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The Power of A Positive Pessimist


“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the airplane, the pessimist the parachute."

-- George Bernard Shaw

Do you ever find yourself looking at your calendar and thinking, "Sure, I can fit one more thing on that day," even though it's already fully scheduled? Or maybe you're habitually late to your appointments even though you fully intend to arrive on time? When was the last time you said "yes" to a new commitment before considering what that would do to your other commitments or time?

You may be a time optimist if any of these questions resonate with you.

"Optimism is defined as a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable. Optimism, not rudeness, is the reason so many people are consistently late to every appointment. Optimism, not disorganization, is the reason many managers overwhelm their teams with unrealistic expectations and deadlines. Time debt is often caused by time optimism."

The Time Optimist

While we often think of "optimism" as a desirable trait, it actually does more harm than good when it comes to time. Time optimists believe that they have more time than they do or that tasks take less than is realistic. But suppose we're not accurate with our time management. In that case, we may find that we are frequently running behind schedule, committing the things we don't have the time or desire for, increasing our stress and anxiety, and giving in to what is "urgent" but not meaningful.

In our hectic lives, we want to do and achieve more, and optimism tells us we can, but what if there was a better way to live and work without compromising our optimism?

"Whether we like it or not, there are moments in history when pessimism is the appropriate response." -- David Olusoga

The Best Optimists Have a Pessimistic Streak

Pessimism often has a negative connotation because while optimism looks for what could go right, pessimism looks for what could go wrong. Still, we often don't understand that there are three types of pessimism -- two we should avoid and one we desperately need to embrace.

The first type is dispositional pessimism, which is what we typically think of as "pessimism"; this is a negative outlook for almost everything. Next comes explanatory pessimism, which refers to how we look at our failures and shortcomings, often seeing them as part of who we are and unable to change. The third type is defensive pessimism; this type looks ahead to find the potential problems and take steps to avoid or minimize them.

The individuals who effectively manage their time are a combination of optimism and pessimism. Here's how:

  • They are dispositional optimists: people with positive and can-do attitudes who always look for the good, tend to inspire others and believe the best about situations and people.

  • They are explanatory optimists: people who attribute failure to external forces or temporary shortcomings; they do not personalize failure (i.e., "I am a failure."), believe their flaws can never be changed, or think that good things are mere luck.

  • They are defensive pessimists: people who lower their expectations in preparation for worst-case scenarios and use their anxiety as a signal to adapt rather than be hindered by it.

Positive Pessimism in Action

When you can combine dispositional and explanatory optimism with defensive pessimism, you become a positive pessimist and give yourself the freedom to stop and think about your choices rather than giving into the "urgency" of life's demands. And these urgencies don't just sneak up on you; there are warning signs that can trigger your pessimistic streak: shallow breathing, tense muscles, pressure to hurry up, and a sense of obligation.

A positive pessimistic will recognize these signs as an opportunity to stop and

  • Breathe,

  • Question whether this is meaningful or a false urgency,

  • Reflect on the fears that pressure them to respond to the urgency,

  • And choose what is truly meaningful over what seems urgent.

This week, consider the following questions:

  • When are you most tempted to be a time optimist?

  • What would it look like to practice defensive pessimism in a situation or project in which you are being a time optimist right now?

  • What steps can you take to practice defensive pessimism?

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