Why Murphy's Law is Good for Productivity

Embrace Negative Thinking: Murphy’s Law as a Planning Tool

Written By:
Matt Hubbard

Conventional wisdom holds that positive thinking is always the best course of action.

It’s not.

We’ve talked before about the “70 Percent Solution” and why it is often better to take a “C” than an “A.” This week, we’ll discuss Murphy’s Law and how negative thinking can be a powerful tool in your career, whether you’re in sales, marketing, software development, or any other profession.

Murphy is your friend.

What Is Murphy’s Law?

Murphy’s Law famously holds:

“What can go wrong, will go wrong.”

The idea is, if it’s possible for something negative to happen, it will happen…and at the worst possible time. Like when you lose your only set of keys, or when you go hiking and your only GPS runs out of batteries.

Murphy’s Law probably has no basis in fact. The law of averages makes positive and negative outcomes equally likely. In reality, it’s our perception of the world that makes Murphy’s Law seem true.

Whether Murphy’s Law is true doesn’t matter, though, because it is a highly effective planning tool. Despite the proven benefits of positive thinking, every professional should still intentionally take time out each week to think like Murphy and assume everything will go wrong.

Here’s why.

Foreseeable Outcomes

In law school, professors teach the concept of “foreseeable outcomes” – events a reasonable person should envision happening. For example, a homeowner with an uncovered swimming pool and no fence should foresee a neighborhood child falling in the pool. “Foreseeability” is then used in part to determine liability.

Applied to the professional context:

  • A salesman should foresee losing his biggest client due to an economic downturn.
  • A marketer should foresee their product release strategy being undermined by known product flaws.
  • A manager should foresee their best employee leaving for a higher salary.
  • A software developer should foresee his product go down because a server fails

In these roles, you should assume the worst is going to happen and take reasonable precautions.

More importantly, you should spend time practicing exactly how you’re going to respond.

The Psychological Benefits of Thinking Negatively…Ahead of Time

In responding to stress, we’re all still a bunch of neanderthals. When something surprising or traumatic happens, our bodies shift into “fight or flight” response. Heart rate increases, vision narrows, fine motor skills decrease, and we get “auditory exclusion” – where you can’t hear as much as you normally do. We lose our ability to perform methodically and logically in favor of running fast or defending ourselves.

But what happens when when we’re prepared for the event?

Most people remember the experience in school of having studied hard for an exam and taking practice tests. When you sit down for the exam knowing you’re prepared, a powerful calming effect settles over you. You think to yourself, “I’ve got this.” You’ve minimize the fight or flight response and your mind is doesn’t shut out valuable external data, such as important clues in the exam questions.

Repetitions and Muscle Memory

Any sports fan knows the term “rep” (short for repetition). Starting quarterbacks get the most “reps” in practice, and professional golfers repetitively simulate high-pressure shots on the driving range. These athletes are building muscle memory – mental, physical, and emotional. The smart ones also practice responding to negative events, like opponents scoring key touchdowns.

As a result, the athlete stays calmer when negative outcomes happen, allowing them to focus on important external variables instead of the stress of the situation. In the military or law enforcement, this takes the form of contingency planning and response drills. By repeatedly practicing a sequence of thoughts, actions, and feelings, you build a habit of successful response.

Yet how often have all of us worked at companies where no one bothered to practice responses to foreseeable–or even likely–negative outcomes?

How to Apply Negative Thinking

Set aside time every week to foresee and practice negative outcomes. In your professional and personal life, what are the five worst things that could happen? How will they transpire? What are the possible variations? How can you respond effectively to each? What are you going to feel when it happens?

Then practice your response, in as much detail as possible. If you manage a team, have the entire team drill through the response. Surprise your team with the drill if you can, to simulate the psychological feeling of surprise. Get feedback from others on your response and whether it was effective. Perform after-action reviews afterward, to talk about how you could respond more effectively next time. It seems like drudgery, but it works.

This entire process will have the psychological effect of building your confidence.  Moreover, if the event actually happens, you are far more likely to calmly execute your plan. If your plan doesn’t work, you will still be collected enough to improvise and adapt.

When You’re Done…Forget About It

As previously noted, positive thinking works, so you should spend most of your time thinking positive.  Just don’t forget Murphy.  He’s your best friend in small doses.

And next time you find yourself yelling at your team’s coach for mismanaging the clock late in a game, consider whether you are just being a hypocrite and making the same mistake in your professional and personal life.

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