Practical Pessimism: How To Create Lasting Mindset Changes

There’s a lot of self-help advice out there, and a lot of it encourages you to improve incrementally. Like:

Do something you don’t like daily.
Wake up just a little bit earlier in the morning.
Eat one healthy food item a day.

Let’s set the record straight – incremental improvement works, and it works well. But, there’s a reason so many of us fall off the wagon when we’re trying to make small changes day after day. Raise your hand if you’ve given up a diet, an exercise routine or even a business idea after trying to take small steps towards it daily.

You know why this happens? Because your mindset is DIRECTLY IN CONFLICT with your goals.

Yes. Say that out loud. Twice. 

For most people, there’s not enough of an incentive to continue working at something that is mildly inconvenient on a daily basis. If you’re one of these people, don’t fret. I’ve been there, and I feel your pain.

The reason why most of us aren’t able to create lasting change in our lives is because our reasons for wanting to change aren’t strong enough. And yet, we hear stories all the time of people who have made miraculous changes in their lives after they went through some sort of traumatic event.

You’ve heard of people who became millionaires after their homes were repossessed, forcing them to live in their car.

You’ve heard of people who became fitness models after they suffered a stroke due to their poor lifestyle choices.

You’ve heard of people who got fired and went on to create mega-successful companies.

You’re probably noticing a theme here. When the people in these examples found themselves at rock bottom, they had NO CHOICE but to succeed. In other words, they simply had to change their behavior in such a manner that they would never have to undergo the trauma of their situation again.

Compare this to your own situation for example. Right now, you might be working at an organization for what you consider a decent wage. You’d like to change things and maybe own your own business someday. But, for now, it’s not really that big of a deal if you don’t work on that idea you have for an hour after you get home. “I’m really tired after a hard day’s work”, I hear you saying.

Now, consider if you were to lose your job and have your financial security net disappear overnight. You would have no other option but to work on your own business, right. You probably wouldn’t need any extra motivation to burn the midnight oil.

Herein lies the secret to behavioral change – most of us underestimate the consequences of things staying the way they are. If you were to somehow get a window into the distant future and see, in stark detail, the problems that could arise if you didn’t change your mindset, you would make the required changes.

So, how do we get the benefit of this phenomenon without actually having to undergo some sort of traumatic incident or hitting rock bottom first?

The answer is practical pessimism. Author Tim Ferriss coined the term “practical pessimism”, but the basic concept has been around forever.

OK. I’m convinced. How do I use practical pessimism?

Here’s what you do. Take a blank piece of paper and your favorite pen.

Now, begin by listing all of the behavioral and mindset changes that you think you need to make.

For example:

  • I need to eat healthier.
  • I need to devote more time to my business.
  • I need to be more frugal.

Now, on the other side of the paper, write down the absolute WORST CASE SCENARIO that will occur if you don’t make this specific change. And when I say worst case, I mean it. Don’t hold back. Delve into what might happen in painful, excruciating detail.


Here’s an example.

  • If I don’t start eating healthy, I will become obese and unfit. My social life will shrink, and I will no longer be able to perform any activities that require me to get off the couch. I will eventually contract a heart disease, and die far too early. My family will be inconsolable.

Dark, right? But as you started reading and visualizing that, I bet something clicked in your head. You realized that this future could really come to pass. Instead of having an abstract goal like “I want to be fit”, you now have a specific scenario that you must avoid at all costs. Failure simply isn’t an option anymore.

Once you see your worst fears on that piece of paper, the consequences of your mindset and your actions will suddenly become very clear and urgent to you. Each time you’re lacking motivation, you can go back to this piece of paper and remember why you started.

You can use this technique to visualize the things that might happen if you never work on your business... if you never leave a life of mediocrity. Simply put, the pain of the alternative will force you to become great.

Go on. Try it. You’ve only scratched the surface of what you’re capable of achieving. Don’t let the routine of your everyday life lull you into a false sense of security. Take matters into your own hands. You’re the only one who can.