Why Positive Thinking Doesn't Cut It

By Mary Foley

Ever hear someone say “Think positive” after you’ve just unloaded your frustration, hurt and confusion to a friend or colleague? So irritating, isn’t it? Their advice isn’t much help when you’re distraught and upset and the only positive thinking is about when you can take your next vacation.

When you are consumed with negative thoughts and emotions about something happening in your career, positive thinking doesn’t cut it. You’re not a light switch. The probability of immediately swapping out your negative emotions for positive ones isn’t high.

What’s far more within reach – and far more effective - is called positive framing.

Positive framing means that you squarely see the situation for what it is, warts and all, and counter your negative feelings by taking constructive action. So you aren’t denying that you feel bad. You simply aren’t going to let those feelings get too cozy and, instead, muster the courage to do something about your situation.

In fact, in the Harvard Business Review article “The Power of Small Wins,” Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer shared that from their research the single biggest predictor of a “good day” at work is whether or not you made progress – AKA steps forward – toward your goal.

So, do you want to turn a bad day into a good one? Do you want to start turning a no-longer-so- good-for-me career into an I’m-excited-to-get-up-and-get-going one?

If so, then follow the advice of your high school cheerleaders who shout “Action, action, we want action. A-C-T (clap, clap, clap) I-O-N!”   Trying to do something – anything! – is better than doing nothing at all.

For example, one gal I recently mentored named Janet (not her real name), is smart, career-minded and an outstanding performer. However, a few months after becoming a mom and returning to work she was feeling overwhelmed with her new schedule and really having doubts that she could be a good mom and have an aspiring career. In particular, she needed to be even more productive during her work day hours to manage her new life.

But, how could she realistically manage her time when her role required her to be available for students, which often meant lots of restarting emails, tasks and other work again and again? And when colleagues would walk right into her office, even with her door closed?

We came up three ideas that she agreed to try:

1.    First thing in morning take about an hour to organize your day and have quiet time to do a few of your most pressing tasks.

2.    Talk with your colleagues and share with them how you are focused on being even more productive during your work hours because of being a new mom. Let them know that one way you’re doing that is to close your door for 20 – 30 minutes and to please wait until it’s open again to ask you any questions. In addition, post a funny or cute sign when you close your door like “Do Not Enter. Nuclear Testing. Done in 30 minutes or less.”

3.    During your open office hours for students, instead of immediately stopping what you are working on, acknowledge their question and ask them to wait in the seating area for 3 minutes while you finish.

Within two weeks, Janet was already having more “good days”! We then came up with her next set of practical actions. Within a short period of time she was starting to feel confident that she could successfully manage a career and a life.

Feeling bummed about your current career isn’t a crime and it isn’t terminal. But “thinking positive” isn’t going to get you out of your rut. Taking one practical step and then another and then another is the key.


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