The Power Of Negative Thinking (To Get Stuff Done)

I have been having a problem lately: it is becoming increasingly impossible to dedicate time and energy to projects that are simply for my enjoyment or non-paid betterment. No, this isn’t watching television or playing a sport: this is an activity that would help my life (or career) but is independent of what I do in my day-to-day.

These things extend out of the short term and daily, touching the long term: they are more forest related embarkings over the typical tree activities that keep myself — and likely you — preoccupied. It’s my very millennial side-gig to my myriad side-gigs. It’s the book I’m working on. It’s all those short stories I want to write. It’s the cascade of “other shit” that I want to put onto a computerized document that I can send around in the hopes of snailing my success in creative writing, creeping toward being a writer-writer instead of “person who writes online.” One always needs a form of dissatisfaction to survive, no? That’s my current self-gripe.

So how do I fix this? I tried for a long time to dedicate Saturday and, sometimes, Sunday mornings to the pursuit of this but have been failing quite hard at it. I get up around 6:30AM to take my dogs out and give them breakfast and then proceed to chill, briefly, on the couch but then end up…sucked into the couch, “napping,” or idly scrolling through I-don’t-know-what until I resolve to read a book as that is an adjacent attempt to be productive but, no, it isn’t the same as writing. Perhaps it’s end-of-week fatigue, perhaps it is intense, months long procrastinating, perhaps it is the budding head of a part of me that simply doesn’t want to do shit: I am unsure. What I am sure of is that I have to shake this shit up because I’m starting to feel like a snake eating its own tail.

So what do you do? Get mad and make a change.

This thought process — a potential “game changer” for unmotivated weekend lazies like myself — came to me via The New York Times‘ increasingly profound Smarter Living section. They shared a story about how to get stuff done and it was quite a remarkable little bit of information. It all has to do with “forgiving yourself for screwing up.”

When we procrastinate, the negative feelings snowball until we’re paralyzed, and only at the very last minute, when panic sets in and we’re at the do-this-or-lose-my-job stage, do we perform the task.


From there, we can break the things we have to do down into tiny, easily tackled mini-tasks; seek external support for our goals; minimize distractions; and aim for steady, incremental accomplishments instead of huge, goliath-size ones. (“Write the intro to your presentation” as opposed to “Write your presentation.”)

While this is interesting (as is understanding how to train yourself to change a routine), it also brings in something we’re often told to ignore because of its poor connotation: negativity. I don’t fancy myself a negative person (I am an intense realist grounded in honesty.) but I often internalize worst case scenarios and fears to self-flagellate as a means to get ahead. After all, I was raised very, extremely Roman Catholic. I’m a glutton for guilt and punishment.

As the “get stuff done” story says, negativity can be good — and there’s a whole philosophy behind this. In another opinion based self-help piece from the Times, the merits of negativity are explained as a means of teaching you how to manage expectations — and it’s based on scientific fact.

According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they’d already achieved their objective.

Moral: don’t dream it because you’ll think you’re it, taking the piss out of anything related. Think about how you aren’t it and that will boost you to becoming something.

So how does this relate to getting ahead? Manage your expectations — and be really fucking honest with yourself about this shit. As the story says, “The relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity.” You’re doing more work fantasizing about being what you aren’t. Reminding yourself that you haven’t done shit can shame spiral, yes, but for those who are stable enough it is a reminder that you haven’t gotten that prize yet — and you need to get to work.

It’s something I’m extremely willing to try, being as I am a cynic horny for psychological punishment that can enable success. This weekend I shall give it a try: I’ll wake up, take the dogs out, sit down to look at my phone, think about how little I have accomplished, and — instead of going back to sleep — I’ll cue myself to do a little work in the hopes of realizing I’ve not told all the stories I want to tell or done all the shit I want to do in life (and that I’m nowhere near either point).

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