Rich and Co.

Recipe for Goal Setting and Decision-Making

Here are some tips taken from recent research.  

  1. First imagine a positive vision of the problem solved
  2. Then think about the negative aspects of reality
  3. With both in mind, carry out a ‘reality check’, comparing your fantasy with reality
  4. Crucially, write down your expectations of success in reaching your goal.

This contrast technique is the most effective in encouraging you to make plans of action and in taking responsibility but only when expectations of success were high.  When expectations of solving your problems are low, the mental contrast condition may make you make fewer plans and take less responsibility.

  • The contrast condition forces you to decide whether your goal was really achievable or not
  • Then, if your expect to succeed, you can commit to the goal; if not, let it go.

Using this technique, the same thing happens to emotions as well as thoughts. The mental contrasting has the effect of committing you emotionally to the goal if you think you can succeed, or letting the goal go if you didn’t.  If you indulge or dwell – you’ll make no such emotional investment.

If you are in a mental contrast condition you will be more energised and take action sooner than if you only entertained positive or negative fantasies on their ownOnce again, you won’t commit to goals you don’t expect to achieve.

Why Mental Contrasting Is Hard
Carrying out a kind of reality check sounds like a straightforward technique, but it’s easy to get wrong.

The positive fantasies about the future must come first, followed by the negative aspects of realityThen it’s also vital that we think carefully about the difference between fantasy and reality.

A study has found that if people don’t contrast fantasy with reality then the technique doesn’t work (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2001).

There’s a good reason why we need to rub our noses in the difference between fantasy and reality.  It’s because we hate to have inconsistencies pointed out to us and will attempt all kinds of mental contortions to avoid them. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance: our mind’s discomfort with thoughts and actions which are incompatible with each other.

Our natural reaction is to avoid bringing fantasy and reality together because it’s uncomfortable.  Suddenly it becomes obvious what needs to be done and these realisations can be depressing—we might have a lot of work to do. Worse, we might have to face the fact that our goal is unworkable.

Another reason the technique is difficult is that people dislike moving from happy to depressing thoughts. We want to keep thinking about happy things. Or if we’re thinking negative thoughts, it’s difficult to change to positive.

Hearts and Minds
When done right, the strength of this technique is it forces us to decide.  People have a natural tendency to avoid decisions, preferring to stay in a fantasy land where the chance of failure is zero.

Mental contrasting makes us ask ourselves:

  • if this is really a goal we want to pursue
  • If not we should forget about it and move on to something else
  • If we expect to succeed then it forces us to commit our hearts and minds to it, making us act now with energy and focusAnd if we imagine failing then we should anticipate regret
  • A vague goal you don’t care about is a goal to which you’re not committed
  • Deciding to do one thing, rather than another is always a kind of risk, both cognitive and emotionalThe time we expend pursing one goal is time that can’t be spent pursuing others.

By contrast, if we never fully commit then it’s difficult to achieve anything. What the mental contrasting technique forces you to do is choose. Making a choice—a committed choice—is the first step along the journey to realising your goal.


Written by Rich and Co.

February 11, 2011 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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