It’s the day before an audition, and as you take a few minutes to review some tricky sections, suddenly you get a twinge of anxiety and start stressing and freaking out about how awful everything sounds. How unprepared you feel. And how horribly you’re afraid things are going to go.

It’s at those exact moments when you know the right thing to do is “think positive.”

But these are also the exact moments when it’s hardest to think good thoughts.

Like telling a kid to cheer up when they just lost all of their video game privileges for the day, as their little sister munches happily on the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, giggling while watching her favorite YouTube show (gee…that’s awfully specific…kind of makes you wonder what’s happening in the Kageyama household right at this moment, no?).

Most of us have a natural tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. To worry about the future, bemoan past decisions and choices, and focus on what’s bothering us right now in the present. Which from a survival perspective, probably makes good sense.

But from a performance perspective, this negativity bias can make it difficult to stay in a good frame of mind before auditions. Or get to sleep the night before a big recital. Which can then make the performance go to crap.

So how can we get better at “thinking positive” – at least temporarily – when we need it most?

A 6-min positive thinking challenge

A team of researchers recruited 142 undergraduates, and told them they’d be spending some time “entertaining themselves with their thoughts.”

So, to prepare for this, they were asked to write down 8 topics they’d enjoy thinking about. The topics that participants generated ranged from “my wedding day” or “my family” or “the upcoming summer” to more specific scenarios like “having fun on Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend and getting gifts and hugs from him” or “what my life would be like if I were living in Azeroth (World of Warcraft).”

Everyone was then asked to spend 6 minutes engaged in a “thinking period.” And instructed to “spend the time entertaining yourself with your thoughts as best you can.” Where their goal “should be to have a pleasant experience, as opposed to spending the time focusing on everyday activities or negative things.”

Two groups

But to make this challenge easier, one group (the topic reminder group) was given reminders of the topics they listed. Sitting in front of a computer screen, they were shown each of their 8 topics, one at a time, with the ability to click to the next one whenever they were done thinking about the one on the screen.

The other group (the control group) didn’t get any memory aids. Only the instructions “you don’t have to think only about [the 8 topics they wrote down], but they may be a useful starting point.” And while they also sat in front of a computer screen, it just displayed the message “please think about the topics you listed earlier.”

It’s not like the groups’ tasks were all that different. One group simply had a “cheat sheet” of their topics in front of them.

Would this seemingly trivial tweak make any difference?

Four differences

After completing the 6-minute challenge, participants were asked to rate their experience in several different areas – such as a) how much they enjoyed the 6-minute exercise, b) how difficult they found it to concentrate, c) how much mind-wandering occurred, and d) to what degree they thought about the 8 topics they identified as opposed to other unrelated thoughts.

Enjoyment

As it turns out, the participants who received reminders rated their “thinking period” as being more enjoyable (5.90 vs. 5.22; where 1=not at all enjoyable, 9=extremely enjoyable).

Difficulty concentrating

The reminder group also found it easier to concentrate (3.58 vs. 5.18; where 1=not at all difficult to concentrate, 9=extremely difficult to concentrate).

Mind-wandering

They were also less prone to mind-wandering (4.51 vs. 5.93; where 1=not at all, 9=very much).

Thought about topics

And ultimately, were much more focused on the 8 topics they wrote down (7.01 vs. 5.95; where 1=only about other topics, 9=only about the 8 topics).

All in all, the data suggest that having reminders made it easier and more enjoyable to engage in thoughts about pleasant topics.

Why?

Previous research on positive thinking indicate that deliberately guiding one’s thoughts towards pleasant thoughts requires effort. And because we’re all kind of lazy, it’s usually easier to just let our thoughts wander to whatever pops into our head in the moment. Like watching whatever happens to be on the TV while you run on the treadmill at the gym, because it’s too much trouble to look for the remote and find something you actually want to watch.

Unfortunately, under pressure, where does your mind tend to go by default?

Yep…usually the bad place. Worst-case scenarios. Past failures. Pretty much anything that makes us feel more freaked out and less confident.

Take action

So while it might seem a little silly to create such a thing, try putting together a “positivity cheat sheet,” listing a range of topics that would be helpful and empowering to think about the night before a big audition. Or when you’re stewing in a warm-up room before a high-pressure performance.

Maybe it’s simply a 3×5 notecard (inches, not feet!) that you keep in your case. Or perhaps even better, an Evernote notebook on your phone (so you could make each cheat sheet item a separate note and flip through them more easily).

The idea being, your poor brain already has a lot on its mind the day of an audition or performance. Why make it work even harder than it has to?

Instead of expending extra effort to will your mind into a good place, use your cheat sheet to help trigger memories of the last time you had a great performance. The supportive comments or compliments you’ve received from teachers or colleagues whose opinions you trust and respect. Or even post-audition plans to hang out with friends at the new Vietnamese taco place you’ve been curious to try for months.