This article nicely summaries the findings of Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Having read many “positive thinking” books over the years I know that most of these books tell us that we need to vividly visualize the goals that we want to achieve in order to attain them. However Oettingen’s research found that doing these visualizations can actually hamper our motivation!
“Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short term, but over the long term it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck.”
In other words if we visualize our goals our mind doesn’t know the difference between the imagined outcome and the actual results! We end up having less motivation not more.
Does this mean Oettingen wants us to abandon positive thinking and become pessimists? No. Her research has shown we achieve more if we try to anticipate obstacles that stymie us and develop plans to deal with them using if-then statements. For instance, we might want to exercise first thing in the morning but we know that we repeatedly hit the snooze button. To deal with this we create the following implementation intention: “If I feel like hitting the snooze button, then I will immediately jump out of bed.”
This sounds too good to be true but studies have shown that this process works. In Oettingen’s studies 80% of those who applied the WOOP approach achieved their goals while only 30% of the control groups did.
Oettingen calls her approach WOOP, Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. You define what you wish to accomplish, determine the outcome, identify the likely obstacles then design a plan to overcome those obstacles.
Here are some links for additional information on this.