Goal Setting & Pursuing, New Work

Pursuing Your Goals with Mental Contrasting

Summary: Mental contrasting is a visualization technique in which you not only consider a positive outcome of your goal but also obstacles that may cross your path. It helps you to balance the positive and challenging aspects of pursuing your goal.


What is more difficult for you: setting a goal or pursuing it? For me, it’s definitely pursuing the goal. There are different methods for settings goals. They are either SMART, in the OKR format, etc.

Afterward, you start working and pursuing your goal. But if only it were that simple. Often something gets in the way of us reaching our goal. Sometimes we simply forget, sometimes obstacles and resistance arise, and sometimes it is simply our everyday life.

I’ve already shared a technique to handle resistance better. However, in this article, I would like to focus on a method that helps you to consider obstacles, resistances, and your everyday life in advance. It’s called mental contrasting.

I just came around the concept quite recently and use it at the moment not only for goals but also for (online) courses and workshops.

What is mental contrasting and how can it help?

Mental contrasting was first mentioned by Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology. It is a visualization technique in which you not only consider a positive outcome of your goal but also obstacles that may cross your path. To clarify, it helps you to balance the positive and challenging aspects of pursuing your goal.

Mental contrasting in action

Let’s try an example. You set yourself an ambitious goal:

I would like to give a Ted Talk in December of the year 2021 about achieving goals!

A very common visualization technique is to imagine the future reality when you are actually on the stage presenting your talk. How does it feel, smell, taste? How is the audience reacting?

The challenge with this visualization is that you are only focusing on the positive outcome. Of course, it’s very helpful to get you motivated, focused, and actually going. However, only looking at the positive outcome can limit your commitment to achieving the goal.

This is where mental contrasting comes into play. After setting the goal and imagining what it will be like when it is achieved, focus on possible obstacles that may stand in your way.

Firstly, focus on the positive outcome

In our example, the positive outcome could be

  • You are feeling good, a bit excited, but it keeps you focused.
  • You are well prepared and practiced a lot.
  • The technical setup is working well.
  • You can see some people in the first rows. They are laughing at the right moment.
  • At the end, the applause is filling you joy and warmth.

Secondly, focus on obstacles

Possible obstacles could be

  • When do I take the time for the preparation?
  • Do I need special training in public speaking, story telling, etc.?
  • How do I handle imposter syndrom?
  • How do I cope with stage fright?
  • What happens if the technical setup goes on strike?
  • Any other sacrifice?

Both lists can go on.

Thirdly, handling the obstacles in advanced

The idea behind mental contrasting is to come up with plans or ideas in advance on how to deal with these obstacles. Considering the example this could look like this

  • Schedule in your calendar time slots to work on your talk and defend this slot like a meeting with a CEO.
  • Talk to the organizers to get information about support, trainings and technical setups.
  • Book yourself trainings.

In conclusion, by looking at both sides you imagine a more realistic version of the future, which keeps you committed and motivated.