Sometimes it’s easier to focus on what we don’t want instead of what we do want, such as when creating change, giving instructions, or working towards a goal. The irony is that by focusing on what we don’t want, we actually create more of it! Instead, by turning the negative into a positive, we both increase our chances of success and experience more “positivity” in the process.
The Pink Elephant Phenomenon
We’ve all heard the phenomenon of what happens when someone tells you NOT to think of a pink elephant. You’ll probably think of a pink elephant! However, what we don’t talk about is what to do instead of not thinking about the elephant. Ironically, not knowing the alternative defeats the purpose of the concept in the first place.
The “pink elephant” concept doesn’t just apply to our thoughts. It applies in our daily lives in ways such as:
- Creating goals based on outcomes we don’t want
- Speaking out against people, ideas, or policies we don’t like
- Thinking about what could go wrong
- Spending energy on circumstances, people, or situations we can’t change
- Giving instructions that emphasize what not to do
- Doing things we dread
Much like the pink elephant, focusing on the negative keeps us stuck in that state. Even more importantly, it becomes difficult for anything else to show up. There is no room for change to occur, or at least not the kind that gets us more of what we want.
Learning to Ski
I’ve only gone downhill skiing a few times, but I still remember the fundamentals of turning. One of them is to simply focus your attention on the direction in which you want to turn. You’ve probably also had this experience when driving and turned to look at something, only to have your car start to move in that direction (sometimes with unfortunate results).
The same principle applies when trying to change something. As we saw earlier, it’s both hard and confusing to try to not do something. Could you imagine telling a skier to not look at the direction in which they don’t want to turn? Yet, we take the same approach in our everyday thoughts, habits, and behaviors.
When figuring their goals, many of my coaching clients start out by framing their goals around what they don’t want. For example, when clients want to work on their public speaking goals, they’ll say things like, “I don’t want to forget what to say,” “I don’t want to be nervous,” or “I don’t want people to laugh at me.” Typically, they spend so much energy not trying to do these things that they end up doing them anyway! And, they’re much more miserable in the process.
The alternative: shifting your attention to what you do want instead of what you don’t want.
What Do You Want?
To shift your attention to what you want, try these approaches:
Create goals with the outcomes you actually want to experience. Using our public speaking example above, your goals could be to remember all your talking points, remain calm and relaxed, and maintain eye contact with your audience.
Propose ideas and solutions that you’d prefer instead of the current reality, and make clear requests and suggestions. If you don’t like a particular meeting, what would you like to happen in that meeting instead? If someone makes bad decisions, what decisions would you like them to make? If someone is loud and obnoxious, how would you like them to behave?
Think about what could go right. We have a 50/50 chance of something going right vs. going wrong. However, focusing on what could go wrong sways the odds in that direction. Instead of worrying about the reasons why you couldn’t get the promotion, what are some reasons why you could get the promotion? Instead of anticipating something bad happening, anticipate something good happening (even if you don’t know what it might be).
Spend energy on things you have control over. You can’t change the weather, your parents, or most of our leaders. Yet, these types of topics take up a huge space in our lives and typically don’t create good feelings. In place of such topics, which topics would bring you more joy? What things can you readily change that are under your influence or control and that would bring you more fulfillment or make a difference?
Give instructions with what the person should do. Telling someone to stand up straight is clearer than telling someone not to slouch. “Be on time” is more direct than “don’t be late.” “Keep the card in your pocket” provides a specific solution compared to “don’t lose the card.”
Change dread into desire. Instead of resisting going into work, what could you do at work that would make it more fulfilling? Rather than dieting, what things could you do to experience greater health?
Your Positivity Toolkit
To expand your positivity toolkit, experiment with using the concepts from the previous examples:
- Find the opposite of what you don’t want and move towards it
- Think of your ideal outcome and work towards creating it
- Replace something you don’t want with something you do want (this can apply to people, behaviors, or situations)
- Start doing something else in place of anything you want to stop doing
- Move towards something you want instead of away from something you don’t want
Questions for action:
- Think of emotions you frequently experience that you don’t want. What emotions would you prefer, and how can you experience more of them?
- Reflect on some things you frequently complain about. What would you like to experience instead of those things?
- What does your ideal end state look like in a given situation? Consider areas such as in your organization, around social issues, in specific relationships, or in your daily life. How can you achieve that state?