How to Listen to Your Inner Voice & Make Better Decisions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Do Hard Things" by Steve Magness. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why should you listen to your inner voice? How should you make better use of your inner voice?

According to Steve Magness in Do Hard Things, learning how to interpret and deal with internal debates is a key step in building mental toughness. You probably have many different voices telling you what to do, but you have to dig deep to find the one that’s speaking your truth.

Keep reading for more reasons why listening to your inner voices is best in the long run, and how to acknowledge them.

Listen to Your Inner Voices

When making a decision, we all have several “voices” in our heads pointing us to a certain behavior. In normal, everyday decisions, like deciding what to wear to work, these voices are calm and collected, helping us make a somewhat easy, unimportant choice. In challenging situations, however, ones that require toughness, there might be several voices competing loudly against each other, pushing you toward different behaviors. Navigating these loud voices and making a decision based on them is much more difficult. 

Old-school toughness teaches you to simply ignore the voices that don’t align with your goals, like the voice telling you to give up. Magness writes that instead of ignoring them, you should listen to your inner voices and respond to them, as when you consciously recognize your doubts, fears, or other emotions, you can make better decisions.

(Shortform note: While Magness claims that we should acknowledge our inner voices to make the best decisions, some, like Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, argue that this isn’t always the best route. Gladwell claims that sometimes the best way to make a decision is to follow your intuition or, as he puts it, to rely on your “snap judgments.” Snap judgments, or unconscious decisions, can be beneficial because they’re quick and they don’t require too much information. Sometimes, we’re bogged down by too much information—provided by the voices in our heads—and struggle to interpret it correctly. It can be better to let your unconscious mind do the work and make a quick decision.)

According to one school of thought, we developed inner voices as a way to deal with stress. They serve as a way of making our abstract feelings more tangible. When we address our feelings with our inner voices, we can think about them more concretely, which can help us turn feelings into the appropriate actions or inactions. In other words, while our feelings help us navigate the world, our inner voices and thoughts help us navigate our feelings. The key to toughness is learning how to use our inner voices to our benefit and not letting the negative voices win out and lead us to poor decisions. 

(Shortform note: Psychologists agree that our conscious thoughts (inner voices) help us regulate our emotions and make more rational and less impulsive decisions. But while language is a vital part of what it means to be human, it also has its downsides when it comes to emotional regulation. Just as language can be distorted and used to deceive or mislead others, our inner voices can distort our feelings and lead us to inappropriate or misinformed actions. For example, in response to upsetting news, you might feel a strong mix of emotions such as anger, guilt, and sadness. But since there is no single word to describe how you’re feeling, you simply label it anger and act angrily.) 

According to Magness, there are three strategies we can use to make better use of our inner voices:

Vocalize your thoughts: Putting your thoughts into words can help you focus on the thought you want to be focused on. By vocalizing a thought, you give it more power. Also, since our inner dialogue is often convoluted, vocalizing your thoughts can simplify them and make them more actionable.

(Shortform note: Research has confirmed that talking to yourself can provide several benefits. On top of the benefits Magness mentions, positive self-talk can calm you, improve self-esteem, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Negative self-talk—when your internal dialogue is too critical or pessimistic—can have the opposite effect. It can cause you to ruminate on negative thoughts, thereby harming your self-image, your confidence, and even your ability to deal with pain.)

Don’t be overly positive: People often try to hype themselves up with positive internal dialogue. According to research, however, this only works if you actually believe what you’re saying to yourself. If you think to yourself, “I can do this,” you aren’t going to trick yourself into believing it. Even when talking to yourself, you have to be realistic.

(Shortform note: Psychologists provide further insight into why being overly positive doesn’t work, claiming that your brain resists big leaps in thought. If you think to yourself, “I’m happy” when you’re feeling really sad, your brain will resist this thought, which might amplify the opposite feeling rather than the one you’re trying to manifest. You might think, “I know I’m not happy. I’m sad and nothing I say to myself will change that.”)

Think in the second or third person: Magness notes that when we engage in internal dialogue, we often think in the first person—“I’ve got this” or “I’m capable.” But research shows that simply thinking “You got this” or “(your name) is capable” can improve your ability to perform. This is because thinking in the second or third person puts space between yourself and the situation, helping you consider it more objectively and make better decisions.

(Shortform note: Thinking in the third person to gain a more objective perspective is a research-backed therapeutic method. Research shows that it not only helps you see things more objectively, it also helps you view yourself with more kindness and compassion. For instance, one study found that when participants recalled negative memories in the third person (for instance, “She had a hard time in high school”), they exhibited less emotional pain and ruminated on the memory for shorter durations.)

How to Listen to Your Inner Voice & Make Better Decisions

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Here's what you'll find in our full Do Hard Things summary:

  • Why the "old-school" way we think about toughness is wrong
  • Why machismo ideals are harmful and ineffective
  • How to become resilient and versatile, and how to overcome adversity

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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