When we see the future through rose-tinted lenses, we are less likely to take the action necessary to achieve our goals, according to New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen. In studies performed in the U.S. and Germany, Oettingen found that when people felt more self-assured about their future, whether "college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, [or] schoolchildren wishing to get good grades," fantasizing about future successes reduced the likelihood of attaining them.
"Why doesn’t positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals."
Oettingen recommends "mental contrasting," which involves mixing visions of your successful future with a clear sense of the obstacles that will stand in your way. In experiments, this method helped people distinguish between achievable and unrealistic goals. And by clearly identifying an obstacle to be overcome, mental contrasting has helped keep people motivated.
Journalist Stephen Dubner has also researched how humans solve problems. In his Big Think interview, Dubner argues that thinking small--finding one piece of a problem that you can meaningfully address--is a better approach than trying to overcome massive challenges:
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