The Secret To Avoiding Negative Target Fixation

What In The World Is Negative Target Fixation?

Once again Daily Blog Tips provided inspiration for my latest blog post. This isn’t the first time, so no doubt that’s why I subscribe to the tips and faithfully open and read every post. You’re already wondering how what I read at Daily Blog Tips could have anything to do with health, wellness, goal setting, and behavior change.

Today the blog tip was about negative target fixation. Negative target fixation – according to Wikipedia – is “a process by which the brain is focused so intently on an observed object that awareness of other obstacles or hazards can diminish.” In some cases we can become so fixated on the target that we collide with it despite our intent to avoid it.

Have you ever heard of it?  I hadn’t until today. Learning how to correct the natural human inclination to focus on a negative target that we are adamantly trying to avoid can greatly impact our ability to be successful with our goals to adopt healthier habits.

Crash and Burn?  Not So Fast! 

The article in Daily Blog Tips was using the process of negative fixation to explain why many bloggers give up before they have a chance to be truly successful. Often they become so fixated on the traffic they don’t have, the money they aren’t making, and the success of the other bloggers in their niche, they quit blogging before they have a chance to experience success.

I find the very same things to be true of people that are trying to lose or maintain weight, follow a regular exercise program, or establish better eating patterns.  They concentrate so heavily on what they aren’t supposed to do they can’t get focused on what they are.  The chocolate chip ice cream they ate, or the morning they slept in instead of getting up to work on their Couch to 5K program loom large in their mind and overshadow all of the positive things they’ve done. They get discouraged and give up before they have a chance to see any results.

If you are a self-sabotager by way to of negative target fixation, it doesn’t mean you are doomed and will never reach or maintain your goals. But you will have to put an action plan in place to correct the fixation that you have on the negative object that is dominating your attention.

Three Ways You Can Overcome Negative Target Fixation

1.  Do Your Homework – Figure out what negative targets you are fixated on.  Hint: It’s probably something that you hear yourself saying over and over to yourself throughout the day.  Maybe it’s a fear that you’ll overeat at the holidays, drink too much at the company party, or lose your desire to go to the gym this winter.   Once you’ve determined what they are, write them down in a journal.

Now, draw a line through each one and write down what you need to focus on since you’ll no longer be concentrating on what you’re afraid you might do. You might replace the fears listed above with:  Enjoying the holidays without gaining a pound by implementing portion control, having two cocktails at the company party then switching to diet soda, and spending 45 minutes at the gym on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Take some time to visualize what is written down and practice forgetting about the fear that has a line through it. As time goes on, new negative targets may creep in. Keep the journal handy and continue to complete this exercise each time a new negative target makes an appearance.

2.  Switch To Positive Outcome Fixation – Look beyond what you are trying to avoid and go straight to the goal achievement.  Johnathan Wells wrote an excellent article on negative target fixation at his blog, Advanced Life Skills.  He uses the example of a slippery, icy driveway.  If we know that we have to walk across an icy driveway to get to the car all we think about is not falling on the ice.  But, according to Jonathan, “your mind cannot process the thought of not slipping on the ice without visualizing you slipping on the ice.”  Right away you are fixated on a negative target.

The same is true when you decide you’re going to get up early to work out and all you can think about is not being able to get out of bed.  If all you are able to visualize is your hand hitting the snooze and going back to sleep, that’s what you will do.  To avoid falling on the slippery driveway you need to focus on the car instead of the ice.  To avoid hitting the snooze and missing your morning workout the focus needs to be on the workout not on the bed.

You can learn to look away from the negative target.  Ignore it. Look past it.  “When a motorcyclists wants to avoid an obstacle, instead of getting trapped in negative target fixation he needs to look past that obstacle. He needs to focus on where he wants to be, not where he doesn’t want to be.” – Jonathan Wells  

3.  Misery Loves Company – The term negative target fixation was used in World War II fighter bomber training to describe pilots flying into targets during a bombing run. It is also a term that has been used to describe a common issue for mountain bikers and motorcyclists. They have a tendency to drive towards the obstacle they are trying to avoid.  Why?  Because that’s where they are looking.

I remember my driver’s ed teacher in high school telling me about this concept. If you look at the parked car on the curb, you just might hit it!  If you constantly tell yourself that you shouldn’t get the M & Ms out of the vending machine, you might find them in your hand.

Knowing that you have not been exclusively selected to be plagued by this malady will help you understand that, although it is real, it is something that you can overcome if you pay attention to it.

You can train your mind to jump over the obstacle and go straight to visualizing the results. Seeing yourself sitting comfortably in the driver’s seat of the car with the icy driveway behind you, the sun coming up on your 6 a.m. run, or maneuvering your jet bomber swiftly and safely past the targets will get you to your goals in one piece.

It’s natural for us to become fixated on the negative target.  You may have to spend some time and energy learning to re-focus.  Once you’ve developed a new behavior pattern of positive outcome fixation you’ll be amazed at how much easier it will be to reach your goals.

If you liked this article, you might also like:

Is Happiness Within Your Reach?  A book review.

Changing Behavior By Taking The Smallest Possible Step.

How Positive Affirmations Can Get You Unstuck And Moving Again. 

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