Is it me or are our thoughts just a little bit harder to tame these days?
It seems a lot of our founders feel this at the moment.
You know the drill… you’re trying to sleep, but your brain has decided “let’s do just one more rehearsal of the [pitch / meeting / awkward conversation – delete as appropriate]”. Or you’re trying to focus on something, but the brain is hijacking you saying, “let’s worry a little bit about the future instead”.
Written by our cognitive scientist Maria Lehl
In these uncertain times it’s even harder. As founders we need to prepare our businesses for the consequences of the pandemic. Yet, we are trying to prepare for a storm without knowing the direction, epicentre or impact. As such, it’s common for our brains to become overrun with thoughts – especially negative ones – and those thoughts can eat away at our resilience as a founder.
I think, therefore I am
The central theory of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is that what we think (our cognitions) and what we do (our behaviours) affects the way we feel. Unfortunately, as humans we appear to have a predisposition to opt for the negative thinking automatically. All too easily, when change is afoot, or a stressful situation descends we find ourselves in a negative thinking spiral worrying at 3am when you should be asleep. So what do we do when we find yourself with a head full of unwelcome thoughts?
Is the thought helpful?
Your brain is a great storyteller. It’s a busy bee, churning out thoughts all day. Some of these thoughts, such as “I’m going to lose all my clients” trigger a negative emotional response in us – fear, anger or sadness – like a neurological alarm bell. From an evolutionary perspective, this flags that we are in danger, so our brain shouts: “This must be a very important thought! Hold it and think it to oblivion”. And there goes the sleep…
At this point, we have to pull our thinking into a manual gear: Not all thoughts that trigger negative emotions are worth thinking about. Thoughts like “My business is doomed” don’t provide any actionable insights. Thoughts like “How can I prepare my business to financially survive the pandemic” are very valuable (though still unwelcome when you are trying to sleep).
So the first action is to question the thought – Is the thought helpful? Is it actionable?
Put the helpful thoughts to good work
Useful thoughts are the ones that give you ideas and ‘AHA’ moments. They don’t lead you around in circles to where you started. Once you know a thought is useful – put them to work:
Step 1: Organise the useful thoughts. We cannot hold a complex spider-diagram of thoughts and consequences, pros and cons in our heads (contrary to popular belief) so get it out on paper or Trello to capture the useful and constructive ideas. This creates order and helps you apply logic.
Step 2: Distract yourself from the negative ones. We have a psychological inclination to continue an interrupted action until it is complete, called the Ovsiankina Effect. To avoid falling victim to the same train of thought again, distract yourself for a short time to regain some distance from it. Listen to a podcast, call a friend or take a short walk (even to make tea) to pull yourself away from ruminating on non-constructive thoughts.
Confront the stubborn negative thoughts
We all know there are some occasions when the thoughts are just not helpful AND not going away – with distractions or otherwise. Here are a couple of first-aid strategies from clinical psychology.
The thought-record challenge
The use of thought records originated in CBT where the objective is to confront your automatic negative thoughts and effectively put them on trial. For this, you need to keep a record of negative thoughts, usually in the form of a thought record worksheet which facilitates you reviewing the context of the thought and finding alternative interpretations of the situation.
For example, let’s assume you have the automatic thought: My business is not going to survive this crisis.
The context is: You lost a customer today and you are lying in bed after a long hard day.
An alternative interpretation of the situation is: The business is certainly not doing great, but it’s not bankrupt yet either. The gloomy prediction was probably triggered by being tired from a long day of work rather than the financial situation of the company.
When done repeatedly, this simple approach helps to eliminate your most common cognitive distortions – these are the thoughts that depict an inaccurate view of the world – usually a more negative one. The alternative, less-negative interpretations eventually become automatic. Psychologytools is a good starting point to learn more about CBT methods.
Defusion techniques are one of the core tools of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a popular CBT alternative. While CBT is about learning to challenge negative thoughts, ACT suggests to observe and accept them instead. Thoughts are just stories the brain churns out, we don’t need to believe them or “fuse” with them. However, they need to be heard. According to ACT, trying to suppress or escape negative thoughts will only make them appear more often so we need some techniques to hear out our negative thoughts without fusing with them. In ACT, this process is called defusion. The idea is to create an emotional distance to the thought, i.e. having the thought without believing or identifying with it. Here are a couple of ways to do so:
I have the thought that…
Phrase your thought as if you are an observer: “I have the thought that my business is doomed” or “My brain is telling me that my business is doomed”. This way, you don’t identify with the thought, but admit it’s there.
Humour can be very helpful to distance yourself from unwelcome thoughts. For example, try to picture that thought spoken out by a fictional or non-fictional character you know. I personally love to picture Marvin the Paranoid Android speaking out my most dreaded negative predictions about the future.
Naming the Story
Try assigning a title to your negative thoughts, or make it a musical theme. This will become useful when you start seeing repeated patterns and you can say: I know this song! It’s the “You can never make it on your own” tune.
Rewiring for resilience
While the above methods provide first-aid help when dealing with unwelcome thoughts, CBT and ACT are all about long-term prevention of unhealthy thought patterns. For example, in CBT prevention means looking for the commonalities and recognising the triggers. Over time you can look to remove some of the triggers (excessive coffee consumption is a common one!) and learn to spot and wire negative thoughts to new constructive thoughts and emotions instead.
Think of your mind in the same way you would think about your business. We would not want to waste valuable investment money on a dead-end project. Similarly, we should not waste valuable cognitive resources on useless thoughts either. Thoughts aren’t free and usually we have a choice to engage or not engage with them. We don’t pay for them in a visible currency, but we pay in our energy levels and our resilience. Resilience that our business needs from us in these difficult times.
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Sleep woman image attributed to Ivan Oboleninov
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