This time of year we're all trying to quit something, start something, or finally find those reserves of self-discipline we know will make us happier, healthier and wealthier. And the key to achieving great things this year is to think positive. Or is it?
One of the biggest leaps forward in our understanding of how to reach our goals is the research that uncovered when to think positively, and when it can actually wreck your chance of success.
Just about every self-help book has in it somewhere that the key to living the life of your dreams is to believe in yourself, go for it, just visualise yourself having already achieved your goal and it will happen.
Believing it will be easy is actually one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
I may be a bit cynical, but while the 'law of attraction' seems to work incredibly well for people selling programs that teach you about the 'law of attraction', I believe a more scientific approach works better for the rest of us.
Recently, a few different psychologists have done research into this, and they've discovered there are actually two very different ways of thinking positively.
For example, if your New Year's resolution is to lose 10 kilos in three months, you could:
1. Be incredibly positive about your chances of losing the weight, saying to yourself: "I know if I stick to my eating plan and keep to my new exercise regime I can shift these pounds."
Or you could:
2. Be incredibly positive about how easy it will be to lose weight, thinking: "Hah! This will be easy peasy. I have a will of iron and will just ignore temptations such as chips, chocolate and Chinese takeaway. And I don't care how busy my life is, it will be easy to stick to my exercise plan."
Most people put both these types of positive thinking in the same basket. But recent research has shown that this is a massive trap.
Believing deeply within yourself that you truly can achieve your goal helps keep you motivated and gets you to your goal. But believing it will be easy is actually one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen did some research where she compared the difference between two groups of women who were trying to lose some weight. One group believed that, at times, it would be hard and require discipline to shed the kilos, and the other believed they'd find it easy to resist temptation. Those who admitted to themselves that it would be difficult at times lost 11 kilos more than the women who told themselves it would be easy.
So, if you want to actually stick to the plans you made on New Year's Day, positive thinking is massively important. But you need to be optimistic about the chances of succeeding, while also thinking realistically about the fact that -- at times -- changing habits and sticking to your resolutions will be incredibly hard.
So why do people who believe things will be difficult do better?
Oettingen's studies show that people who believe it will be difficult expect to have to work hard to get the job done, so that's what they do. They do much more planning, put in more effort and take far more action in pursuit of their goals.
In various studies, it was found that students who thought their exams were going to easy studied less. And were more likely to fail. University graduates who thought getting a job was going to be easy sent out less applications. And less got great jobs. People who thought they would effortlessly fall in love with that secret crush were proven in one study to be less likely to take the risk and go and talk to them, and by they time they did it was too late.
So if you've chosen a goal that's worth pursuing, don't kid yourself that it will be easy. Embrace the fact that it will be hard. Then you'll be far more likely to reach that goal.