The Power of Negative Thinking

How Pessimism Might Actually Help You Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions

Every year, millions of people (maybe billions) make new year’s resolutions. They vow to work out more, eat better, do more focused work, and various other radical changes. An overwhelming number of those people end up failing at one or all of those resolutions. I’m sure it’s happened to you — it has to me. Why is this?

Part of the problem is that we tend to get optimistic as we near the beginning of the new year. We tell ourselves that we’ll be different, better, stronger — we’ll achieve these goals. I think that in most cases, we’re so pumped, we actually believe the optimistic assessment of ourselves — and that’s the problem.

Be Pessimistic About Your Future Self

When we get optimistic about ourselves — when we think positively, saying I will achieve, I will be better — we fail to prepare our current selves for success. We assume that we’re going to be smarter and more prepared tomorrow, so we often fail to do the preparations that are necessary to make it easy for us to succeed tomorrow.

If you really wanted to set yourself up for success on a tough goal, it would actually be more helpful to view yourself negatively. If instead of thinking I’m going to wake up early and crush this workout tomorrow, you thought my lazy ass is going to look for any excuse to sleep in and skip the workout tomorrow — how would you act differently tonight?

Would you place your alarm far away from your bed, so you’d have to more fully wake up in order to turn it off? Would you have all of your workout clothes in your gym bag by the door? Would you have the coffee already ground up and ready to be made? But if you’re optimistic about you future self, you probably wouldn’t think of these things.

Make It Easy by Underestimating Yourself

The real trick to setting yourself up for success is to make things as easy as possible on yourself. The way to do that is to assume that your future self is a bit lazier, slower, and less organized than your current self. When you do that, you prepare for that laziness, slowness, and disorganization — and you make it easier for your future self to succeed.

Think about it, when you wake up and the gym back is ready, the coffee is brewing, your water and snacks are packed, and your playlist is all ready to go — there’s not much of an excuse to play hooky on your workout. After all that your evening self did to set your morning self up for success, your morning self really owes it to your past self to follow through.

When you think about it, this is a way of leveraging our natural tendency to fall for the sunk cost fallacy. Pretty clever — you guilt your future self into doing the right thing.

Further Adventures in Pessimism

Being pessimistic about your future self helps with more than just following through on resolutions. It also helps you to become better organized and more intelligent. Simply follow the principle of not trusting your future self’s memory.

I already do this about 70% of the time, and it pays dividends when I do use it, but I get some flack for it. When my wife or someone tells me something that I need to remember for future use, I whip out my phone and put it in my “inbox” to process later. Most people who give me crap about it claim that they just remember that stuff and write it down later. I challenge that “method”.

First of all, I bet that if those “remember it for later” folks tracked how often they did remember it for later vs. how often things just “crept up on them” closer to the due date, they’d be disappointed. Don’t trust your future self to remember something. You have a way to capture stuff; use it! Why place the burden on your future self to recall something? It saps your mental energy and processing power, it adds to anxiety, and it hinders organization.

And here’s a bonus with regard to goals and resolutions: the more organized you are, the more likely you are to achieve new goals you set for yourself. When you have a system that you trust to keep track of your vital information and projects, it’s much easier to keep on track with all of it. So, do yourself a favor, and assume that in the future, you’re a bumbling idiot. Then make it virtually impossible for that idiot to screw things up! It’s pretty simple.

Because You Assume You’ll Be Stupid, You’ll Always Exceed Expectations

When you’re pessimistic about your future competence and level of willpower, and you’re committed to your goals, you will work now to set your future self up to succeed. What is great about this is that each time your future idiot self takes all of the resources and organization that your past self spoon-fed it and does the right thing — you’ll feel amazing! That’s because you expected your lazy future self to be lazy and weak-willed, but look — that bastard did it after all!

This is tongue-in-cheek of course, but there is some truth to it. When you are realistic about how your mind can try to wriggle out of committments you’ve made to yourself, and you end up succeeding despite that, it’s a real victory. Those little victories over your weaknesses and defects are a real fuel for your road to progress.

So seriously, shrug off the advice of the Norman Vincent Peales and Napolean Hills of the world; think negative! It just might be the most positive thing you can do for yourself.

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