15 Common Cognitive Distortions That May Be Behind Your Productivity Problems


You’ve got a lot on your to-do list and it’s time to get down to business. So what’s stopping you? You’ve got everything you physically need, and yet, you just can’t figure out how to be productive. Your mind might actually be sabotaging you.

Psychiatrists Aaron Beck and David Burns came up with the theory and popularized, respectively, the idea of cognitive distortions, which are mental blocks or inaccurate ways of thinking that often affect us negatively. These can take a toll on many different aspects of your life, as they can cause you to form negative opinions about yourself and others, and your work or school life isn’t exempt. Your productivity problems could be caused by one of the 15 common cognitive distortions. By being aware of the psychological factors at play, you can actually correct your thinking and move past these distortions in time.

Filtering

The productivity problem:

You’re trying to tackle a task but you can’t stop thinking about the hardest part of it. Whether it’s the section of a report that you know is going to take a lot of work or a specific topic on a test that you just can’t seem to grasp, one negative aspect of your to-do list can make you stall on it the whole day.

The distortion:

This inability to focus on the positive aspects of something is called mental filtering. When you’re working or going to school, filtering might make you blind to the parts of a project you enjoy. It might also make you focus only on the negative aspects of your job or college experience as a whole, even though there are many positive parts. This can cause dread and anxiety, making you less satisfied with your situation and less productive.

How to fix it:

If you find that your glass is always half-empty, stop yourself and rethink the situation. Learning to refocus your attention on the positive aspects of your job can

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make you happier overall and train your brain to skip the negativity. And if it’s an unpleasant aspect of a certain task that’s getting you down, do it first and get it out of the way.

Polarized thinking

The productivity problem:

You got a C on a test. You begin telling yourself, “I always do badly on tests. What’s the point in studying when I’m going to fail anyway?”

The distortion:

When you start making “always” or “never” statements, it’s called polarized thinking. Everything is black and white. You’re always wrong. You’ll never succeed. Nothing ever goes the way you want it to. This can poison your thinking and turn a negative scenario into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you always do poorly on tests and choose not to study, you’ll continue to do poorly on tests.

How to fix it:

When you recognize that you’re thinking in a black-or-white, all-or-nothing sort of way, take a look at the situation on a scale of 0-100. On a test with a number grade, it’s easy. You got more right than you did wrong. In other situations, consider thinking of a similar scale. Focusing on the positives and the situation as a whole can help you maintain a healthy perspective.

Overgeneralization

The productivity problem:

You’re working on a team project and you know one of the team members has missed a deadline in the past. When it comes time to delegate tasks, you don’t give that team member anything important to do, instead taking on several big tasks yourself. You end up feeling overburdened and frazzled.

The distortion:

Making a broad, sweeping judgment based on one negative occurrence is called overgeneralization. By making generalizations about your teammates’ abilities without giving them a fair chance, you are missing out on potential talents and overworking yourself.

How to fix it:

Keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes. If a person screws up once, make an effort to forget it and remind yourself of his or her positive qualities. Delegation relies on trust and it’s an important component in the productivity of groups. One person taking on the lion’s share of the work makes the whole group inefficient.

Jumping to conclusions

The productivity problem:

Your coworker doesn’t seem to like you, and you have a hard time forgetting about it. You’ve concluded that she simply isn’t happy when she has to work on a project with you and it’s become very distracting.

The distortion:

Thinking you know how someone feels without them telling you is often an example of jumping to conclusions – making a conclusion without actual evidence. Assuming something negative can affect your whole outlook on your job and each day. This happens each time you let a perceived slight affect your mood.

How to fix it:

There’s nothing wrong with empathizing or trying to understand how people are feeling, but if you’re assuming someone’s being negative toward you, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Focus on your positive interactions with that person, and make a concerted effort to be kind and professional.

Catastrophizing

The productivity problem:

You made a mistake

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at work or in school recently, and the more you think about it, the bigger it seems. You’re afraid you might get fired or fail because of it; you just keep dwelling on this giant mistake.

The distortion:

You’re magnifying, or catastrophizing, the mistake you made. Instead of thinking of it accurately – a small misstep that could happen to anyone – you’re letting it keep you from getting on with your work. People who catastrophize (also known as magnifying or minimizing) may start thinking about the worst-case scenario in any situation. “What if I get fired?” “What if I can’t get a job because of this?”

How to fix it:

Try to gain some perspective by thinking of reasonable consequences of your mistake or of the consequences others have faced for a similar mistake. If you have trouble putting things in perspective yourself, ask a trusted friend for his or her opinion. Seeking outside advice can be great for combating many cognitive distortions.

Personalization

The productivity problem:

You often feel like your coworkers or classmates are taking shots at you when they say something negative or that they are always trying to be better than you. This makes you anxious and keeps you from focusing on your work sometimes.

The distortion:

When you think other people’s actions always have to do with you, it’s called personalization. This often causes people to frequently compare themselves to others and feel like others are always reacting to something they personally did. Criticism, even if it’s constructive, feels like it’s directed at the person rather than at his or her work, causing him or her to feel anxious and defensive.

How to fix it:

To combat personalization, try to recognize when you’re taking something too personally and tell yourself it’s not about you. Identify what you’re feeling when you take things too personally – are you embarrassed, angry, anxious? If you know when to watch out for this distortion, you can learn to control it better.

Control fallacies

The productivity problem:

You don’t fully understand what your boss has asked you to do on your latest assignment. Instead of addressing the problem directly, you sit around wondering what you should do and then put little effort into the project because you don’t know if you’re doing it right.

The distortion:

When you feel controlled by outside forces, such as by a boss’ demand or mistake, this is a control fallacy. You start seeing yourself as a victim of someone else’s actions instead of being proactive and taking the necessary action to do your best work.

How to fix it:

Recognize that your boss isn’t the only person who controls the outcome of this situation. You can ask him to clarify some of his instructions. If you’re feeling externally controlled, always ask yourself what you can do to help the situation.

Fallacy of fairness

The productivity problem:

Your coworker has just gotten a promotion, but you’ve been with the company longer than her. This makes you resentful of the company and makes you work less hard.

The distortion:

You’re suffering from the fallacy of fairness. You cling to the idea that life is always supposed to be fair, and when it’s not, it causes you to feel negatively toward your situation and others who are benefiting when you aren’t.

How to fix it:

Use the situation as a learning experience. What was that coworker doing that you weren’t? Think about her positive traits instead of her negative ones, and let her promotion make you a harder worker so that you might be the next one on that list.

Blaming

The productivity problem:

You received feedback on your group project and your teacher wants you to redo most of it. You feel like one of your teammates was the one who chose the wrong direction for the project and feel like she should be the one to fix it.

The distortion:

The cognitive distortion of blaming can cause us to unjustly blame others or ourselves for problems that arise. In teamwork, it can be easy to blame a weak team member for any problems that occur, but it doesn’t help the job get done any faster or better. It hurts the team morale and efficiency.

How to fix it:

Take responsibility for what you did to contribute to the situation. Could you have spoken up? Could you have done your part better? Recognizing that everyone played a part in a problem is important to keep a team productive and positive.

Shoulds

The productivity problem:

You know you could’ve been working harder recently, so you’re beating yourself up over slacking instead of getting to work now.

The distortion:

“Should” statements can be both beneficial and detrimental to your productivity. On one hand, some people respond well when they tell themselves they should get to work. But others let “shoulds” make them feel guilty, causing them to dwell on negative feelings rather than being proactive in getting tasks done.

How to fix it:

Focus on the work you have left to do and make a concrete plan for it, but be sure to be flexible if you don’t meet your goals. More guilt isn’t what you need. If you find yourself saying “I should work harder,” change your thinking to “I choose to work harder.”

Emotional reasoning

The productivity problem:

You’ve been given a hard assignment, which makes you feel stupid. You start to believe you’re stupid and can’t do this project, so you get stuck.

The distortion:

When you let your emotions dictate what you believe to be true, this is called emotional reasoning. If you feel stupid, fat, or annoying, you believe that it must be true.

How to fix it:

Think positively. Quit telling yourself that you’re stupid, and start recognizing why you feel this way. You feel stupid because the assignment is hard. Then start thinking of productive steps to take to make the assignment easier, like asking for help or going over the directions again.

Fallacy of change

The productivity problem:

You feel like your boss doesn’t treat you well or value your input, and your dissatisfaction is making you less productive. If only your boss would change, you could be happy in your position.

The distortion:

This distortion is called fallacy of change. You believe someone else needs to change for you to be happy. This causes you to work less for your own happiness and just wait for someone else to fix things.

How to fix it:

Take charge of your own happiness and figure out how you can motivate yourself to work harder, rather than waiting for your boss to do something differently. Give valuable input regardless of how your boss reacts, and you may just get noticed by someone else.

Global labeling

The productivity problem:

You failed a quiz in one of your classes. Now you’ve decided you’re an idiot and aren’t any good at this subject.

The distortion:

This distortion, global labeling, is an over-the-top form of overgeneralization. You apply a label to yourself or a situation based on one or two incidents. Because you failed a single quiz, you must be an idiot. This mindset might make you stop trying academically.

How to fix it:

Find the positive in yourself or the situation. Think about academic successes you’ve had in the past and let those motivate you. If this subject is difficult for you, study harder or get a tutor instead of labeling yourself an idiot.

Always being right

The productivity problem:

You are arguing with a coworker about the best way to complete a project or do an everyday task. You refuse to give in or compromise because you’re right.

The distortion:

Having to be right can become a hindrance in the workplace if you mentally cannot get past proving that you’re right in a given situation. You might refuse to listen to new ideas that are actually more efficient. You also risk alienating coworkers and managers.

How to fix it:

If you find yourself getting anxious about proving you’re right, take a step back and try to think objectively. Even if you just find one part of the other person’s idea that is good, you can come to a compromise or soften your position.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy

The productivity problem:

You feel like your hard work goes unappreciated. No one comments when you do well or take on menial tasks that no one else wants to do. This has made you less inclined to put in hard work.

The distortion:

This is called Heaven’s Reward Fallacy. You expect the sacrifices you make to be recognized and rewarded, and if you don’t get the reaction you want, you feel bitter. When you work hard and don’t see monetary rewards or receive praise, it can make it difficult to stay motivated.

How to fix it:

Looking for rewards from outside sources can lead to disappointment since you can’t control how others act. Instead, find ways to reward yourself. If you feel you’ve done a good job on something, give yourself a mental break or treat yourself to something you love.

The best way to attack productivity-hampering cognitive distortions and restructure your thoughts is to track them. Try filling out a daily sheet in which you identify each negative thought as it comes to you, its corresponding cognitive distortion, along with a positive thought that replaces the distortion with a more rational way of approaching the problem.