A Cranky Pessimist's Guide to Getting Things Done
Negatively disposed towards positive thinking? There's an alternative.
Posted Nov 15, 2012
Perhaps you've already noticed that the vast majority of techniques for "getting motivated," or for beating procrastination, don't seem to work—or not for very long. Sure, you can make ambitious lists of goals. You can tape inspiring slogans to your computer monitor. You can even attend (as I did, some time ago) a 15,000-person motivational seminar in a Texan basketball stadium, where a veteran self-help guru will inform you that the secret of success is to eliminate the word "impossible" from your vocabulary. But the beneficial effects of these methods, if there are any, soon fade, often leaving you mired deeper in inertia than before. This suits motivational speakers and authors just fine: what better guarantee of repeat business? An inspiring slogan that kept on inspiring forever, after all, would destroy the inspiring-slogan industry at a stroke.
Thankfully, though, there's an alternative to all this. Insights from contemporary psychology, and from several ancient philosophical traditions, suggest that the cranky, undermotivated pessimists among us don't actually need to undergo total personality transformations in order to get on with what needs to be done. Here are four of the most useful ideas I've encountered in the course of researching alternatives to the aggravating and counterproductive culture of positive thinking:
1. Don't wait until you feel like doing something
The problem with most motivational advice is that it's not really about how to get things done—it's about how to make yourself feel like getting things done. This is the philosophy of positive thinking at its most straightforward: an emphasis not on action, but on cultivating specific interior states. Unfortunately, this simply reinforces the notion that you need to feel a certain way before you can act—and thus it imposes another hurdle between you and where you want to get, rather than removing one. It is possible, instead, to acknowledge that you don't feel like doing something, then do it anyway.
"Many western therapeutic methods focus on trying to successfully manage or modify our feeling-states," writes James Hill, a practitioner of Morita Therapy, a Japanese tradition heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. But, he asks, "is it accurate to assume that we must 'overcome' fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out on a date? If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things."
2. Try deliberate mediocrity
David Burns, author of the bestselling cognitive therapy guide Feeling Good, recommends this pleasingly counterintuitive remedy for those who feel paralysed by perfectionism: set out with the intention to have a deliberately mediocre day. "Try for 80%, 60% or 40%" of whatever you think you're capable of, he advises. He makes two predictions: first, that you'll find it hard not to exceed your mediocre targets, and, second, that you'll enjoy the experience more than you otherwise would.
The positive thinking gurus' advice is to set audacious goals: "If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough!", as one popular exhortation has it. But this only bolsters the perfectionist mindset: to achieve such giddy heights, you tell yourself, you'll need to get every intermediate step just right; the scale of such ambitious is liable to intimidate you into inaction. Burns's technique, an example of a "paradoxical intervention," short-circuits these problems. If you attempt "deliberate mediocrity" and pull it off successfully, you'll still have made forward progress. If you try it and fail—because you find you just can't help exceeding your low standards—you'll be in even better shape.
3. Focus on process, not outcome
Have you heard the anecdote about how the novelist Anthony Trollope used to stand in front of a mirror every morning, pumping his fists and shouting "I'm the greatest author of all time!", in order to get himself into the right state of mind for writing? You haven't, because he didn't: instead, he aimed to write for three hours every morning, regardless of his state of mind. Like countless other authors and artists, he set a process goal ("work for three hours") instead of an outcome goal ("write a great book"). True, Trollope took things to extremes: if he finished a novel halfway through one three-hour period, he moved straight on to the next. But the basic insight applies to anyone: in a profound sense, the outcome of your efforts is beyond your control and none of your business. All you're responsible for is the process. "Nothing discourages the concentration necessary to perform well," observes the sports psychologist John Eliot, in his book Overachievement, more than "worrying about the outcome."
4. Think about how badly things could go
The grinning motivational guru's standard advice is to visualize victory: imagine yourself crossing the finish line, delivering the finished novel, or checking your bank account to confirm that you've become a billionaire. But the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics proposed the opposite, which they called "the premeditation of evils": try vividly but soberly imagining, in detail, how badly things could go. This approach, known to modern psychologists as "defensive pessimism", can be a useful tactic for sapping future scenarios of their anxiety-provoking power. Research also suggests that engaging in "positive fantasies" about future performance can reduce, rather increase, the motivation to accomplish them (Kappes & Oettingen, 2011).
As the psychotherapist Albert Ellis often observed, the worst thing about any given future scenario "is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror." Detailed negative visualisation cuts that horror back down to size. Positive thinkers urge you to convince yourself that everything will turn out for the best, if only you believe in yourself and your dreams. The Stoic-influenced alternative is to realize that you could cope even if everything didn't turn out for the best.
As a slogan shouted from the stage of a motivational seminar, that might not sound so good. But for those of us left cold by positive thinking, it has this compensatory advantage: it actually works.
Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729
Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, from which parts of this post are adapted. Follow him on Twitter @oliverburkeman.