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Can Negative Thinking Help Achieve Your Goals?

October 18, 2012

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When striving towards a specific goal, you’re usually encouraged to think positively. Visualize the success as having already happened. Think happy thoughts. 

But what if this kind of thinking is actually holding you back?

A recent study at New York University showed that visualizing future success can backfire. In the study, participants who imagined their goals as already achieved were less effective than participants who visualized both positive outcomes and potential obstacles. 

According to the study, positive thinking alone relaxed participants and sapped their energy. Participants who used contrast thinking – switching between positive visualization and negative challenges – were able to get more done because they better predicted possible conflicts and focused on short-term steps that would move them toward their larger goal.

Is positive thinking overrated?

It’s important to use positive thinking as part of your big-picture vision when setting your goals. This optimistic perspective can also help relieve stress, reduce pain, and heal your body.

However, when striving toward a specific outcome – whether it’s training for a marathon, managing a large project at your job, or even planning for a career shift – it can help to look at the goal from all angles.

How does contrast thinking work in the real world?

In the marathon example, you could use positive thinking to imagine finishing the race in a certain time frame, and then contrast it with the possibility of having to run in the rain, on hilly terrain, or in colder than normal weather. When you train, you could mix up your training to include your worst-case scenarios.

One proven form of contrast thinking is SWOT analysis, a system that trains you to examine your plan’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

In the career-change scenario, for example, you could use positive thinking to imagine a new position, a pay increase, or an ideal work environment. You could also plan for setbacks by calculating your monthly expenses and building a financial cushion. 

What are your experiences with positive and negative thinking? How have both, or either, affected your ability to reach your goals?