Imagine for a minute that your aim is to run a marathon in 3 hours. You effectively have two ways to structure this into a goal. Among all of the other details you should include, you could say either:
1)I am not going to run slower than 3 hours in my marathon
2)I am going to run faster than 3 hours in my marathon
Both sound the same, but may end up providing very different outcomes. You see, just about any goal can be phrased in a positive way or a negative way, and it is always the positive ways that will be the most effective.
The first reason for this is that it is practically impossible for us to think of a negative concept without referring to the positive side first. Just try it. Close your eyes and imagine a plate without a hamburger on it. If you are anything like me, you will first automatically think of a plate with a hamburger and then have to edit the picture mentally in order to arrive at a plate without a hamburger. That is all messy cranial computation and wasted effort. If your goal requires you to reverse the image every time you think about it then it will be much less efficient and effective. This is the primary reason why these next two possible versions of the same goal will yield very different results:
1)I will not feel stressed at the start line of my next marathon
2)I will feel relaxed at the start line of my next marathon
The first one will need some mental gymnastics so that you can imagine what “not feeling stress” is like, but the second one is actually a direct path. It is easy to imagine feeling relaxed. The end result is really the same image but the second, positive, goal is easier to visualize. A more direct path is more efficient and when you understand that you will be trying to vividly recall the images associated with your goal many times at varying levels of emotional intensity, then the most direct image is the best image.
The second reason that a positively phrased goal is more effective is that you can avoid any reference to the negative images you are trying to avoid. In the example above, even when I have finally twisted around the image of what not feeling stressed is all about, I will still have landed on the concept of “stress” for some amount of time. Even if logically, I understand that it is stress that I am trying to avoid, the word and concept of stress still pops up in front of my mind and will inevitably affect my future performance. The perfect example that you may have seen or experienced yourself is when you are driving your car.
Near my house in Australia, I was driving down a quiet country road with green grassy fields heading off into the distance on both sides. To the left were a set of tyre tracks heading off the road where a speeding car had obviously lost control on a corner. The tyre tracks were fresh and deep into the soil as the car had headed off the road into the nearly empty paddock. The only thing in the paddock was a single tree standing proudly in the middle. The tyre tracks led straight to the base of the tree, where there had obviously been a serious impact and a lot of bending metal. The car had been towed away but the story was easy to read.
The car was obviously traveling fast as it left the road and the driver saw the tree and realized that he would be OK as long as he missed it. His thoughts must have gone something like this:
“Oh no I ‘m going too fast…look out I’m off the road…hang on I’m in an empty paddock…As long as I don’t hit that tree I’ll be OK…Just steer to the left of the tree…Not so close to the tree…I have to miss the tree…the tree will be very hard…I mustn’t hit the tree…the tree is coming very close…the tree is hard to avoid…the tree…the tree…. oh no the tree…. . crash”
The same happens if you are hammering in a nail. If you focus on the nail you will hit it every time. If you focus on not hitting your finger, then you will often miss the nail and hit your finger and you will assume that you are a hopeless carpenter.
When your goals are phrased in a negative way you risk achieving exactly what you are trying to avoid. Phrase the same goal without reference to its negative side and your focus will be undivided. None of your goals or the images you associate with them should be phrased in a negative way. If they are all phrased positively you are on your way to success. A carefully composed positive goal that you often refer to will send you on your way. When you flesh out your goals with meaningful and vibrant imagery the goals will carry you there. When you break these carefully composed, image laden goals down into useful practical actions then the force that they exert to push you forwards will be practically irresistible.
Tom O'Leary is an Australian author and runner, currently living in Tsukuba Japan He recomends a carefully balanced mix of work, rest and play in order for runners to achieve their goals. If you enjoyed this article there are plenty more at http://www.runningmonkeys.com