It’s no secret that positive thinking can do wonders for your life, both in and out of the office. In many leadership positions, such as project management, you may find yourself constantly surrounded by negativity. Perhaps your team is looking to you as a role model or you need to keep the team morale above sea level. Simply taking a deep breath and counting from one to ten or conjuring up a positive image isn’t going to cut it. You’ve tried taking a walk outside to give you a break, but find that as this break has been adapted into your routine, your mind just isn’t feeling the same rush anymore.
What you’re looking for isn’t just a short-term fix, but a way to rewire your mind into positivity. The coping mechanisms mentioned above all serve short-term needs, but don’t do much to change how you actually think.
There are numerous studies that confirm our intuition that happy people are more satisfied with their jobs, perform better and receive better support from coworkers. A 2008 study from University of California, Riverside, demonstrated a positive correlation between happy people with higher earning power, superior performance and satisfactory workplace outcomes. It concluded that their inherent happiness was the source of their success as opposed to the common assumption of the opposite, where happy people are assumed to be so because they are successful.
But how is it that no matter how often you repeat affirmations such as, “‘I can do this,” or “I’ve got this,” you can’t seem to truly internalize these sentiments by the next time you face a challenge at work? Or perhaps you are aware of your capabilities to perform at the next level, and you continually dream up scenarios of success or processes you know you would change. But somehow, the big promotion seems to have passed you over or you didn’t win a spot to lead the next big project. You were so positive. Why didn't you experience success then?
It turns out that thinking positively only takes you so far. It is most effective when you’re trying to accomplish something new, say a project under a tight timeline, as opposed to well-learned processes like managing a project timeline and trying to come out ahead.
When we think positively by imaging we’ve reached our desired future, that’s nothing more than fantasizing. We’re already so assured we have everything we need to succeed that we just need to envision the success itself. We end up putting in the effort behind the success.
So how do we turn our mindset into one that benefits our careers long term? Instead of being laser focused on the desired outcome, give attention to how you plan on achieving the outcome.
This is part of a technique recommended by professor of psychology Gabrielle Oettingen called “mental contrasting.” By imagining the desired outcome and then contrasting it with the reality of the situation, you’re linking the two scenarios together and making them both equally accessible. And once you are able to clearly see what stands in your way, it’ll be easier for you to commit to making it a reality. You’ll also be more mentally prepared to face any challenges that crop up on your path to success.
If your goal is to secure a promotion by your next annual review, reflect on the challenges you may face and what you can do to eliminate those challenges. For example, a challenge may be competition amongst your peers for the same promotion. How can you perform your responsibilities in a way that demonstrates your capability to succeed at the next level? What skills or experience do you still need to have under your belt before you can be considered for the promotion? How are you going to fit those into your routine?
Perhaps your idea of success is to win the next big pitch. As you’re imagining how great it will feel to learn that you’ve won the business, think about how crucial the pitch meeting will be. What can you do to ensure that the pitch will go smoothly? Perhaps you need to buff up on your public speaking skills. Or you may need to give more attention to accompanying materials.
Whatever your definition of success is, always build and evaluate your action plan to get you there. Your plan or even your goals can change as your environment changes, what’s important is that you’re thinking and planning for success rather than expecting it.
Define success for yourself. How do you plan on achieving it?