New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has studied grad students trying to find jobs, hip-replacement patients re-learning how to walk, and women in a weight-reduction program trying to lose a few pounds.
In each case, study participants used positive thinking — imagining themselves reaching their goals — as a motivator.
And the results weren’t so positive.
“A year later, I checked in on these women [from the weight-loss study],” Oettingen writes in the New York Times, and “the more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.”
As that study and others of Oettingen’s found, positive thinking makes people feel comfortable with their present state.
Dreaming of the future “can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals,” she says. “Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.”
But the more motivating mindset isn’t focusing on what could go wrong. Her research has shown that dwelling on obstacles is a rather ineffective form of planning.
Instead, the most effective planners use a balance of optimism and pessimism.
This can come from an exercise that Oettingen calls “mental contrasting,” where you imagine your goals as well as the barriers keeping you from them. She explores the exercise in her new book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.”
Here’s her take on how mental contrasting works:
Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realising your wish.
As simple as it sounds, the exercise yields some striking results.
Oettingen has found that people who use mental contrasting stick to their exercise plans better, recover from back pain faster, and handle stress at work more effectively.
The business takeaway: Positive thinking can rein in your sense of urgency, and, as Malcolm Gladwell showed with Steve Jobs, urgency can be the difference between losing and winning big.
So, instead, think about what could be and how you’ll navigate your way there.
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