Theory Of Constraints and Overcoming Optimism

In the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, the author describes a problem solving mechanism created by NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen:

… which goes by the rather clunky name of Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, or MCII, was developed by NYU psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues. Oettingen discovered in her research that people tend to use three strategies when they are setting goals and that two of those strategies don’t work very well.

Tough goes on to explain the three strategies: optimism, pessimism, and mental contrasting.  As you might guess, the latter has been found to be more effective than the first two.

The problem with pessimism, or dwelling, is obvious. You spend all your energy focusing on all the reasons you can’t reach your goal and eventually talk yourself out of even trying.

The problem with optimism is slightly less obvious.  Sure, it’s helpful to be able to see the opportunities before you and imagine success, but optimism alone is not sufficient.  You actually need to do something to reach your goals! This also usually involves overcoming obstacles along he way.

This is where mental contrasting comes in.  This is a hybrid approach to envisioning the future. After envisioning your end state, or goals, you spend a healthy amount of energy exploring the obstacles that will get in your way.  Enough, but not too much.  For some, this might be difficult, but it is important not to get mired in all the possible ways you could go wrong.  Just survey the landscape and move on.

The next step, implementation intentions, rounds out the approach by forcing you to think about the actual steps you will take in order to reach your goal. Multiple studies have found that simply having a goal is not a sufficient motivator for reaching the goal.  Instead, it is far more effective to take an initial baby step, celebrate your success, and repeat.  As you build confidence and experience your baby steps might become bigger steps.  Eventually, you’ll be running directly at your goals.

This falls very much in line with Goldratt’s Thinking Processes for problem solving.  TP uses the mechanisms of the Future Reality Tree (FRT) to test your vision of the future and the Prerequisite and Transition Trees (PRT and TT) to identify and schedule actual steps towards reaching your goal.  (Of course, you have to know your goal and identify the key problems causing you to not be in that state already, but that’s for another post.) Dettmer simplifies the process by collapsing the PRT and TT into a single step in his excellent book, The Logical Thinking Process: A Systems Approach to Complex Problem Solving.

To make this real, let’s walk through an example where your goal is to visit Hawaii.

The pessemistic view is to dream up all the obstacles to getting to Hawaii: lack of funds, not enough time off, no idea of where to stay, fear of flying, nobody to watch your cat, you look terrible in flowery shirts, the very idea of poi is disgusting… You get the idea.  You’d get stuck on these ideas and likely just forget the whole idea.  In the worst case, your bitterness begins to boil over and affect other aspects of your life.

The optimistic view, while more pleasant, is no more helpful: you spend your days dreaming of sitting on the beach, snorkeling with colorful fish, listening to live music play by the pool while you sip fruity drinks…  Maybe you even decorate your office or computer desktop with pictures of beaches and sunsets. The brutal irony though is that up to this stage, all you’ve done is fantasize and likely distract yourself from other more important things.

In the mental contrasting/implementation methods approach, you would quickly survey the obstacles and the. Use your creative mind to begin disarming them one by one.  Pick any one of them and analyze the very first baby step you could take in order to clear the obstacle.  Write it down, do it, and decide on the next step.  Don’t have a vacation fund saved up?  Find an empty jar and stuff some of your loose cash or change into it.  Got $100 in the jar?  Go to the bank and start a dedicated savings account.  Can’t always make it to the bank to deposit your change?  Set up an auto-transfer or direct deposit… And so on.

The TP approach is more cautious in that it requires more up front work, but it can also lead to less wasted effort and missteps in the long run.  By envisioning the whole plan up front and brainstorming about the likely obstacles along the way, you can usually take a more direct path to success.  Of course Murphy will always surprise you when you least expect it, but when that happens you’ll have a plan you can start from and simply adjust rather than starting the whole process from scratch.

The bottom line is obvious… If you want to reach your goals, you have to take them one step at a time.  Doing nothing is the only guaranteed way to fail.  We’ve looked at two methods for making incremental progress, and I encourage you to try both and see which one works best for you.