Why positive thinking sucks (and what works instead)

Updated to Habits, Productivity on January 2, 2023.

I’m not trying to be a bummer, but I struggle with fuzzy bromides, like “Tomorrow’s another day,” or “Always look on the bright side of life.”

It’s not that optimism doesn’t work, but switching from woe-is-me, my world’s in a tailspin to dancing a jig and picking daisies ain’t going to happen.

The reason we get stuck is not our fault (at first).

We’re conditioned to be wary of foes and dark shapes following us at night—we’re wired to protect ourselves. So, naturally we see the negative first.

Got a To-Do list that’s growing like bacteria? It’s hard to not feel overwhelmed.

Said something (or many things) to your partner this morning you regret? It’s hard to not feel guilty.

Skipped your morning run, trips to the gym, or laps in the pool this week? It’s hard to not feel listless and out-of-shape.

We can’t avoid the irresistible need to mire in the mud of our own making. It’s in our wiring.

Jumping to the punch line, my solution is to ask a better question. Let me explain.

Ask a better question

We ask ourselves questions all day. Questions like:

  • “Why do I always do that!?”
  • “Why can’t she leave it alone?”
  • “Why do I get so overwhelmed?”
  • “Why is it easy for them (but not me)?”

Asking questions is our way of making sense of the world. The problem is we ask the same questions.

The trick is to ask better questions. By ‘better’ I mean it sparks a new answer.

Instead of asking: “Why do I always do that!?” – a better question could be “What reward do I get by always doing that?”

Instead of asking: “Why can’t she leave it alone?” – a better question could be “Why do I care what she does?”

Instead of asking: “Why do I get so overwhelmed?” – a better question could be “What could I do in just 20 minutes that would make me feel more in control?”

Instead of asking: “Why is it easy for them (but not me)?” – a better question could be “What are they modeling that I could do as well?”

Before you discard this as elementary or overly simplistic, consider the possibility.

Questions and habits

When you try a new habit (like making your bed first thing in the morning) and it sticks, imagine the possible impact over time.

If asking a better question gets you better results and it becomes a habit, now you rock.

Habits are the glue that make positive outcomes happen.

This month I’ve been fixated on growing our SOS enrolment. So I decided it was time to ask better questions.

Growing BlogWorks

We’ve worked hard to build a service that solves a big problem for bloggers – the frustrating, time-consuming job of promoting their blog on social media.

Our clients save hundreds of hours, plus grow their readership. Best of all, BlogWorks has created part-time employment for nine people right here in Canada (we don’t use any overseas help.)

And growth has been slower than I like—some days I think maybe I’m not cut out to be a 58-year-old start-up owner.

That’s when I ask a better question.

This week I’ve been asking a very simple question: “What would happen if I simply focus on SOS for just one hour every day?”

It’s a great question – it forces me to focus (I always have a dozen projects on the go) and it sets an artificial (but challenging) time limit.

Here’s what I’ve been able to do (Sarah, in my office, had been a big part of this):

  • updated our Facebook advertising to better promote time savings.
  • got 100 people on a webinar with follow up to 18 enquiries.
  • updated the copy on to better reflect our done-for-you benefits.
  • added a blog to our site (to go live later this month).
  • changed the free trial offer and opt-in sequence to make it faster and easier.
  • started having weekly meetings with our core team.

And that was just one hour a day for 5 days!

Get a grip on your synapses

I know I can easily fall into a tailspin of negative thinking, so my new practice is to stop, recognize the pattern and ask a better question.

To dig a few inches deeper into this process, read my post about the science behind optimism and authentic happiness.

Watch the full SlideShare below (3 minutes). Enjoy!