Beware the sugar-coated fantasies of success

Daydream believers will often fall behind those who are motivated by actual experienced-based expectations

Want to pass that exam, score that hot job, find that ideal partner? Even a casual look at the multitude of self-help books, websites and blogs out there right now will tell you that it's all about visualising it to make it real. Ninety percent of the battle is simply creating and believing in the fantasy of achieving your goal. Or so pop culture would have us believe.

But it seems these fantasies are possibly being given more credit than they deserve, especially the more sugar-coated ones. Research now suggests that we're more likely to achieve our goals if we put our energy into positive expectations rather than fantasies.

What's the difference? Expectations are generally based on actual past experience and are a more reliable predictor of future success. You expect to pass this exam because you've passed all your previous exams (hopefully). Fantasy, on the other hand, isn't based on any kind of reality and comes out of thin air. Or at the very least, an active and fertile imagination.

Research by Oettingen and Mayer (2002) examined how people anticipated some common life experiences like passing a big exam, getting a job or finding a partner. In each case the researchers measured how much the subjects either fantasised about or expected a positive outcome. The people who concentrated on positive expectations clearly outperformed the people who put more energy into creating positive fantasies. The researchers concluded that daydream believers will often fall behind those who are motivated by actual experienced-based expectations. Or, to put it more bluntly, positive fantasies can be associated with failure while positive expectations can be associated with success.

This isn't to say it's a bad thing to dream of future success. A modest level of positive fantasising can provide inspiration. But when your fantasies are too, well… fantastic, they can actually end up having the opposite effect – they rob you of motivation. This is primarily because in your mind it already feels that the goal has been achieved, even though in reality you haven't taken any practical steps to achieve it.

So don't spend too much study time simply fantasising about passing those exams. Spend your time studying instead, and create a well-deserved positive expectation of passing.