Daydreaming often gets a bad rap. In a world focused on being as efficient and productive as possible, distracted mind wandering seems like a blatant waste of time.
Fantasies alone can actually be de-motivating. If you dream of an ideal future, you experience some of the pleasure of having that future just because you’re dreaming about it. It is hard to be too motivated to work to change yourself when you are already feeling good about your life.
But fantasies about the future (say, your dream job) can be motivating if you use them in the right way. Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues at NYU have been studying the role of fantasies in goal achievement for decades. It turns out there are two key steps to using fantasies to your advantage.
First, of course, you need to envision your future. That is generally the part you are good at: How much money you'd like to make, the exciting, meaningful projects you'd work on, the awards and recognition you'd receive . . . the vacations you'd take. the salary you’ll have, and the other perks to the promotion.
In order to turn your fantasy into motivational energy, you need to engage in contrasting. Spend some time comparing your fantasy to your present reality. That comparison highlights the areas you need to work on in order to move from the present to the future.
Two things happen when you contrast your present to your desired future: it highlights the things that need to change in order for the fantasy to be real, and it makes you dissatisfied with the present.
And, sadly, that is the key to motivation. Unfortunately, when you are content with where you are right now, it is difficult to get motivated to move forward. Instead, you need to create some dissatisfaction with your current situation in order to generate the energy to create change in your work situation.
Of course, even after you generate that motivational energy, you still need a plan that will help you to engage that energy. Your fantasies can help you to create that plan as well. You have two remarkable capacities that help that.
First, you have the ability to envision the steps that are needed to accomplish complex goals. So, after you have energized yourself to change, think through a specific plan that will get you to your goal. The psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls these specific plans implementation intentions. That is, don’t just daydream about what would be nice to have, daydream about how you would achieve it.
Second, you are probably quite skilled at talking ourselves out of taking a big step to change our future. When you talk yourself out of making a change, chances are you envisioned all of the obstacles in your path and concluded that the barriers were too high to make it worthwhile moving forward.
It turns out that it is important to fantasize about the obstacles to creating your desired future as well. Those obstacles are likely to arise whether you think about them or not. So, use that finely tuned ability to envision the reasons not to do something, but then use those obstacles as a guide for how to plan for what will go wrong.
Finally, if you need some help creating this vision for your future, you can download a copy of the Smart Change Journal to work through specific exercises to help you make changes in your personal and professional life.