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Published on May 5, 2020

4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly

4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring to Help You Think Clearly

Humans are guilty of having less than rational thoughts. We do it all the time. We might assume the worst is going to happen or jump to conclusions before we have all the information. Cognitive restructuring helps people become aware of their irrational thoughts so that they can correct them and replace them with more rational ways of thinking. This can help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and trauma.

Cognitive restructuring is a major part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which was developed by Aaron Beck in the 1960s. Beck linked his patients’ symptoms with their distorted thinking and hypothesized that if he could help his patients recognize their distorted thinking, he could help them alleviate their mental health symptoms.[1] David Burns then popularized Beck’s ideas in the 1980s with his book Feeling Good.[2]

Cognitive restructuring is at the heart of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is the four-step process that helps people recognize their distorted thoughts in order to change them.

Cognitive Distortions

I spoke with Margot Escott, LSCW[3] about how she uses cognitive restructuring in her therapy practice in Naples, Florida, and she explained that she begins the process by making her clients aware of the types of cognitive distortions.

Escott hands her clients a list of cognitive distortions[4] and asks them to spend a week thinking about which ones resonate with them.

The following are examples of various cognitive distortions:

Mental Filtering

This happens when a person picks out only one (usually negative) detail of a situation and focuses only on that.

Black and White Thinking

When this occurs, a person cannot see any middle ground and perceives a situation as all or nothing.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is very common and happens when a person jumps to a conclusion without enough information.

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Catastrophizing

This way of thinking comes about when a person thinks the worst outcome will occur.

Personalization

Generally occurring in people with low self-esteem or paranoia, this happens when someone thinks that everything people do or say is about them.

Should Statements

These statements come about when someone compares themselves and others to perceived universal standards.

Mind Reading

This can happen when someone assumes what someone else is thinking without verification.

Fortune Telling

People are generally very concerned about the future, and this can lead some to assume how things will unfold, usually in a negative light.

Emotional Reasoning

This happens when a person assumes their emotions reflect how reality actually is.

Labeling

Labeling comes about when someone makes broad statements or generalizations about themselves or others based on situation-specific behavior. Example: If you make a mistake and conclude that you are dumb or a failure.

Each list of cognitive distortions is different, but this will give you a general idea of the kind of irrational thinking cognitive restructuring aims to correct.

The 4 Steps of Cognitive Restructuring

When you seek to engage in cognitive restructuring, there are 4 major steps you will need to follow.

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1. Make It Conscious

The process starts by making our automatic thoughts conscious. The first step requires you to take a kind of inventory of your potentially problematic ways of thinking. Before you can change your thoughts, you have to become aware of how you’re thinking—no judgment or correction yet.

You can take an inventory of your automatic thoughts for a week or you can explore them in therapy with a trained professional. Escott asks her clients to tell her which cognitive distortions they noticed after one week.

Either way, the first step is essential because we can’t correct problematic, automatic thinking without becoming aware of what we’re thinking in the first place.

2. Evaluate It

Next, it’s time to get rational. Once you’ve taken an inventory of your thoughts, you can start to sort out which ones seem rational and which ones don’t.

For example, if you say something like, “I’m never going to meet my life partner,” you can lump this thought into the unproductive/unhealthy/negative category because you aren’t a fortune teller and certainly don’t know whether or not you’ll meet someone.

Step 2 establishes that this is a thought worth changing.

3. Get Rational

Once we’ve identified a thought as problematic or unhealthy, we can identify why it’s problematic in the first place. This is when we ask those tough therapy questions:

  • Why do I think this?
  • Is it true?
  • How often is it true?

The idea behind step 3 is to identify how our thinking is a cognitive distortion and what the reality actually is.

4. Replace It

Finally, we replace the cognitive distortion with a more rational thought. Our automatic thoughts are habitual, so the idea isn’t to stop cognitive distortions but to catch ourselves when we’re distorting reality and quickly replace the distortion with a more rational thought.

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If I catch myself thinking that my boss hates me, I need to remind myself that I’m mind reading. Then, every time I catch myself in the act of mind reading that my boss hates me, I can replace that distortion with something like, “I don’t know whether or not my boss hates me unless I ask, but I do know that I got a positive performance review and a raise last month.”

The idea is to replace cognitive distortions with more rational ways of thinking, but this requires a lot of reflection and self-awareness. You can certainly try it on your own, but it’s often better to have a trained professional guide you through the process.

Example of Cognitive Restructuring

Let’s say I catch myself catastrophizing. I notice that I sometimes I say that I will lose my job and not be able to pay my bills and then lose my home and my family.

Cognitive restructuring asks me to confront that cognitive distortion.

The first step is for me to become aware of that thought and catch myself every time I slip into catastrophizing.

Next, I ask myself if it’s true. I certainly can’t know if that’s true because I don’t know the future. This is where mindfulness practice comes in handy.[5] According to Escott, mindfulness is a great way for people to practice living more in the present moment, which can also reduce some cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing.

Now, I don’t know whether or not I will lose my job. I can’t even answer how often this cognitive distortion is true, so I move on to step 3.

Now it’s time to reflect. Why do I think I’m going to lose my job? Maybe my parents lost their jobs, which added a lot of stress to the family when I was a child. Maybe I feel like an imposter and am not confident about some of my financial decisions.

In step 3, I come up with something more rational. I can start telling myself that I don’t know whether or not I’m going to lose my job. All I can focus on is doing the best job I can. If there is a chance I will lose my job, I can spend time networking on LinkedIn instead of catastrophizing. I can also tell myself that linking the loss of my job with losing everything is not rational. I can make a list of all the things I could do if I actually did lose my job that would prevent me from losing the other things in my life.

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Finally, I replace “I’m going to lose my job” with a more rational thought each time I catch myself catastrophizing. I might remind myself, “I don’t know the odds of me losing my job, but I do know that I have seniority and just got a raise. And if I do lose this job, I could always go back to working at my father-in-law’s store.”

It’s probably better to be pithier when you’re replacing automatic distortions, but this gives you a good idea of how to get started.

Effectiveness of Cognitive Restructuring

Science has shown that cognitive restructuring works. In one study[6], cognitive restructuring was more effective in reducing anxiety and worry than a control group and a group that was taught relaxation techniques.

The idea is that cognitive restructuring forces people to fix their automatic thoughts. Escott explains that this process is effective because our thoughts become our feelings, which affect our overall well-being.

Cognitive restructuring addresses the root of the problem: our cognitive distortions. So the next time you catch yourself overgeneralizing or catastrophizing, take a step back. Ask yourself if that’s really true and how often it’s true. Develop a more rational line of thinking and then replace the distortion with a more realistic thought.

Cognitive restructuring may not be as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, but if you’re willing to get reflective and self-aware and do the work, it can have measurable effects on reducing your anxiety, trauma, stress, anger, and depression symptoms.

I want to reiterate that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a modality best done by trained professionals. For those of you who need help or want to get deeper into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and cognitive restructuring, please search for trained mental health professionals in your area.

More Tips on Changing Your Thoughts

Featured photo credit: Benjamin Davies via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on October 22, 2020

What Is Analysis Paralysis (And How to Overcome It)

What Is Analysis Paralysis (And How to Overcome It)

Have you ever taken so long trying to solve a problem that you just ended up going around in circles? How about trying to make a major decision and just freezing up when the time to decide came?

You might have found yourself gathering too much information, hoping it will help you make the best decision—even if it takes you too long to do so. This probably led to many missed opportunities, especially in situations where you needed to act on time.

Nobody wants to make the wrong decision. However, delayed decision making can have a hugely negative impact on all aspects of your life—from your personal relationships to your career. Delaying important decisions can be the worst decision of all.

At one point or another, people get stuck at a decision impasse they can’t seem to overcome. This is due to a mental blindspot called information bias, informally known as analysis paralysis.

Analysis Paralysis and Stalled Decisions

Information bias, or analysis paralysis, is our tendency to seek more information than is needed to make decisions and take action.[1] It is one of many cognitive biases that cause us to make mistakes during the decision-making process.

A related cognitive bias is the status quo bias, which is our tendency to prefer that things stay the same and fear any changes.[2] Together with analysis paralysis, these two dangerous judgment errors pose a threat to our successful navigation through our rapidly-shifting world.

Consider what happened to Lily, a consulting client of mine who’s a mid-level manager in the UX department of a large tech company. Lily had been there for 5 years and was thinking about switching to a startup after a couple tried to recruit her.

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However, she had been taking a lot of time making a decision. In fact, before she contacted me, she had already gathered information and talked to a lot of people for 7 months. Realistically, more information won’t sway her decision, but she kept trying to gather more information.

And then, there was the technology company that came to me after their growth started to decline. The company had initially experienced rapid growth with a couple of innovative products. However, its growth started to decrease—unfortunate, but not unexpected.

Essentially, the company’s growth followed the typical S-curve growth model, which starts as a slow and effortful start-up stage. This is followed by a rapid growth stage, then a slowdown in growth, often following market saturation or competitive pressure or other factors. This is the point where the company’s existing products reach maturity.

However, even before a slowdown hits, forward-thinking companies would innovate and change things up proactively. This is so they could have new products ready to go that would maintain rapid growth.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with this particular tech company. Not only did they not address the potential decline but once the company’s growth stalled, the leaders dug their heels in and stayed the course. They kept on analyzing the market to find the cause of the problem.

Worse, a couple of executives in the company proposed launching new products, but most of the leadership was cautious. They kept on asking for guarantees that the products would be a success, demanding more information even when additional information wasn’t relevant.

Both Lily and the tech company remained paralyzed by too much information when they should already have taken action. While this situation isn’t unexpected, it is totally avoidable.

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As I told both parties when they consulted me, all they needed to do was to face analysis paralysis head-on and make a decision. But they had to follow the best decision-making process available first, didn’t they?

8-Step Decision-Making Process to Avoid Analysis Paralysis

I told Lily and the leaders at the tech company that we should never go with our gut if we want to avoid disasters in our personal and professional lives.[3] Instead, I advised them, as I advise you now, to follow data-driven, research-based approaches, such as the one I’ll outline below.

From hiring a new employee, launching a new product, selecting a Zoom guest speaker for your annual video conference to deciding whether to apply for a higher-level position within your company, the following steps will help you fight analysis paralysis and make the best decisions possible.

1. Identify the Need to Launch a Decision-Making Process

This is particularly important when there’s no explicit crisis that cries out for a change or decision to be made. Such recognition is also applicable when your natural intuitions are keeping you from acknowledging the need for a tough decision.

Remember that the best decision-makers take the initiative to recognize the need for decisions before they become an emergency. They also don’t let gut reactions cloud their decision-making capacity.

2. Gather Relevant Information From a Wide Variety of Informed Perspectives

Listen especially to opinions you disagree with. Contradicting perspectives empower you to distance yourself from the comfortable reliance on your gut instincts, which can sometimes be harmful to decision-making. Opposing ideas also help you recognize any potential bias blind spots, and this allows you to come up with solutions that you may not have otherwise.

3. Paint a Clear Vision of Your Desired Outcome

Using the data gleaned from step 2, decide which goals you want to reach. Paint a clear vision of the desired outcome of your decision-making process. You should also recognize that what seems to be a one-time decision may turn out to be a symptom of an underlying issue with current processes and practices. Make addressing these root problems part of the outcome you want to achieve.

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4. Make a Decision-Making Process Criteria

Make a decision-making process criteria to weigh the various options of how you’d like to get to your desired outcome. As much as possible, develop these criteria before you start to consider choices. Our intuitions bias our decision-making criteria to encourage certain outcomes that fit our instincts. As a result, you get overall worse decisions if you don’t develop criteria before starting to look at options.

5. Generate Several Viable Options

We tend to fall into the trap of generating insufficient options to make the best decisions, and this can lead to analysis paralysis. To prevent this, you should generate many more options than you usually would. Generate several viable options that can help you achieve your decision-making process goals. Go for 5 attractive options as the minimum.

Keep in mind that this is a brainstorming step, so don’t judge options no matter how far fetched they might seem. In my consulting and coaching experience, the optimal choice often involves elements drawn from out-of-the-box options.

6. Weigh These Options and Pick the Best One

When weighing your options, beware of going with your initial preferences. Try to see your preferred choice in a harsh light. Also, do your best to separate each option from the person who proposed it. This minimizes the impact of personalities, relationships, and internal politics on the decision itself.

7. Implement the Option You Chose

For implementing the decision, you need to minimize risks and maximize rewards, since your goal is to get a decision outcome that’s as good as possible.

First, imagine that the decision completely failed. Then, brainstorm about all the problems that led to this failure. Next, consider how you might solve these problems, and integrate the solutions into your implementation plan.

Next, imagine that the decision absolutely succeeded. Brainstorm all the reasons for success and consider how you can bring these reasons into life. Then, integrate what you learned into implementing the decisions.

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Finally, develop clear metrics of success that you can measure throughout the implementation process. This will enable you to check if you’re meeting the goals you identified in step 3. It will also help guide your goal-setting process—something to keep in mind when you use this decision-making technique again in the future.

8. Set a Reminder to Use the Process for Future Decisions

Regularly check if it’s time to employ the decision-making process once again. As discussed in the first step, there may be times when there’s no explicit crisis that cries out for a change, even though underlying issues might already be signaling that it’s time for a tough decision.

Setting a reminder—perhaps a visual one such as a note on your desk, or even just a scheduled alert on your phone—will ensure that you can catch decision-making cues before they’re due.

While Lily and the tech company initially had to fight off a lot of discomforts when using the process, they were ultimately rewarded with sound decisions they were immensely satisfied with.

This battle-tested method will do the same for you. It will certainly propel your decision-making and, at the same time, help you thwart analysis paralysis and avoid decision disasters.

Conclusion

Nobody wants to make the wrong decision, but you also don’t want to take too long and miss opportunities. By using a data-driven and research-based approach to decision making, you can nip analysis paralysis in the bud and make the best decisions.

More Tips to Overcome Analysis Paralysis

Featured photo credit: Muhmed El-Bank via unsplash.com

Reference

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