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Learn Mental Contrasting For Success

Positive thinking – the go to tool for self-help gurus

If you’ve ever watched the Secret or listened to any self-help gurus in your lifetime then you’ve probably heard of positive Thinking.

Self-help gurus constantly preach their students to “picture a life of wealth, abundance and happiness”.  They’ll encourage you to visualise and believe that your goals of getting that house, car or perfect job have already been achieved.

These gurus claim that visualisation will strengthen your resolve. They’ll claim that the power of positive thinking will help you achieve success. There’s nothing inherently harmful with this way of thinking – you don’t get hurt for dreaming big. It makes sense to dream big, because no one wants to feel bad for their current circumstances.

Even some of the world’s most successful people prescribe others to dream big and visualise success. It’s no wonder that positive thinking has become a crucial part of the self-help movement. 

So if self-help gurus and successful people swear by positive thinking, then it must work, right?

Does positive thinking work?

Science has another take on positive thinking. There have been some important research that indicates that positive thinking might actually make you less likely to succeed.

Dr. Gabriele Oettingen is a psychologist, whose work at New York University has shown that visualising our goals as having been achieved can be harmful.

In Dr. Oettingen’s studies, volunteers felt less determined after visualising success in various scenarios. Usually, those who fantasised about their goals for the coming week felt less enthusiastic and achieved fewer of their goals.

According to Dr. Oettingen, positive imagery can be inspiring at first, but it also tricks your mind into believing as if the hard work is already done. This means that the more you convince yourself through positive thinking that you are achieving your goals, the more likely it is that your motivation will fade away to accomplish those goals.

Why positive thinking can be harmful?

A problem with picturing what life will be like after we’ve achieved our goals is that it encourages us to pass through the obstacles to success. Fantasising about successful companies, careers and learning outcomes might excite us for the moment, but it also distracts us from taking the necessary steps to turn those dreams into reality.

There is no doubt that you need to have an end goal in mind. Knowing what you want to achieve is crucial for success, but it’s also extremely important to think about the hurdles in your way to success.

The benefits of mental contrasting

Appreciating the hurdles in your path is a technique developed by Oettingen’s team. This technique is called “mental  contrasting”.

Mental contrasting is essentially a way of thinking where you focus on the positive outcomes associated with achieving your goals, whilst also paying attention to your current state and appreciating the hurdles between your goals.

In a study by Oettingen, a group of mid-level managers at four hospitals in Germany were trained in mental contrasting technique. Within two weeks, the group showed to have achieved more of their short term goals than their colleagues who did not receive the training.

The benefit of mental contrasting appears to be rooted in one’s ability to think realistically about the obstacles to success. Once we realise the obstacles between our goals, we develop a necessity to act, which lets us get one step closer to our goals.

Use WOOP for success

Creative visualisation, mental contrasting and developing a necessity to act all lead to a framework developed by Oettingen called WOOP.

Mental contrasting

Credit: Dr. Gabriele Oettingen

Woop is a simple framework that helps people overcome obstacles through a simple implementation strategy. You just need to follow 4 steps to progress further towards your goal.

  1. Identify your wish
  2. Identify your outcome
  3. Identify your obstacle
  4. If there’s an obstacle, create a plan

When you’re creating a plan, you should use an ‘if-then’ plan. If-then plans are rigorously backed by science as the most effective strategies you can use  to stick to your goals. Otherwise known as implementation intention, If-then plans hinges your desires to a situational cue, such as a certain time, location or event.

A meta-analysis of 94 independent studies has shown that having an “if-then” plan significantly improved participants success rates for range of goal setting exercises. To name a few – it’s helped people exercise more, be environmentally friendly and cope with fear.

The “if-then” plan works because you’re looking out for situational cues and you become more aware of opportunities around your surroundings. It effectively guides you at critical moments – these are the times when you just need to do it. You no longer need to think about what to do at certain times of the day.

Final thoughts

Have you ever done mental contrasting? If you haven’t, try the WOOP strategy and see if you accomplish more.

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Learn Mental Contrasting For Success


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