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The Magic of Turning Negative Thoughts into Goal-Achieving Actions

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Contrary to popular opinion, only thinking positively can prohibit you from achieving your goals – no matter how nicely you’ve displayed them on your vision board.

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How so? Absolute positive thinking trains the mind to begin believing we’ve already achieved our heart’s desires – sapping our energy, reducing our efforts and impeding the work required to reach a goal. In short, thinking positively on its own isn’t enough to make our pursuits successful; a monitored amount of negative thinking is needed.

But don’t just take my word for it, Gabriele Oettinger, a Professor of Psych at NYU and author of the critically acclaimed ‘Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation’, draws on 20-years of research to conclude that whilst it’s great to have positive aspirations, you’ll need a good grasp of reality to be successful.

How Can We Be More Successful in Meeting Our Goals?

Firstly, you need a goal, a clear and measurable idea of what you want to achieve. That’s the positive part! Now you need to acknowledge your internal obstacles, taking time to recognise where you might falter (the negative zone). Next, you need to take that honest information and create actionable plans for how you’ll overcome your obstacles.

It’s a process known as mental-contrasting, a visualisation technique of taking a desired positive future outcome and contrasting it with the perceived challenges you believe you’ll face. Critically, you need to ensure you create your own personal ‘hurdle jumping’ plans for mental contrasting to be effective and purposeful. These are the plans that will push you past the goal line.

Mental Contrast Like a Pro With WOOP

WOOP is a science-based mental strategy enabling us to guide and amend our behaviours in more helpful ways. It stands for Wish / Outcome / Obstacle / Plan and can help you achieve success in key areas of your life. Whether that’s nurturing relationships, doing better in your career or becoming healthier, this process can help.

Plus, this technique allows us to strengthen our mental association, helps us address our fears, increase our energy levels and ultimately perform better. Sounds good, right?

How to WOOP well

WOOP takes a maximum of 5-minutes to complete on your own. So try to be somewhere with minimal distractions — although as you get more practised at this, you can do it virtually anywhere.

  • First, think of something you want to achieve — ask yourself, ‘What is my dearest wish?’ Visualise it. Try to formulate it into a short sentence in your mind.
  • Next, think about the best possible outcome of achieving your wish — it may be an emotion or an exact result. Let your mind indulge in this part; let yourself feel good about it.
  • Then switch gears, ask yourself, ‘What will hold me back from achieving this? What could stop me?’ Is it self-doubt? Or procrastination? Maybe an unhealthy urge? Or something someone once said? Dig deep on it, be honest with yourself.
  • Finally, consider the obstacles you identify, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to overcome them?’ Think about when & where you expect to encounter them. Formulate an if/then plan for each obstacle.

Building Plans For Success

Developed by Professor Peter Gollwitzer at NYU, an If/Then Plan is a simple way to implement your goal intentions. The basic structure is this: If {situation} Then I will {behaviour}.

For example, If WhatsApp messages distract me from my work, Then I will mute conversations for 1 hour to focus. Or, If I’m at the store and I’m tempted to pick up something unhealthy, Then I’ll bypass the aisles where the temptation lies.

Yes, this technique takes mental effort but works by triggering automatic processes that help push you through. You’re training yourself to recognise obstacles as they appear which then alerts the already created links in your brain to say, ‘Oh, there’s that obstacle I thought about; this is what I need to do now.’

Encouragingly, through Oettinger’s studies, participants became significantly more motivated to quit smoking, lose weight, get better grades, sustain fulfilling relationships and negotiate more effectively in business situations.

Rethinking Positive Thinking 

I appreciate for some, this approach goes against popular opinion that thinking positively and blocking out negativity is the only way to go. Calling this practice’ obstacle identification’ rather than ‘thinking negatively’ may be a more helpful way to frame it. 

Regardless, what matters most is the acknowledgement that utilising a purposeful amount of this type of thinking helps add energy, motivation and effective solutions to the pursuit of your goals. Now, that sounds like a pretty positive approach, doesn’t it!


Alex Grace is a well-being advocate and freelance writer. She is also the content creator for livingprettyhappy.com, a well-being lifestyle site empowering you to live life happier.


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