In today’s relentlessly competitive world, you need to be on your mental game. You probably have tips and tactics to stay motivated, but are they hurting you more than helping? Let’s look at a common myth about what keeps you motivated – positive thinking - and an alternative that works. 


The myth of positive thinking

“Think positive” is practically a mantra in business life, and with good intention. It’s meant to keep us focused in the face of obstacles and disappointments, which are inevitable. But the problem is that leaves little room for doubt or uncertainty, which are real.

We’re taught to stay positive no matter what and that even a solitary negative thought can undo hours of focused effort. That is scary, so we call in the thought police to suppress our negative thoughts and are disappointed in ourselves when we can’t. We think we need more discipline, but the reality is, we really can’t. That’s not how our brains are wired.


Suppressed thoughts bite back

Harvard Professor Daniel Wegner was the first to discover this rebound effect. He asked participants in an experiment not to think of a white bear and found those who tried to suppress their thoughts were twice as likely to experience them, as those were not.

This effect is even more pronounced if the thought is emotionally charged which is why we’re likely to lie awake all night thinking about the problem we’re trying to avoid. 

And let’s face it, trying to stop the customer from walking away or making the monthly target is highly charged.

What Wegner found was that the rebound effect was an unavoidable part of the suppression process that involved conscious and unconscious processes. This means that being positive when you have doubts, or dealing with doubts by trying to ignore them can’t work and ultimately, depletes energy. So, how can you get it back? 


Indulge your doubt

Allow the doubt. Actively encouraging your team to bring doubts to the table also helps you deal with uncertainties in informed ways. There’s a lot to be said for making these a part of business practice.

Nobel laureate and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, says one way to deal with doubt constructively is through pre-mortem. In a pre-mortem people pretend they are a year away from a decision that went horribly wrong and track back what happened. 

This creates a safe space for throwing mud at an idea before it gets off the ground with many advantages: 

  1. It brings out doubts
  2. It generates possible solutions
  3. It allows teams to thrash out options in advance encouraging innovation
  4. It stops people agreeing on an outcome early just to create a cohesive group

The optimism advantage

Allowing doubt should not, however, be confused with negativity, which is an energy sapper. 

What we are talking about is authentic optimism - a blend of positivity and skepticism that skills you to identify and deal with problems and has benefits.

Harvard’s Shawn Anchor has shown that authentic optimism creates a ‘happiness advantage’ that increases intelligence and creativity, making our brains 31 per cent more productive. Optimists are also healthier, live longer and have better health.

The best news is that you can create this mindset by practicing kindness and focusing on gratitude, which teach your brain to scan for the positives first, without ignoring the negatives. 

To stay motivated, stop trying to stay positive 


  1. Give yourself permission to have all your thoughts.
  2. Actively think through what could go right and wrong.
  3. Find a constructive way to bring doubt to the table.
  4. Dedicate two minutes a day to writing down what you are grateful for.
  5. And yes, do one kind deed each day.