09/25/2014 03:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Harness the Power of 'What If'


I think asking "what if..." is a universal curse of human nature.

We all wonder what could have been and what could be. But how we think about the what ifs of our lives can have a huge impact on the ways in which we actually live.

Here are a few ways that you can harness the power of "what if" starting right now:

Don't Live in the Past

Okay, I know we've all had that one relationship, that one job, that one opportunity. The one that makes us look back and wonder, "What if I had done things differently then?" or "What if I had chosen the other path?"

But if you're always thinking about things that have already happened and wondering what could have been, you're cheating yourself out of a perfectly great life in the present. You can't be in two places at once and you can't live in the past while also enjoying the present.

If you struggle with this on a daily basis, it's important that you remind yourself that the past is over. There's nothing you can do about what's already happened, so for the love of God stop thinking about it.

Instead of wishing for alternative endings of the past, put your energy to use in the present. Do something right now that will help you make amends with whatever's eating you up.

If you're feeling negatively about a fight with a family member, don't sit around wondering, "What if I had said this," or "What if I hadn't said that." Call or visit that person and say what you want to say.

Taking action in the present will do worlds more for solving your problems than wondering about the past ever could.

Don't Think Negatively About the Future

Full disclosure: This is one of the greatest challenges I face every day. But after getting in the habit of thinking more positively, I can tell you flat out that assuming the worst in life wastes a ton of mental and physical energy. Even if it's just the little things.

Nearly all the stimuli I experienced on a daily basis used to be followed by negative assumptions. Missed phone call from the doctor -- what if they messed up my paperwork? Weird sound coming from the car -- what if that ends up costing a ton of money?

The big problem with thinking this way is that all of these assumptions are based on "what if." In other words, absolutely zero bad things have happened, and yet we still get just as stressed out as we would if something bad had actually happened.

If you want to immediately improve your energy and productivity, stop assuming the worst about things that haven't happened yet.

To get yourself out of this habit, you can start by transitioning from negative thoughts to positive thoughts with "or." For example, "What if they messed up my paperwork? Or, what if they're just calling about a feedback survey?"

Using "or" to quickly rationalize a negative thought with a positive one can get you to reprogram your brain when thinking about the future. Eventually, you'll be able to skip the negative thoughts all together and assume the best.

Why You Should Use "What If" to Dream Big

When you cut out the negative what if's from your life, you'll find that energy and positivity come much more naturally to you. The best way to harness that energy? Use "what if" to dream big.

"What if I could run a marathon? What if I went back to school? What if I got the courage to go skydiving?"

While it's important to set realistic goals for yourself, using "what if" scenarios to dream big can be incredibly helpful in terms of motivation and productivity.

For one, big dreams get you to imagine setting a higher bar for yourself, thus encouraging you to pursue more challenging successes.

And secondly, dreaming up totally over-the-top "what if" scenarios makes your realistic goals seem a whole lot more achievable. This can help you take some of the pressure off of yourself, and make you more confident about going after your life and career goals.

Keep the negative what ifs out of your mind and hustle the positive one's in. You're sure to improve at least one aspect of your life as a result.

One of the most powerful quotes I've ever heard comes, interestingly enough, from the TV show, Scrubs:

"In the end, it's the what ifs that hurt the most."

My philosophy: Only if you let them.

Image by Sylwia Bartyzel