Talking to Yourself Out Loud: How Your Own Words Shape How You Think
Seth Godin writes that building better systems is more effective at avoiding errors than putting in additional effort. In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about systems. He explains that “you do not rise to the level of your goals”, but rather “fall to the level of your systems”.
One personal system that I find useful is talking to myself out loud. Whether it’s due to social media, emails, or news, our minds have plenty of reasons to wander. Talking out loud has helped me to think with intention and clarity when it comes to several areas of my life. And when I get distracted, I can talk to myself to regain focus and shift my attention to what I need to get done.
I’d like to share some of the areas in which talking out loud can shape how you think. Some I use all the time. Some I’d like to practice more often. Hopefully you decide to try it out for yourself.
Getting stuck on a difficult problem is frustrating. There are several things you can do to get unstuck: writing, going for a walk, or asking someone for help. Talking through a problem out loud is another solution that I have found useful.
What’s one of the best pieces advice you can give someone for a technical coding interview? Talk through your problem-solving out loud. Lighthouse Labs made sure to drive this point home. Talking out loud makes it easier for your interviewer to understand where you’re going with your solution. Plus, they can intervene to steer you back in the right direction if you go off track.
I used this tactic during my first ever technical interview for a 3-month internship. While I partially solved the technical challenge, there were some edge cases that I missed where my solution wouldn’t work. I didn’t know the answer at first, but my interviewer guided me and we came to a solution together. I don’t think that we would have gotten there if I didn’t talk through my problem-solving process out loud. I guess the interview went well - I received an offer for the position, but I ended up taking a full-time opportunity with Square Lab.
I have even taken this approach to the washroom at work. I was thinking about a technical problem and was determined to solve it on my own - I wasn’t quite ready to ask for help yet. So, I decided to talk out loud. In the washroom. While doing my business. I found that it was useful for framing the problem in a different way. Something clicked eventually, and I think I can partially attribute this for speaking about the problem out loud. It doesn’t need to be in the washroom, though.
There’s a reason rubber duck debugging works. Talking through a problem out loud allows you to better understand the problem and identify possible solutions.
In the modern economy, becoming a life-long learner is incredibly important. Many industries are experiencing rapid change. In software development, for instance, new technologies, frameworks, and tooling - or updated versions - are released regularly. Many releases eventually change up a software developer’s workflow. It’s safe to say that when it comes to your career, learning how to learn is a skill that goes a long way.
When you teach or explain a concept to someone, you can quickly identify cracks in your knowledge. You can’t skim over things you don’t understand, unlike while you’re reading, for example. And you reinforce your knowledge of the concept at the same time. On the flip side, when someone explains something to you it’s good practice to summarize what you understood to make sure that you didn’t miss anything.
If you don’t have anyone to talk to, you’re in luck. In an article from the Harvard Business Review, Ulrich Boser reveals that self-explaining is a great tool for learning. When you self-explain out loud, you slow down and become more deliberate with your learning. The author also referenced a study that found that people who explain ideas to themselves out loud are able to learn three times more than people who don’t.
This technique is popular when trying to prepare for exam, and it’s one that I’ve used while studying in the past. But I think there are so many other places to learn out loud. In particular, I’d like to try it while doing my online courses or reading books.
Decision-Making & Time Management
The team at Farnam Street put it best: “few things will change your trajectory in life as effectively as learning to make better decisions”.
I’m no expert in making decisions. But what I can say is that I have benefitted from talking through my decisions out loud. Specifically, I’ve done so when deciding how to plan my time.
I tend to plan out my activities out loud when I have a list of tasks or goals to achieve within a specified period of time: leaving the house for errands, or allocating my time on a weekend for working on my blog or listening to an online course.
Since I am human, I do get distracted. A lot. Making decisions out loud regarding how to spend my time or what tasks I need to get done helps make that decision more tangible or concrete. It’s as if hearing the words out loud snaps my attention back to what’s important. I feel more accountable and, as a result, I’m less likely to become distracted watching Netflix or playing video games.
Next time you’re faced with an important decision or you want to better spend your time, you may find that talking to yourself out loud makes it easier to choose more effectively and be more committed to getting things done.
I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.
Impostor syndrome. I know the feeling all too well, having shifted recently from a career in finance to software development. Like many coding bootcamp grads, I have little knowledge of computer science fundamentals. And while I am committed to catching up over the course of my career, it doesn’t make up for the fact that self-doubt is a very real thing.
In his new book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal discusses the importance that what we say to ourselves matters and that practicing self-compassion helps build resilience. He writes, “instead of accepting what the voice [in your head] says or arguing with it, remind yourself that obstacles are part of the process of growth”. But he also says that we can’t get better without practicing.
When I feel inadequate, incompetent, or inexperienced at work, I have found that I can practice self-compassion while talking through my self-doubt out loud. I can push through my thoughts with actual words, reminding myself that it’s normal to feel what I’m feeling.
The process can be meditative. I’ve done this in the car instead of listening to a podcast or to music, and it feels like you get a better grasp of your emotions. It’s just you and your thoughts. Except that you get to have an active discussion with them.
Nir tell us to “talk to yourself the way you might talk to a friend”. This helps us to see the situation for what it really is. I doubt that he meant talking out loud to yourself per se, but I can attest that doing so has made me feel better about impostor syndrome and self-doubt.
Learn to Love the Sound of Your Own Voice
I think that there is a common theme to becoming a better problem-solver, learner, decision-maker, and dealing with self-doubt: be proactive. Journal about what’s going on in your life. Write about what you’ve learned, and then teach it to someone else. Talking out loud to yourself is one such active strategy.
It will probably seem strange at first. And there is definitely a stigma surrounding it. But I would argue that it goes a long way to improve the way you deal with mental and emotional adversity. Plus, you don’t have to do it around other people at all. Whether you’re going through a career change like I did, struggling at work, or finding it hard to motivate yourself, try talking to yourself out loud. Hopefully it helps you in the same ways it has helped me.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn to love the sound of your own voice. Eventually.