The Negativity Advantage: How Pessimism Can Help You Reach Your Goals

Whether it’s the number of people you want to add to your mailing list or the amount you’d like to earn this year, most entrepreneurs live and die by their goals. Well, I hate to break it to you, but all that “goal-digging” you’re doing—it’s not going to work.

The problem? Too much positive thinking. 

While developmental psychologist Sasha Heinz, Ph.D., MAPP, is an expert in positive psychology, even she admits thinking positively isn’t enough to achieve your goals.

“When it comes to becoming a goal-finisher, positive thinking may actually keep you stuck,” says Dr. Heinz. “Research shows romanticizing our goals will make us feel good in the moment—in fact, it actually lowers your blood pressure—but it won’t help us get up and take action. The secret to goal attainment,” says Dr. Heinz, “is to use your brain’s natural inclination to imagine the worst to your advantage in a very specific way.”

So what’s the solution? Dr. Heinz gives us her three-step plan to stop dreaming and start achieving. 

Think Optimistically

Positivity matters. In fact, it’s the fuel of change. You have to believe you’re capable of writing a book, getting an MBA, or creating a successful online program to even be willing to get started. Not only do you have to believe you can accomplish the goal, but you also need to deeply identify with the positive benefits it will bring to your life. 

“Starting your goal-setting process with positive thinking is essential,” says Heinz. “Going after a goal that feels fairly impossible to you right now is daunting, so allow your positive thinking to give you the motivation and courage to take your first step.”

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Unfortunately, this is where most people’s goals die as an unrealized fantasy. When’s the last time your New Year’s resolution made it to Valentine’s Day? If you’re like 80% of Americans, the answer is never. If you want to become a goal-finisher, it’s time to befriend your inner naysayer. (Ironically, your biggest ally for crossing the finish line, reminds Dr. Heinz.)

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Think Pessimistically 

Research from Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at New York University, shows that thinking positively about a challenging goal without being realistic (aka thinking pessimistically) about the roadblocks and obstacles you’ll face reduces your likelihood of goal success. 

Heinz encourages goal-setters to use a technique called “mental contrasting” developed by Oettingen to mitigate the relaxing effect of fantasizing and, instead, ground your fantasies in reality. Research shows the internal friction from mental contrasting motivates your goal-directed actions. “Imagine everything that could go wrong with your big bodacious goal,” she says. “This is where you’re going to put all that pessimism to good use.” 

So, if your goal is to scale your business, invite pessimism to the brainstorming table. Embrace thoughts like: What if I can’t recruit the right staff? Where do I start with operations and reporting? How does one even go about getting an investor?

Just let your brain enjoy its natural negativity bias.

Think Strategically

As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Successful goal-finishers keep the process moving by coming up with specific action steps that address the very real challenges you identified in Step 2. “Your natural negativity can help you create a strategic plan to prepare for when the going gets tough,” says Dr. Heinz. 

Dr. Heinz suggests her clients go through their list of obstacles and address each one individually with a concrete action plan. “The most effective way to do this,” she instructs, “is to create an implementation intention, which is a when/then plan.” 

So, for example, Dr. Heinz says if your current reality is not having the right team to scale your business, you need to create a plan to overcome this obstacle. Your implementation (when/then) plan might include: 

Monday | 9 am — Brainstorm what makes the ideal team

Monday | 2 pm — Email mentor to get feedback

Tuesday | 8 am — Reach out to contacts and colleagues for referrals

For each problem you foresee, put your plan to overcome each one right into your calendar. 

“The reason this is so important is it allows you to feel little hits of accomplishment along the way, which boosts your motivation,” says Heinz. “You’ll see demonstrable progress by setting implementation intentions.” After all, working towards a big goal is hard work.

“There’s so much emphasis on positive thinking in the self-help zeitgeist, but the great irony is positivity without negative henchmen won’t get you very far,” says Heinz. “If you want your wishes to be anything more than pictures on your vision board, you need to harness the power of pessimism.”

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