, accepting them and running forward (pardon the pun) regardless.

When I have been injured, I would initially be frustrated and try to run through the injury. This often led to a slower recovery. The best strategy is to accept the problem and use the time/change to do something else.


The Bigger Picture Self-Talk

I can catch up tomorrow

There is nothing more demotivating and impossible to achieve than a long-winded, detailed plan. Human beings seem to have convinced themselves that more step by step detail will ensure success. But what tends to happen is life throws in so many curve balls, the ins and outs of the plan are too hard to execute.

Instead, setting some high-level goals that are more flexible to the day-to-day changes is best. In running, you can set a comprehensive training plan for each day, right down to where you run, what to eat, how to recover and so on. Or, you can simply set a goal like ‘I will run at least 50 kilometers this week’.

This is a ‘bigger picture’ mindset. It allows you flexibility to meet your goals however you like.

A goal like this means you can have an off day on Monday but still recover the kilometres on your planned rest day. If you too stringently set a time, distance and place for each day, you can easily get frustrated if it’s raining or if you had to stay back at work. The plan can’t be followed and you run the risk (pardon the pun) of giving up.


The Finish Line

In short, pursuing goals with persistence involves a psychological game you need to play with yourself. You sometimes need to lie to yourself, counsel your thoughts, negotiate different outcomes, and even outright lie. If you are prepared to do this, you may just get to the end of the race (yes, pardon the pun one last time).

by Dr. Duck

My name is Nicholas Duck. I am a Doctor of Psychology with an interest in psychology in the workplace, film and television, the media, and the fields of emotion, unconscious, and motivation psychology. You can contact me at

I am founder and principal consultant at Opposite, a consultancy that takes these applied psychological findings and helps workplaces improve.

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