By Yvonne Milosevic
When it comes to strategies for reaching our goals, most of us adopt an optimistic outlook. We see ourselves triumphant at the finish line and believe a positive mindset is essential to maintaining motivation. But what if we told you that you would have a higher chance of achieving your ambitions if you harnessed the power of negative thinking instead? That’s the premise of a recent conversation on the Choiceology podcast between the Wharton School’s Katy Milkman and Annie Duke, author of How to Decide.
It sounds counterintuitive because we associate negative thinking with pessimism and demotivation. It’s downright unpleasant to imagine a future where we don’t lose those extra 20 pounds or fail to launch that startup. Yet the reason negative thinking is effective at helping us reach our goals is simple. In short, it involves imagining all the roadblocks we might encounter so that we can avoid them if/when they arise.
Negative thinking activates you hormonally like a lion coming at you would. It gets you to move and to act.—Annie Duke
This framing device prepares you not to get derailed when the bad thing happens, Duke explains, because you plan out what you’ll do if something goes wrong.
Negative Thinking in the Form of a Premortem
A premortem, for the uninitiated, is a popular managerial strategy where a team imagines that a project has failed. Then, they work backward to find out what could have led to that result. Project leaders tend to be overconfident, which is often dangerous. At its worst, it leads people to make poor decisions or waste time and money pursuing ideas doomed to fail.
According to this piece by McKinsey, the reason this exercise works so well is that “under this approach, the psychology is flipped, and blind support for ideas gives way to creative problem solving.”
As Duke explains, “the more of that future landscape that you can identify, obviously the better you’re going to be able to navigate it.” Prepare for those possibilities so that you can react with a cool head when they appear. All these steps, she adds, will increase your chances of success.
So, how can we harness the power of negative thinking to make better decisions? First, by becoming tolerant of the discomfort. “The biggest advice that I have for people to improve their decision-making by using the power of negative thinking is to realize that imagining failure is not really a bad thing,” says Duke.
“It might cause you a little distress right now,” she admits. “But it’s going to be very protective of the future version of you.”