Using Negative Visioning to Improve Your Personal Finances

Countless articles and books and videos and classes have been created to talk about the power of positive thinking and positive visioning, some of them sensible and some of them pseudo-religious and fanciful. It’s easy to see why: positive visioning can be a very powerful tool for your financial life.

However, it’s not infallible and it’s not the only type of visioning you should rely on.

Before we dig in too deep, though, let’s step back and take a look at what positive visioning is. Positive visioning or positive thinking is the practice of using your mind to imagine a positive outcome for something that’s coming up in your future or something that you want to come up in your future. You might envision a positive conversation with someone you are interested in dating, for example, or envision a positive outcome of a work project.

The big idea behind positive visioning is that it helps build confidence. It enables you to see that positive outcomes really are possible and also helps you to arrange your thoughts and plans in a way to increase the chances of those positive outcomes. That’s incredibly helpful.

However, it’s also a fragile thing. While it does help you feel more confident and does give you a plan, it leaves you completely unprepared for the unexpected. The truth is that relying wholly on positive visioning for your planning and confidence leaves you with no real contingency plan or backup plan because you’ve given yourself no room to think about anything but a successful outcome. And, like it or not, life’s outcomes aren’t always successful ones.

In the wise words of Jean-Luc Picard, “it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”

Positive visioning doesn’t help at all with those situations. If life has failed you, all of the positive visioning in the world won’t help you with what to do next or with the resources you need to recover from that state.

That’s why it’s my belief that positive visioning, especially with long term planning, needs to be paired with at least some negative visioning.

Negative visioning is just the opposite of positive visioning. It’s all about envisioning undesired outcomes to a particular upcoming event in your life. You don’t get the job. You don’t get the date.

Some people might look upon that idea with disfavor. After all, on the surface, you might think that negative visioning would work against self-confidence.

I actually find that the opposite is true, for several reasons.

First of all, I often discover that the downside of failure isn’t as apocalyptically bad as I think. I’ll often buy into the fact that failure in a particular situation is going to be incredibly bad, with devastating personal consequences and far-reaching effects. The truth is that most failures in life really aren’t that bad.

Second, negative visioning often unveils flaws in my current planning. I’ll envision an negative outcome for a particular event and it will make me quickly realize that the plan I have in place that’s supposed to bring me a positive outcome has a flaw of some kind, one that I would have never seen without negative visioning.

My favorite example of this is the emergency fund. An emergency fund – and the value of it – is an outcome of pure negative visioning. If you never imagine bad outcomes like your car breaking down when you need it, you’ll never see the purpose of an emergency fund. If you never imagine situations like a lost wallet or a bank declining your credit card, you’ll never see the purpose of a cash emergency fund.

When you combine those two together, you’ll often find that negative visioning becomes a confidence builder. If you know that the plan you have in mind is a strong one, it actually accelerates your confidence because you know that your plan has you covered in the case of unexpected events.

Even better, if you do fail – and you will sometimes – you’re ready for that downside. You’re not caught in panic mode because the thing you only envisioned in a positive way fell apart on you leaving you without alternative plans.

Here’s how you can use negative and positive visioning in balance to achieve great outcomes in your financial, professional, and personal life.

First, identify something you’re concerned about in the future. Maybe it’s a job interview or perhaps it’s a little bit further down the road like switching careers or maybe it’s way down the road, like helping your children through college. Whatever that concern is, focus on that for the time being.

During your spare moments, envision those things with a positive outcome. Think about them the way you’d like for them to turn out. Imagine yourself performing well and getting the outcome you desire.

Think not just about the big picture, but the specific elements of your performance in that visioning. What specific things are you doing to produce that positive outcome? Are you smiling? Are you on top of the facts? Do you have a business plan in your hand? Did you start saving long ago?

Those elements are going to form the backbone of your plan for achieving that goal, but you’re not done yet.

Next, envision those things with various negative outcomes. Imagine yourself bumbling in the interview and not getting the job. Imagine yourself failing to save and not being able to help your child. Imagine the starter in your car failing so that you can’t make it to work.

Obviously, such images of the future are not pleasant ones to think about. They might give you a queasy feeling in your stomach and might put a ding in your confidence.

Rather than looking at those visions as inevitable outcomes, though, ask yourself what you can learn from each of those negative visions. What can you do to minimize the chances of bumbling through the interview? Preparing for hard interview questions is one definite route. What can you do to ensure that you’re going to be able to help your child? Automating some savings into a 529 plan is a good start. What can you do to still make it to work if your starter fails? Knowing the bus schedule and having an emergency fund are two powerful steps.

You can take those steps that you think of as a result of your negative visioning and use them directly to make your plan much stronger than before, one that has taken care of potential negative outcomes.

What I often do is alternate between positive visions and negative visions, at least early on. I want the positive visions so that I have an overall structure that leads to a positive outcome, but I want those negative visions so that I have contingencies in place against unwanted outcomes. A positive outcome is great, but a big part of that positive outcome is making sure that you’ve minimized the chances of negative outcomes, and that comes through preparation.

Once I feel that I have a strong plan in place that has maximized my chances of a positive outcome and minimized my chances of a negative outcome, I mostly use positive visioning at that point to build confidence. I envision things that could potentially go bad, but I’m saved by my planning, and I also envision outcomes that are just purely positive.

In the end, negative visioning early on helps me to develop a more robust plan for the thing I’m concerned about, so that my positive visioning later on becomes much stronger and better at building confidence.

I don’t simply ride the pure power of positive thinking from my dreams to my destination, because that train will often fall right off the tracks. Instead, I use a mixture of positive visioning and negative visioning to develop a very robust plan for achieving my goal, and then as I move forward with that plan, my positive visioning for the future becomes much more robust and becomes a tool for increasing my self-confidence.

In short, the power of positive thinking alone is useful, but weak; much of that weakness is bolstered by also incorporating the power of negative thinking!

If you have some plans or events in the future that are weighing on your mind, I highly recommend using a mix of positive visioning and negative visioning to develop a strong plan for making sure that the positive outcome is more likely to happen, and then using positive visioning atop that plan as it progresses in order to build confidence for the event itself. It’s helped me through many life challenges over the years and I continue to use it quite often.

Good luck in whatever challenges life brings you!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.