Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Matter.

We were sold on positive thinking in the 80’s. But positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s great to be positive, but for most people, it gets manipulated into something that allows us to do things we find easy, instead of pushing us out of our comfort zone.

Three Elements of Behaviour

It’s generally accepted that there are three elements of behaviour.

  1. There is a Thinking Element. All voluntary actions are accompanied by a thought (sometimes conscious, sometimes not)
  2. There is a Feeling Element. A feeling will usually precede a behaviour. This might be an overwhelming feeling or something well below the surface.
  3. And finally, there is an Action Element. This is the physical outcome of what we do. Even if I sit there and do nothing, I still have this Action Element (sitting there doing nothing in this case).

When I explain these three elements, I generally ask people which one they think is most important: Thinking, Feeling or Acting?

Most people say Thinking or Feeling. These are primary urges that drive behaviour. They are important elements that influence us as people and therefore the behaviours we choose.

The reality is that all three elements are important.

High Performance Behaviours

But when we talk about High Performance Behaviours – that is, behaviours that get us closer to achieving what we want out of a situation – then the thing that really matters is our Action Element.

The thing that really matters is what we DO.

We’ve spent years hearing that positive thinking is a catch-all for being productive in anything we choose – from work to home life, to personal goals. But positive thinking is nothing without positive action.

So many people have great intentions, but they just fail to execute. They can feel motivated, they can think positive, but they just fail to actually get the work done that is necessary for them to hit their targets.

Instead, what is happening – most likely – is that they are driven by thoughts and feelings other than the positive ones. And this is where people get into most trouble.

We Create Positive Thoughts Out Of Negative Feelings

When our feelings turn against us, people find it very difficult to continue executing positive actions. In fact, they then create positive thoughts that allow them to be unproductive:

I fear rejection so I don’t make that next cold call. But I think: It’s probably better to call them another time anyway.

I fear conflict, so I don’t have a difficult conversation with my staff. But I think: they have a lot on at the moment, I don’t want to disturb them.

I’d rather remain unchallenged and comfortable, so I procrastinate and do easy things instead of high impact things. But I think: this small ‘busy work’ is urgent!

I make myself feel better by saying ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ instead of capitalising on my opportunity today. But I think: one day isn’t going to make a difference.

So in taking a negative emotion, I have created a positive thought that allows me to be unproductive.

These positives thoughts are excuses that make it ok for us to continue doing things which we know – deep down – are unhelpful.

Instead of working on your positive attitude, just identify the behaviours that you need to execute consistently to make you successful. And then get them done regardless of how you think and feel. And if you can do that, then you’ll have really learnt the key to high performance.


** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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