“When there is no enemy within, the outside enemy can do us no harm.” — African proverb.
Two weeks ago, I sat down to write an article. I gave myself eight hours to finish it. I knew it would take about eight hours because that’s how long it had taken me to write similar articles in the past.
It was a busy week and if I didn’t complete the article that day, I was going to miss other important deadlines.
So with my very best of intentions, I sat down to write.
It was a slow start and after about an hour and a half, the phone rang. I answered. It was a good friend, and due to my lack of ability to cut a phone call short, I proceeded to entertain his requests.
I lost about 25 minutes.
It wasn’t the end of the world, I thought, I can get back on track.
Not even 15 minutes later, a new email noise chimed. That all-too-familiar sound that reminds me that somebody likes me.
I dove into the inbox and replied to the email.
I looked at the clock—three hours into my day and I’ve done an hour and a half of work.
Maybe in order to complete the article, I could stay back late at the end of the day?
Maybe if I focused really hard throughout the rest of the day I could finish on time?
But—who was I kidding?
What had started out as a good plan was quickly getting off course. Despite my doubts, I tried to stay positive and get back to the article.
Not long after, I needed to look up something on a website. A few clicks on some unrelated articles and the morning was officially gone.
I had completed two hours of work in a five-hour window with only three hours remaining before my deadline.
It was hopeless. I was never going to finish on time.
So what did I do?
I gave up!
I thought I might as well waste the remaining three hours because the article was never going to be finished that day anyway.
Maybe tomorrow? I thought.
On reflection, I realised I had fallen for catastrophic thinking.
And, I needed a solution.
What is catastrophic thinking?
About 6 months ago I was watching a documentary series with my girlfriend. It was a BBC series about dieting called ‘What’s the right diet for you?‘
In one of the scenes, the expert psychologist tells a group of overweight participants about a concept he referred to as “catastrophic thinking”.
The idea: when someone is on a diet and they have set themselves strict rules to follow, the moment they become aware of breaking their own diet rules, they go on to overindulge for the remainder of the day.
Even minor transgressions against their own set rules could cause them to consume additional calories that would undo a week’s worth of good dieting in a single afternoon.
They either realise what they’ve done in the light of the following day and get back on track or give up altogether.
In one episode of the show, the producers created a cruel experiment to demonstrate this phenomenon in action.
Early in the series, they identified participants at risk of catastrophic thinking. They then separated these participants into two groups and placed them in a room with an abundance of chocolate cake.
After the participants had consumed the cake, they told one group that it was a special “low calorie” cake. This was a lie! They told the other group the truth.
Later, after sharing the news, they presented both groups with more cake.
(As I mentioned, it was a very cruel experiment!)
The results: The group that knew the truth—they had overeaten and broken their diets—actually ate more!! The group that were told they hadn’t strayed from their diets were able to demonstrate more restraint with the second round of cake in an effort to remain on track.
This behaviour is a good example of how we aren’t rational beings. It demonstrates and reminds us of our inbuilt cognitive biases and the potential damage catastrophic thinking can do to someone with an important goal.
Catastrophic thinking doesn’t just apply to diets
After watching the show, I could clearly see that this idea didn’t just apply to dieting. It was obvious that I was suffering from a similar irrationality with my behaviour while writing the article after failing early with my time management plan.
Anytime there is a goal at stake or even a strict rule that can be broken, catastrophic thinking could come in to play.
The idea of setting an outcome, direction or destination and then working towards it has always made sense to me.
But, when I saw the damage done by even a small deviation off course, I had to question if I have been wrong all along.
Setting goals and routines around a new fitness regime, quitting smoking, drinking less alcohol or reducing any other vice (such as procrastinating on Spanish study) could have a higher success rate if strict rules around these resolutions are relaxed.
When I was watching obese participants cruelly being punished, I thought to myself—thankfully I don’t have a problem with this kind of thinking, this issue clearly doesn’t apply to me.
But that wasn’t true, when I failed on my writing assignment, I was deep in it.
It didn’t matter if additional calories of icing sugar had been consumed or hours wasted on news websites—the result is the same—progress towards an important outcome was lost.
What research on eating disorders teaches us about catastrophic thinking
After the insight into the connection of catastrophic thinking to areas outside of eating, I realised that the learnings from the world of eating disorders could be applied to other areas.
I did some research and found this book: Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders by Christopher Fairburn.
Fairburn gave two key conclusions on the phenomenon of catastrophic thinking amongst patients with eating disorders.
The patients suffered from two key attributes:
1. They set themselves strict hard and fast rules for dieting.
They didn’t allow even slight detours from the set plan. They had strict calorie restrictions that couldn’t be broken and selected foods that were completely excluded from the diet.
Any minor deviations meant total failure. Which means, in other words, their only path to success was through perfection.
2. When they broke the rules they overacted to their own shameful behaviour.
In a moment of weakness, they couldn’t see their transgression as minor.
Instead, their behaviour meant that all hope was lost. They would say “I have failed” and “there is no point, I might as well give up.”
This emotional reaction didn’t lead to one slightly bad day that would have a minor impact on their overall goal but a binge that would put a whole week of dieting or more at risk.
If you want to resolve catastrophic thinking and stop its effects on your psyche and ultimately your behaviour, you need to address these two key attributes.
Avoid setting strict hard and fast rules
In order to overcome the first attribute of catastrophic thinking, you need to take your past behaviour as evidence of future behaviour.
After this careful examination, ask yourself—if I set myself this rule, will I actually stick to it?
For me personally, if I want to resolve my issues with catastrophic thinking on time management and productivity, I have to take an honest look at my past behaviour.
If I’m being truly honest with myself I’ll realise that I have never done eight hours of productive work in an eight hour period.
So why set myself a goal that I know in my heart I’m probably not capable of?
Goal setting is all about getting more out of yourself but if the rules are so strict that failure is almost inevitable, something may have to change.
Maybe the idea of living our lives by themes or systems as opposed to goals is a good one. And the value is obvious…you avoid catastrophic thinking!
This approach could be more effective because it will help you remember that you are human and despite the ideal behaviour you would like to achieve, you would be much better off by making one critical assumption:
– You aren’t going to be perfect!
What this means is that proper planning is about knowing that perfection isn’t possible, and instead choosing a plan that will help you find success despite less than perfect behaviour.
On the topic of creating successful diets, Fairburn suggests that you should set dieting guidelines as opposed to strict rules.
For example, instead of “no sugar”, the target could be “less than between 100 and 200 grams of sugar each week”.
For learning Spanish, I have talked about the importance of a daily routine, but maybe a better guideline is to practice Spanish on average five out of seven days a week.
Then if you miss two, three or even four days in a row, you haven’t failed your goal, you will simply just need to get back to the guideline you have set yourself.
Reduce the potential for an overreaction
“It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perception, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter prejudice, expectation and fear. It’s worth it for what is left is truth.” — Ryan Holiday.
The second component of catastrophic thinking is a strong emotional reaction to any breach of set rules.
If you are thinking in a catastrophic way, you will take any behaviour that falls outside your set requirements as undeniable evidence of your inability to achieve your goal.
This is a problem with perception.
“The perceiving eye is weak, the observing eye is strong.” — Mia Moto Mushashi.
If you have followed the step in the previous section, you will have reduced the likelihood for a breach of your rules as you will have already assumed less than perfect behaviour.
In addition, your reaction will be partly dulled because you will have accepted that a perfect plan assumes imperfect behaviour.
But, even once you have given yourself less strict guidelines to follow, you may still be susceptible to overreact.
Here are three strategies to consider:
1. Journalling to improve self-awareness.
Failing to meet your own set rules in any given day, week or month is rarely evidence of your inability to achieve your goals. In fact, failure to meet your own goals is only a sign that the rules you have set yourself are too strict or that you are simply having a bad day.
The only way to see the breach for what it is, is to improve your self-awareness.
Journalling is a great way to start critically analysing the inner voice. When you put words about your thoughts to paper, you can take a step back. This change in perspective can help see things for what they are. And can help to take the emotional edge off the situation.
(But now consider that journalling every day should be a guideline and not a goal!)
Meditation also has the potential to help with perspective and self-awareness which can lower the likelihood of an overreaction.
I have a love-hate relationship with meditation. But, I know that when I am doing it regularly, I do feel that my emotions carry less weight.
If you want a secular introduction to meditation I highly recommend these two books: Dan Harris – 10% Happier and Sam Harris – Waking Up. Choose the first if you want a light-hearted and entertaining introduction to the topic and the second if you want a deep look at the science.
3. Accountability / help groups.
In the BBC documentary, the tip they gave for dealing with emotional reactions is to seek a community of likeminded people where you can safely express your feelings without judgement.
You could try to find an online group or community of language learners.
Or even just speak to a close friend or partner to discuss how you are feeling about your goals and your recent impulsive behaviour despite your goals.
Catastrophic thinking is an inherent part of our inbuilt irrationality.
It applies equally to dieting, time management or any other goal such as learning a language.
In order to resolve the detrimental effects of catastrophic thinking on achieving your successful outcomes, the best thing to do is to plan for it.
Your ability to avoid deviation from the path comes down to noticing that going off the path is part of being human and that the best way to succeed is to build in buffers that will steer you back when you do inevitably run off course.
Have you ever suffered from catastrophic thinking? What do you do to keep yourself on track?