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How mental contrasting can help us reach our goals

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Mental contrasting works in several ways. First, the ‘contrasting’ between now and the future can help people consider how they will tackle challenges that threaten goal achievement, whatever the goal might be. Photo: Getty (fizkes via Getty Images)

Whether you’re wanting to change careers or get fit, there are many different ways to achieve your goals. Journalling, improving your time management and ‘thinking positive’ can all help you reach long-term life aims. But in recent years, psychologists have touted another practical way to realise your goals: Mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting is a psychological visualisation technique that aims to help you hit your objectives by encouraging you to take the necessary steps towards them. Developed by German motivation psychologist Gabriele Oettingen in the early 2000s, research has linked mental contrasting to improved health and academic performance, as well as increased social responsibility.

“Mental contrasting has been shown to be an effective goal achievement technique,” says Gemma Leigh Roberts, an organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge.


“There are three steps: Envisioning what the future will look like when you reach a goal that’s important to you, thinking about the reality of where you are right now – which isn’t as desirable as your future goal, and reflecting on the contrast between your reality and future goal.”

Mental contrasting works in several ways. First, the ‘contrasting’ between now and the future can help people consider how they will tackle challenges that threaten goal achievement, whatever the goal might be.

“This is useful to do before challenges arise, because in the moment it’s often hard to find time to think about how to tackle a challenge,” Roberts explains. “Willpower can be lower so it’s harder to stick to a plan of action, and it can be hard to stay motivated to keep pursuing goals when the going gets tough.

“The idea is you think through how you will overcome potential obstacles ahead of time, so you’re ready to overcome obstacles in real time,” she adds. In theory, this helps to eliminate the time you would need for problem solving, minimising the impact on willpower and increasing your chances of staying motivated to keep pursuing goals.

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Also, the action of contrasting itself can be motivating as you consider what you want to leave behind in your current reality, and what you want to achieve in your future.

“Mental contrasting has been shown to be effective in goal achievement. In fact, this approach has been shown to be more effective than just positive visioning about the future,” says Roberts.

“Positive thinking doesn’t encourage people to consider action steps and how they will tackle challenges. Mental contrasting is also more effective than only dwelling on the current reality, which may be unsatisfactory,” she adds. “Again, this approach doesn’t allow for planning, action and being motivated to work towards a better reality.”

An example of mental contrasting would be working towards a qualification to achieve a more desirable career. First, you would need to picture what your life would be like if you had the job. Maybe you would have a better work-life balance, a higher income or a greater sense of purpose.

“The mental contrasting comes into play when the individual then thinks about where they are right now – not in a career they enjoy – and they reflect on how that feels and the impact their current career has on their life,” Roberts says.

“They could be miserable, not spending enough time with loved ones, bored, apathetic, not earning enough money to do things they enjoy.”

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The individual would then plan how they will achieve their dream career. This might mean a qualification and then gaining more experience in the new area of work. And finally, they would work through the possible challenges or constraints that could hold them back from achieving their qualification goal. After all, university courses are expensive and time-consuming.

“For each of these potential derailers, the person would come up with a plan that could help them to overcome the obstacle, keeping the final vision of what life will look like when they achieve their goal at the front of their mind.”

In order to feel the benefits of mental contrasting, it’s important to set time aside every day to think about what we want to happen and visualise how we will feel when we achieve it.

However, it’s important to strike a balance between having high expectations of success and being realistic. It’s easy to sit back and envision a new career with three-day weekends, endless holidays and a six-figure salary, but we also need to have in mind the practical steps necessary to get there.

And perhaps more importantly, we need to believe we can reach the goal - even if it is challenging. In that regard, then, there is an aspect of positive thinking to mental contrasting.

“If someone has a low expectation of success it can lead to demotivation and a lack of commitment to achieving goals, which over time could damage confidence,” says Roberts. “Mental contrasting is a technique best used when an individual believes they can achieve the result with effort and dedication.”

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