READERS OF MY FIRST BOOK email me from
all over the world, usually to ask questions and the most common
question I've gotten has been about positive thinking. People
say things like, "I try to think positive, but I am overwhelmed
by negativity." Many people have concluded that either positive
thinking doesn't work, or they are somehow not trying hard enough.
The fact is, positive thinking can
be a very effective tool in the right circumstances, but it has
to be done the right way and at the right time. But before I
get into that, I want to get off on the right foot and say it
is best to consider positive thinking as self-coaching. It's
a more accurate description of what you're trying to do, and
it is the name researchers use when they try to determine if
self-coaching makes any difference. And they've discovered it
does. For example, in a study of Olympic gymnasts, they found
that those who made the U.S. men's gymnastics team employed more
self-coaching than those who weren't able to qualify. In a different
study, "positive self-talk" made it easier for a gymnast
to do well. Researcher Susan Jackson did a study on twenty-eight
elite athletes from seven different sports. She found that confidence,
ability to focus, and level of motivation were key factors in
their ability to consistently succeed. Self-coaching can enhance
those key factors.
Self-coaching, which many people call positive
thinking, can indeed make a difference. But to make it work for
you, apply the following principles:
1. Coach toward a purpose.
The first step in self-coaching is to make sure you know what
you're coaching toward. Clearly define your purpose. Make
it simple. Don't complicate it and don't attempt several purposes
at once. Yogi Berra said, "When you come to a fork in the
road, take it." That's funny because you can't take a fork
in the road. You can't go two directions at once. Choose one
and then coach yourself toward it.
Championship race-walker Curt Clausen starts
preparing for competitions by saying, "I want to win this
race." Does that seem too basic? Setting your goal clearly
in your mind is a first step that should not be overlooked. Clausen
then makes a detailed plan what he's going to do and when.
He talks to himself about what he'll do if this or that
happens. He makes a plan for how he will achieve his purpose.
And he runs that plan through his head over and over during the
race. He is self-coaching toward a purpose not just trying
to feel good or look positive. He's trying to accomplish something
and his self-coaching is toward that end. That is the first and
most important key of "positive thinking." It's got
to be toward a goal.
2. Give yourself commands.
Literally tell yourself what to do. Step back from the situation
and think about what you need to do, and tell yourself, for example,
"Okay, relax. Take a deep breath. Good. Now just walk over
there and ask the question. Keep your face relaxed, etc."
Kayak champion Kathy Ann Colin and her
pair teammate, Tamara Jenkins, were having trouble balancing.
Their warm-up before the qualifying competition for the 2000
Olympics was awful. Colin had an additional distraction because
her parents had been robbed at the airport when they flew in.
Colin and Jenkins both felt scattered and nervous. But before
the race, Colin turned to Jenkins and said, "We can do this.
Focus and relax and don't worry about anything else." It
Coach yourself with commands but
not necessarily in a commanding or domineering way. Do it like
a hypnotist giving commands: Gentle and confident.
And use the right tone of voice (you have
a tone of voice inside your head) because even if you are encouraging
yourself or giving yourself advice, your own internal voice can
rub you the wrong way and ruin the good effect. Don't yell angrily
at yourself unless that creates the effect you want. Simply changing
your own tone when you talk to yourself can make your coaching
I was lying in bed this morning when the
alarm went off. I felt like sleeping some more, so I hit the
snooze button. When it went off again, I still felt tired, but
this time I said to myself, "I'm going to count to ten,
and when I reach ten, my eyes will open, and I'll feel awake
I counted to three and said the same thing
again. Up to seven, and said it again. Eight, nine, ten. And
I opened my eyes and said to myself, "I feel rested and
awake." And I did.
Simple suggestion like that can make a
big difference. I know this is a trivial example, but it can
be used in lots of different ways and it makes a difference.
We need to lead our minds more than we do. We can create our
experience more than we do.
3. Give yourself advice.
Look at your circumstance the way you might see it if a friend
of yours was in your situation. And then advise yourself the
way you would advise your friend. "It's not as bad as it
seems. You'll get through this. You can handle it."
Be kind and gentle. Reassure yourself and
use your good common sense. Give yourself your best advice and
then follow it.
4. Give yourself encouragement.
It makes a difference to tell yourself, "I can do it."
That's all encouragement is: The basic message "you can
do it." This is what people call "belief in yourself."
It's nothing more than coaching yourself, encouraging yourself,
saying to yourself, "I can do it." Talk to yourself
in a confident and reassuring way. Encourage yourself without
overstating your case or trying to feel enthusiastic. Talk to
yourself genuinely and sincerely, like you would talk to your
best friend, and give yourself some encouragement.
5. Give yourself reasons.
Remind yourself of the reasons why you can overcome this obstacle.
Tell yourself about your past successes. Remind yourself of your
strengths. Also, remind yourself of why you really want it. Think
up new reasons. Good reasons will motivate you and strengthen
6. Aim for your favorite positive emotion.
I have often wanted to have a good attitude, so when I was dealing
with others co-workers, my neighbors, the clerk at the
store, my wife I tried to have a positive attitude. I
tried to be cheerful and enthusiastic.
But over the years I have found something
better. I didn't like the forced, phony quality of my effort
to be cheerful. What I like better is love. Love is a
very "positive attitude" and it changes my state to
aim for that, rather than just changing my external expression.
And it takes my attention away from me and puts it out
there on the other person. I have a better effect on the world.
Try it and you'll see what I mean.
Often my cheerfulness annoyed people. Sometimes
it was envy, I think. Sometimes it was just the difference between
how they felt and how it looked like I felt. But my love, my
feelings of kindness, never annoys people. It is simply the difference
of what I'm aiming for. Am I aiming to be a positive person?
Am I aiming for being cheerful? Or am I aiming for letting the
other person feel loved? Or just loving them? It feels different,
both to me and to the other person.
Remember, cheerfulness and enthusiasm are
not the only positive emotions. My two favorite positive emotions
are determination and love. In my opinion, these
are much higher states than cheerfulness or enthusiasm, and you'll
never slip into a phony show of positivity aiming at these. Please
remember this. I believe this is the most common mistake
people make when they're trying to "be more positive."
They aim for cheerfulness. What they end up with is the show
of positivity and a negative feeling of phoniness.
Aim for love instead. Or gratitude or feeling
relaxed or determined. These are easier to attain and worth more
7. Try anti-negativity.
You can read more about this principle here.
It's about getting rid of negative, self-defeating thinking.
It is attacking and finding fault in your pessimistic assumptions.
When you're in a negative mood, this is probably the easiest
and most natural way to be more "positive."
Instead of trying to pretend you feel positive
or somehow drum up a positive feeling, you attack your
negative thoughts with as much venom as you like. It works. Sometimes
positive thinking is too much of a step. Use anti-negativity
to get yourself up to neutral before attempting anything positive.
8. Keep it simple.
Keep your sentences short, to the point, and directed to action
9. Reframe "negative" events.
This is probably what most people
think of as "positive thinking." Reframing is looking
at a circumstance in a different way deliberately. If you change
the way you think about it, you can change the way you feel about
it, and that usually helps you deal with it more effectively.
Learn more about reframing here.
10. Use visualization. There are many different ways to use visualization
as positive thinking or self-coaching. And it has many possibilities
beyond those. It's too big a subject to cover here, but you can read more about visualization here.
11. Repeat what works.
You may have noticed that good coaches develop "sayings."
They have certain things that they say often. As you coach yourself,
you will often coach yourself the same way on the same activity
over and over, and you'll develop short, pithy sayings that capture
a useful meaning. Use those. Once you get very good at coaching
yourself, you can do a whole coaching session with one sentence
and be back to the activity with a good attitude.
Have you ever read the book or seen the
movie, Alive? It is the true story of a plane crash.
Not all the people survived. The ones who successfully endured
the incredible seventy-one day ordeal in the Andes mountains
developed slogans they repeated often, giving them the determination
to keep trying. "The loser stays," meaning the weak
would die. "A man never dies who fights." "We've
beaten the cold." And the most common, "To the west
IF YOU HAVE EVER THOUGHT positive thinking
was bunk, try using these ideas and see if it changes your mind.
I think you'll find that when it's done with skill, positive
thinking can be very effective. It can improve not only the way
you feel, but how effective you are at accomplishing your goals
and dealing with people.
When you want to think positively,
coach yourself effectively instead.