A scientific way of getting closer to your goals: Mental Contrasting

Setting goals has been a bit of an obsession of mine; but full disclosure, I don’t achieve most things I set out to. But I do make progress and I tend to see that as a bit of a victory. I try not to get all Tim Ferris about it and learn 20 languages in an afternoon, that all feels a bit exhausting to me now. These days, it’s the small things, and it’s more about highlighting what not to do than setting the bar exceptionally high.

For me, goals mean focus.

In life, you can probably do anything, but not everything. Goals help me with that.

One thing I wanted to do with OHNO was ensure that whatever we built to help teams in the workplace, it was backed by science. In our research we came across a visualization technique developed by the German motivation psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. Her technique, although simple, improves the effectiveness of self-control strategies, shows strong empirical support, and shows, among other things;

  • Improved academic performance, specifically higher scores on a quiz,
  • Improved health, prompting more exercise and less snacking,
  • Increased help-seeking and help-giving behaviour,
  • and increased the likelihood of taking steps to stop smoking.

In essence, it helps you achieve things that are by their nature, very difficult. By using it, you’re likely to overcome obstacles. Which in business is what we’re all trying to do.

The technique is called Mental Contrasting.

Why does it matter?

In business, everyone is setting goals and most people wonder why they don’t achieve them. When that happens (if it does), the instinct is to pass blame, which creates more dysfunction in a team than is really necessary.

Maybe this can help…

Mental contrasting works like this.

Step 1.

Write down several positive aspects associated with completing the goal. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, maybe you’ll be able to climb stairs easier. Play with your kids longer. Look great naked, whatever.

Step 2.

Select the most positive aspects of all the options, narrow them down to 1 maybe. Then, take a few moments to visualise those benefits, the more time you spend and the more detail you go into, the better. Set aside 5 minutes and try it. Go on, i’ll wait.

[let’s assume you really did it. Nice work]

Step 3.

Next, write down several obstacles in the way of completing your goal. What could derail you.

Step 4.

Now really focus on the largest and most menacing of the obstacles you wrote down. The longer you focus on this, the better.

That’s it. That’s mental contrasting.


Yes. That’s it.

They say you want to try using the technique at least once a day while you’re trying to accomplish the objective.

How & why this works

Mental contrasting works because the mind has a very short-time horizon. It acts mostly on emotions and doesn’t really think about how to get things done over the long term. The reason it’s hard to get motivated on longer term issues is because your brain doesn’t really give a shit. It just wants to eat chocolate and watch game of thrones.

The way to achieve things is to convince your subconscious that overcoming hard stuff is good for it, but your subconscious is crazy lazy. It wants to get shredded at the gym, it just doesn’t want to get up at 4.00am to work out because it can’t really see how those events correlate.

Mental contrasting helps your subconscious understand the cause and effects of getting over the hurdles. Left to its own devices, it simply doesn’t get emotionally invested in working on the barriers.

So you need to manipulate it, like getting a 9 year old kid to eat carrots. You can’t just cut them and put it on a plate. You have to get inventive.

Mostly your subconscious mind responds to images, which is why visualising the good and bad elements is a kind of ‘training’ for your mind, prepping it to overcome the obstacles. You are speaking the same language as your subconscious, so it understands what it has to do. Think of it like brain-washing your subconscious into going to the gym.

What’s cool about OHNO is we’re constantly asking our users to highlight the barriers, and go through them as a team. We’re using elements of mental contrasting regularly to train the teams to identify barriers to achieving their goals, bringing that front of mind, and trying to reduce as much friction as possible in getting you to do the ‘visualisation’ bit. We come to you and ask you, “hey buddy, so tell me about those barriers you have going on today?”

You can read more about mental contrasting here.