How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearly

Sweep away the negative and repetitive thoughts crowding your brain—so you can think more clearly.

You’ve Marie Kondo’d your closet, or at least thought about doing it—and you strive to keep the rest of your home nice and neat. But your mental space? Let’s just say it can get a little cluttered too. Everyday worries (Why hasn’t Alex called me back?) and subconscious preoccupations (I can’t believe I just ate another cookie) occasionally pile up and muddy your mind-set. And more often than not, those chaotic, competing thoughts aren’t the productive kind; they just distract you from what’s going on in the moment and sap precious energy. The bottom line: “All that thinking can be exhausting,” says Sunitha Chandy, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago. Luckily for the busy-brained, however, we can learn to tidy away mental clutter and make room for more important stuff. Step one, says Chandy, is identifying the thoughts that keep tripping you up.

You’re obsessing over a past slight

Maybe your mother-in-law outdid herself with her latest passive-aggressive display, or your friend said something rather judgy. Whatever it was that stung, it’s still making you wince weeks later. The anger you’re carrying around may feel justified—but it’s dragging you down, says Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, founder of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. Every time you replay the offense or rehearse a comeback, you trigger a stress response in your body.

Clear the clutter: Expressing your hurt feelings could help you release a grudge and move on. But you know that. If you’re avoiding a confrontation, it may be because you don’t expect you’ll get the apology you deserve (especially from your MIL). There is another option: Draft a letter, and then throw it away, Bobby suggests. “The emotionally charged part of your brain that needs closure doesn’t actually care whether the other person is listening or not,” she explains. “So even just writing out your feelings can do the trick.”

You always expect the worst-case scenario

Is your personal motto “If something can go wrong, it probably will”? That kind of catastrophic thinking leads you to expend your mental resources anticipating bad turns of events—say, your kid not getting into any decent schools, for example, or downsizing at your company. (See also: your most morbid fears.) Worrying over potential pitfalls can create a spiral of negativity that’s hard to control.

Clear the clutter: You can’t banish intrusive thoughts, unfortunately. Trying to ignore them only makes them stronger. But you can flip your fears so they’re useful, says Chandy. Here’s a trick: Picture a worst case scenario, and make an action plan. Knowing you could actually handle a dreaded outcome may make it less scary. You can also let your what-ifs nudge you in a healthy way. For instance, if you’re worried a funny freckle might be melanoma, go see your derm. If you’re concerned about the safety of a loved one, drop her an out-of-the-blue text, and tell her you love and appreciate her.

Your checklist is endless

To-dos pop into your thoughts like whack-a-moles. Buy milk. Book flights. Email the vet. “Our brains are obsessed with undone stuff,” says time management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock. “Lest you forget about this stuff, your brain keeps reminding you over and over again.” But of course, the string of interruptions keeps you from focusing on the task currently at hand.

Clear the clutter: First, if you haven’t already, jot your list on a piece of paper. When you write down your to-dos, you get them out of your head—thereby relieving your brain of its role as reminder-in-chief. And try limiting the list to your must-dos. “There’s a big difference between what you feel needs to be done and what actually needs to be done,” says Vanderkam. Plus, you may find that when you stop taking responsibility for certain chores, others pick up the slack. “Eventually, someone else in your household may also want milk,” Vanderkam points out. “They may figure out that they can go to a store and, you know, exchange money for goods.”

You’ve got a case of impostor syndrome

Despite all evidence to the contrary, you’re not convinced you deserve your success— and that insecurity fills your mind with doubts. You don’t trust your instincts, and you second-guess your decisions. “The problem is, we know ourselves inside out,” explains Chandy. “So even if you’re great at something, you know about all the times you messed up or failed in the past.” And the little voice inside your head keeps whispering, “You’re a fraud.”

Clear the clutter: Remind yourself you’re human— seriously. That secret trunk of failures you’re hiding? Everyone’s got one. “You can’t be kick ass without making mistakes,” says Chandy. Then reality-check your negative thoughts about your abilities and your accomplishments. Look for facts that prove your worst suspicions. Chances are, they don’t exist.

You’re on a strict diet

Counting calories, carbs, grams of fat—all that tracking may help you slim down. But it also creates an obsession with food, says Talia Wiesel, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Between the constant calculations, guilt over slipups, and the inevitable hanger, a restrictive regimen can eat up a good deal of brain space.

Clear the clutter: Ask yourself why you are on this Earth. OK, that’s dramatic—but the point is, you’re surely not here to wear a size 6 or eliminate the (totally normal) cellulite on your thighs. “Your body doesn’t exist to be a ‘bikini body,’ ” says Wiesel. “It’s a vessel that allows you to do the things that really matter to you.” Consider switching to a more sustainable healthy-eating plan that’s gentler on your psyche. And when you feel self-critical thoughts creep up, use them to cultivate gratitude. For example, you might say, “I don’t love the way my legs look, but I appreciate them because they let me run with my dog.”

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How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearly

As a leader of a growing company you use a lot of mental power throughout the day. A great leader not only watches what they think but how they think about their business. There are two ways to think. One is “Clear Thinking” that leads to creativity and success and the other is “Distorted Thinking” which is the cause of failure and problems in your business.

Clear Thinking is using knowledge and experience and apply practical solutions to your business. When you are clear in thought, you also allow for creativity and innovation because you are seeing situations with the right mindset. Distorted Thinking is used when misperceiving a situation that causes problems and misguided choices in your business. After years of being an entrepreneur, I learned to avoid these five toxic ways of distorted thinking so I can drive more revenue, waste less time and be dramatically more successful:

1. Personalization

Whether you experience insubordination from an employee or disrespect from a vendor, you cannot take it personally. When you make a situation about you, your emotions can override your logic, which clouds your perspective.

Clear Thinking Tip: See the situation as if someone else was playing the role of you. If you can take a step back and take your personal ego out of the scenario, you can be more aware on how to deal with the conflict in an objective way.

2. Over-generalization

This is also known as black and white thinking. Either something is all good or all bad. I see this happen with entrepreneurs who try one marketing tactic that doesn’t work for them and then think that it is all bad. For example, you tried direct mail and it flopped. Instead of testing different creative, you assume that the medium is the problem. This type of thinking shuts down creativity and doesn’t leave room for any fresh ideas.

Clear Thinking Tip: When weighing options in your business, instead of thinking about option A or B. See if you can find an option “c” or “d” or more. Press yourself to extend many options to get out of the locked style.

3. Catastrophizing

Newer entrepreneurs can fall into this trap when starting their first business. When your first big account cancels or a new deal falls through, your mind can take you to the extreme of this setback being the end of your dream. You can waste hours or days wallowing in the problem and feeling the dread of the catastrophe, instead of focusing on new solutions or a fresh angle for your next deal.

Clear Thinking Tip: Notice when you approach the “it’s the end of the world” thinking and stop yourself. Slow down your mind from going too far into the future and look at the facts in an objective way. Immediately start writing down what is going right with the business to actively shift your mind to something positive.

4. Minimizing

This is a dangerous trap which is the exact opposite of number three. Instead of freaking out about a small problem, you could be minimizing a bigger problem in your business. For example, many people minimize to avoid confrontation and ignore problems because they are too difficult to face. It is a great coping mechanism to rationalize a situation, putting off dealing with the solution.

Clear Thinking Tip: I love the idea of a toleration list. Make a list of everything you are tolerating in your business and your life for that matter. Commit to take action to change the situations starting with some easier ones and then move to the more difficult ones. As you resolve the toleration list, you will feel much happier and in control of your business and your life.

5. Mind-Reading

Have you ever assumed what another person was thinking without asking them directly? For example, imagine you had a sales conversation that didn’t go well. Your mind is flooded with different assumptions about why they didn’t buy such as “they were feeling too much pressure to buy” or “they were really upset about my prices” or “they didn’t like me or my product.” Then, you change your entire sales pitch or lower your prices on what you thought they were thinking.

Clear Thinking Tip: To stop the mind-reading game, either ask direct questions from the person or do surveys to larger groups and ask them for feedback.

No matter how hard you try, you may still fall into the trap of Distorted Thinking. The key is to become aware of where your mind is sooner so you can course correct and get back to clear thinking like a rock-star leader.

How to Think Logically and Logical Fallacies

Base your writing on logical thinking. Learn to use inductive and deductive reasoning in your writing. Avoid common fallacies.

INDUCTIVE REASONING: When you reason inductively, you begin with a number of instances (facts or observations) and use them to draw a general conclusion. Whenever you interpret evidence, you reason inductively. The use of probability to form a generalization is called an inductive leap. Inductive arguments, rather than producing certainty, are thus intended to produce probable and believable conclusions. As your evidence mounts, your reader draws the conclusion that you intend. You must make sure that the amount of evidence is sufficient and not based on exceptional or biased sampling. Be sure that you have not ignored information that invalidates your conclusion (called the “neglected aspect”) or presented only evidence that supports a predetermined conclusion (known as “slanting”).

DEDUCTIVE REASONING: When you reason deductively, you begin with generalizations (premises) and apply them to a specific instance to draw a conclusion about that instance. Deductive reasoning often utilizes the syllogism, a line of thought consisting of a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion; for example, All men are foolish (major premise); Smith is a man (minor premise); therefore, Smith is foolish (conclusion). Of course, your reader must accept the ideas or values that you choose as premises in order to accept the conclusion. Sometimes premises are not stated. A syllogism with an unstated major or minor premise, or even an unstated conclusion, needs to be examined with care because the omitted statement may contain an inaccurate generalization.

THE TOULMIN METHOD: Another way of viewing the process of logical thinking is through the Toulmin method. This model is less constrained than the syllogism and makes allowances for the important elements of probability, backing, or proof for the premise and rebuttal of the reader’s objections. This approach sees arguments as the progression from accepted facts or evidence (data) to a conclusion (claim) by way of a statement (warrant) that establishes a reasonable relationship between the two. The warrant is often implied in arguments, and like the unstated premise in the syllogism, needs careful examination to be acceptable. The writer can allow for exceptions to a major premise. Qualifiers such as probably, possibly, doubtless, and surely show the degree of certainty of the conclusion; rebuttal terms such as unless allow the writer to anticipate objections.

FALLACIES: A deductive argument must be both valid and true. A true argument is based on generally accepted, well-backed premises. Learn to distinguish between fact (based on verifiable data) and opinion (based on personal preferences). A valid argument follows a reasonable line of thinking.

Fallacies are faults in premises (truth) or in reasoning (validity). They may result from misusing or misrepresenting evidence, from relying on faulty premises or omitting a needed premise, or from distorting the issues. The following are some of the major forms of fallacies:

Non Sequitur: A statement that does not follow logically from what has just been said; in other words, a conclusion that does not follow from the premises.

Hasty Generalization: A generalization based on too little evidence or on exceptional or biased evidence.

Ad Hominem: Attacking the person who presents an issue rather than dealing logically with the issue itself.

Bandwagon: An argument saying, in effect, “Everyone’s doing or saying or thinking this, so you should too.”

Red Herring: Dodging the real issue by drawing attention to an irrelevant issue.

Either…Or: Stating that only two alternatives exist when in fact there are more than two.

False Analogy: The assumption that because two things are alike in some ways, they must be in other ways.

Equivocation: An assertion that falsely relies on the use of a term in two different senses.

Slippery Slope: The assumption that if one thing is allowed, it will be the first step in a downward spiral.

Oversimplification: A statement or argument that leaves out relevant considerations about an issue.

Begging the Question: An assertion that restates the point just made. Such an assertion is circular in that it draws as a conclusion a point stated in the premise.

False Cause: The assumption that because one event follows another, the first is the cause of the second. Sometimes called post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, so because of this”).

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First, remember that most of the things we worry about will never come to pass.

How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearly

There are only two things you can truly control—your thoughts and your behavior. No one else can choose either one of those for you. But sometimes intrusive thoughts about unwanted events can flood your mind and it can feel like your thoughts are controlling you.

Whether it is something that happened in the past or a future event you are worried about, negative rumination robs you of your present well-being and, over time, can lead to serious problems like depression or anxiety.

Why do we ruminate on negative things?

  • Sometimes we are trying to figure out a solution to a problem.
  • Sometimes we are expecting something to go wrong and trying to avoid an unfavorable outcome.
  • Sometimes a part of our brain isn’t functioning properly and a set of neurons gets stuck firing over and over again.
  • Sometimes it is just a bad habit.

The problem with ruminating is that most often you are focused on things going wrong instead of how to generate the solutions to resolve the situation and make things go right. If your boss got angry with you, you may be ruminating about what you did and worrying that if you do it again there might be serious consequences like losing your job. You might replay the scene with your boss over and over in your head, or worry excessively about what would happen if the worst-case scenario did come to pass. This kind of thinking activates your fight-or-flight response which actually shuts down your creative problem-solving thought process. In order to find the resolution that will allow you to let go of the problem, you need to disengage from the ruminative thought pattern.

Stopping thoughts, however, isn’t something we are very good at.

Psychologists refer to this as “the white bear problem,” because deliberate attempts to suppress thoughts can often make them more likely to resurface. 1 If I say to think of a white bear, and then tell you to stop thinking about it, chances are the white bear image will stay in your mind. The reason it does is that there is no “Off” button in the brain. To stop any single thought, you need to turn on or activate a different stream of thinking.

Following are four ways you can begin to regain control over your thoughts.

1. Engage in an activity on a different emotional frequency.

Feeling follows thought, so negative rumination generates negative emotions. Worrying makes you feel anxious. However, psychologists know behavior can change emotions, too. If you do something that you know generally makes you feel better—going for a run, calling a friend, watching your favorite movie, or meditating—you can raise your emotional frequency. When you are in a better mood, you can think more clearly and may gain a different perspective on the situation. Doing something that generates positive emotion also acts as a distraction task by simply giving you something else to focus your attention on.

2. Write down all the reasons why what you fear will not happen.

The majority of the things we worry about never happen. That’s because most of the time there are lots of valid reasons why what we worry about is unlikely. However, because our brain works on an activation/inhibition model, 2 active thoughts about what could go wrong inhibit it from thinking of the reasons these thoughts may not be rational. It requires a concentrated conscious effort to shift this train of thought and think of the reasons why your fear isn’t likely to come to pass.

3. Write down all the reasons why even if the worst-case scenario did happen, you would still be okay.

Many times we feel that if something unwanted were to happen, it would be completely devastating: We wouldn’t be able to survive, or we’d be forever unhappy. The truth is that difficult, unwanted things happen all the time and people survive and sometimes even come out the better because of them. Our brains are extremely adaptive to our relative circumstances: Many paraplegics, a year after their injury, report just as much happiness as lottery winners. 3 How well you handle any situation depends largely on your perception of your ability to cope with it. Instead of focusing on why you won’t be okay, think of your strengths. Think of the difficult things you have already overcome in life and why you are resourceful enough to get through other challenges.

4. Create an action-oriented, solution-focused re-frame.

When you have a resolution to the situation, you will have both reduced the need for your brain to ruminate and given yourself something constructive to focus on instead, which replaces the ruminative thoughts. Asking yourself a few simple questions can help you move towards generating a solution:

a. What do I believe this situation means for me?

Because we can only move forward in time, we tend to think of events that happen to us in terms of what they mean for us in the future. If you have an argument with your boss, you worry about what it will mean for your future: Our relationship might be damaged; I might not get a promotion. (If something bad happened but it had absolutely no bearing on your life going forward, it wouldn’t bother you much.)

b. What do I want to happen?

I would like to repair my relationship with my boss. Clarity about what you want is a prerequisite to developing a solution to any problem.

c. What can I do that is likely to bring that about?

I can ask to meet with my boss to discuss the situation. I can make sure to keep my temper in check in the future. I can continue to interact in a positive way. I can make an effort to show my value. A plan to deal with a problem causes you to see the situation differently and reduces your anxiety and the need to ruminate.

If all else fails, remember that thoughts are only thoughts, and just because you think something doesn’t make it true. You don’t have to act on your thoughts; you can just observe them and let the unhelpful ones go by.

LinkedIn image: polkadot_photo/Shutterstock

1. Wegner, D., & Schneider, D. 2003. The White Bear Story. Psychological Inquiry, 14 (3/4), 326–329.

2. Pribram, K., & McGuinness, D. 1975. Arousal, Activation, and Effort in the Control of Attention. Psychological Review 82 (2),116-49.

3. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. 1978. Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Pers Soc Psychol, 36(8), 917-27.

In Part 2 of the mini-series on mumbling, The Public Speaker shares 8 tips and exercises to help you kick your mumbling habit forever and be heard.

How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearlyLast week, in Part 1 of this series, we started talking about mumbling. In the episode Why You Mumble (and Why You Need to Stop!), I gave you the top 5 top reasons why people mumble. We talked about how mumbling hurts your credibility and can negatively impact your career. As Part 2, I’m going to share some of my best secrets for kicking the mumbling habit for good!.

Mumbling happens when your conversation partner has a hard time understanding your words—when you have indistinct enunciation. How do you know if you frequently mumble? People will often ask you to repeat yourself!

Mumbling usually happens because your mouth isn’t open enough. When you’ve got partially closed teeth and lips, the syllables can’t escape properly and all the sounds run together. Mumbling can also be caused by looking down, and speaking too quietly or too quickly.

Today I’ll cover 8 exercises you can do to get your mouth open and your lips moving and, most importantly, to have you speaking more clearly:

Exercise #1: Enunciate. Articulate. Exaggerate.

One way to avoid mumbling is to simply remind yourself to stop mumbling with this little phrase: enunciate, articulate, exaggerate. But say it this way…

E-nun-ci-ate. Ar-tic-u-late. Ex-agg-er-ate.

Whenever you speak, it is important to enunciate or pronounce words or parts of words clearly. To do that, open your mouth very wide and pronounce each syllable separately. Try repeating these words several times this way. If you are someone who regularly mumbles, it might help you to imagine that you are outside in the wind talking on your cell phone using the speaker phone, then say the words…

E-nun-ci-ate. Ar-tic-u-late. Ex-agg-er-ate.

Or pretend like you’re really mad at someone because they’re ignoring you and you are repeating the words for the third time:


Exercise #2: “The Lips, the Teeth, the Tip of the Tongue”

Keep in mind, your mouth is an instrument, and like all instruments, the more space you allow for the sound of your voice, the more resonant and clear it will be. Think of opera singers and pop stars when they need to hit the big note—their mouth is wide open.

My kids went to drama camp this summer. Enunciating their words was a big part of their training. They started each morning with a vocal exercise. You can try it now. Simply r epeat these words quickly:

“The lips, the teeth, the tip of the tongue.”

If you don’t open your mouth widely for this exercise, what happens? You’ll fumble the words. You simply can’t repeat these words quickly without opening your mouth.

Think back to the tongue twisters you may have learned in childhood. These are all good exercises to help get your mouth wide open. Repeat each of these several times quickly:

  • Rubber baby buggy bumpers.
  • Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers.
  • How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Now, let’s try the “pencil in the mouth” trick!

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearly

Noel Hendrickson / Getty Images

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is associated with a few different problems related to thinking. These cognitive problems often contribute to other symptoms, including relationship problems, emotional instability, and impulsive behavior. Some treatments for BPD focus on addressing these problems in thinking.

Paranoid Ideation

Many people with BPD experience paranoia as part of their disorder; they have beliefs that others mean them harm, without basis in reality.   Most people with BP who have paranoia experience transient symptoms that occur under conditions of stress rather than all the time.

Chronic paranoid ideation, the long-standing and unchanging delusional beliefs that others plan to harm you, may be indicative of a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia. This can be a debilitating symptom, making the person with BPD feel constantly threatened, even by friends, coworkers, and family.

Dichotomous Thinking

People with BPD also have a tendency to think in extremes, a phenomenon called “dichotomous” or “black-or-white” thinking.   People with BPD often struggle to see the complexity in people and situations and are unable to recognize that things are often not either perfect or horrible, but are something in between. This can lead to “splitting,” which refers to an inability to maintain a cohesive set of beliefs about oneself and others.

Because of these extreme patterns of thinking, people with borderline personality are prone to slip from one side to the opposite side in their thinking. For example, they might one day believe that their partner is the most wonderful, loving person in the world, and the next thing that they are evil, hateful and full of contempt. This can harm their potential to hold lasting interpersonal relationships and how they can interact with others.


Another problematic pattern of thinking that occurs in BPD has less to do with the content of thoughts, what people with BP think about, but rather the process of perception. Dissociation is a common symptom of BPD that involves feeling “unreal,” numb, or separate from one’s own body or psychological experiences.  

Again, in most people with BPD, dissociative symptoms tend to occur under conditions of stress. Some experts believe that dissociation is actually a way of coping with very intensely emotional situations by “shutting down” or separating from the experience. This distance can cause people to take more risks, as they do not feel connected to the situation at hand.

BPD Treatments

Most psychotherapies for BP include strategies for addressing the problems in thinking that are characteristic of BPD.   Some therapies accomplish this indirectly by working on problems in relationships, as in transference-focused psychotherapy and some try to intervene directly with thoughts and thinking patterns.

For example, in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), clients are taught grounding skills, which can help them end dissociative episodes when they occur. In schema-focused therapy, clients learn the origins of their ways of thinking (for example, many people with BPD come from childhood environments that may promote dichotomous thinking patterns), and work with their therapist and on their own to recognize maladaptive ways of thinking and to change those patterns.

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How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearly

When considering ways to improve the overall health of our brain and body, we tend to focus on getting consistent exercise, achieving restful sleep, and eating a healthy diet (accompanied with quality nutritional supplements).

But what about thoughts?

It’s estimated that 60,000 thoughts run through our minds each day. What effect do they have on our health, happiness, and well-being?

Thoughts Are Powerful

Our thoughts are powerful and can have a profound effect on the way we feel. They can even trigger physiological responses in the body.

“Whenever you have a sad thought, an unkind thought, or a hopeless thought – such as ‘I’m never going to land my dream job’ – your brain pumps out a dose of chemicals that makes you feel bad. On the flip side, conjure a happy, loving, or encouraging thought, and your brain gives you a blissful jolt of feel-good chemicals.” – Dr. Daniel Amen

Habitual negative self-talk trains the brain to see things pessimistically. Researchers believe that negative thinking effectively rewrites our neural networks, reinforcing pathways in the brain that make it more likely we’ll continue seeing the glass as half empty.

Additionally, having negative thoughts can reduce activity in the area of the brain involved with self-control, judgment, and planning, which can lead to poor decisions.

These patterns of negative thought can cause a downward spiral. So, exactly how can you turn around negative self-talk?

Automatic Negative Thoughts

The first step to finding liberation from negative thinking is to recognize that our thoughts frequently tell us things that just aren’t true. They tell us lies that cause us to feel emotionally down. They also can randomly pop into our minds without permission.

Dr. Amen refers to them as Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). To a greater or lesser extent, we all deal with them. ANTs generally fall into one of these nine categories:

1. “All or Nothing” Thinking – Thoughts that are all good or all bad.

2. “Always” Thinking – Thinking in words like always, never, no one, everyone, every time, everything.

3. Focusing on the Negative – Only seeing the bad in a situation.

4. Fortune Telling – Predicting the worst possible outcome to a situation with little or no evidence for it.

5. Mind Reading – Believing that you know what another person is thinking even though they haven’t told you.

6. Thinking with Your Feelings – Believing negative feelings without questioning them.

7. Guilt Beatings – Thinking in words like should, must, ought, or have to.

8. Labeling – Attaching a negative label to yourself or someone else.

9. Blame – Blaming someone else for your problems.

Do you recognize any of these in your own thinking?

For your health and well-being, it’s important to do something about these types of thoughts. If you leave your ANTs unchecked, they can color your perceptions and wreak havoc in your life.

How to Stop Negative Thoughts

Numerous studies show that combatting negative thinking helps us feel better. You can start exterminating your ANTs by challenging them with these four questions:

  1. Is it (the negative thought) true?
  2. Can I absolutely know that it is true?
  3. How do I react when I think that thought?
  4. Who would I be without that thought? Or, how would I feel if I didn’t have that thought?

Whenever an ANT enters your mind, write it down. Then apply these questions and you should start to feel the freedom that comes from clearing your mind of negative thoughts.

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How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearlyIn my youth I truly believed if I lied, it would literally break her heart. As someone who took their mother’s happiness (and health!) very seriously, I endeavored to always tell the truth.

To this day, I struggle with anything that smacks of being even slightly dishonest – even a white lie to minimize the impact of something. I get anxious and start confessing, basically unable to function until things are made right.

On its face, this seems pretty innocuous, possibly even positive. Who wouldn’t want to know they had a friend or employee who couldn’t lie effectively?

But as with anything, there are always unintended consequences. My mother’s belief that there were only ever two options has created the propensity in me for binary thinking, particularly in moments of stress.

At Corona Consulting, we believe in walking our talk and doing our own development work. As part of that, I recently started working with my own personal growth coach. We discussed one of the patterns that I had, which was no longer serving me well and she identified it as “binary thinking.” In binary thinking, a person only considers two possibilities, completely eliminating any further options.

We talked about a few situations and she asked me to consider what other options could exist. I struggled to identify any beyond the most basic and asked her to do the same. I was completely amazed that she was able to offer 6-8 possible choices within a few seconds time, when I could barely see any.

Like the greatest of learning, this was simple, but truly profound. I quickly realized some of the places in my life where I have functioned for decades (. ) with only two options and decided not everything can or should be reduced to such a limited menu for action.

This is new skill development for me, so I am only a little way on my journey, but I can share what I have found so far and what may also be helpful for some of you.

First, binary thinking is most likely to occur when stress increases. When I get anxious and stop breathing and my body enters fight or flight, so does my mind. Options are limited, because every part of my person is focused on survival. This is great when faced with a grizzly bear, but not when facing colleagues in a meeting. The antidote for fight or flight is breathing and getting back into my thinking brain.

Second, when someone asks me to make a commitment or give an answer, I can pause and consider my response. With written communication like a text or email, I wait to really think about what I want to do and then respond. For in-person communication situations, I can (usually) ask for time. “Please let me check with my partner/my calendar/other commitments and get back to you.”

While both of these strategies may be obvious to others, they have been life changing for me.

I don’t think my Mom ever intended for me to have tunnel vision.

The issue arises when you tell yourself it is just one bite of cake, or just a few bits of chips and what-not. You are not skilled enough or responsible enough to do that. So, just stop with it!

Arvind Ashok

Read more posts by this author.

Arvind Ashok

on balance

Moderation is hard. If you are trying to get to your goals and you’ve been more unsuccessful than successful so far, binary thinking is a better approach for you in the short term.

A sustainable, balanced lifestyle is the dream. But if you had been doing that, then you wouldn’t be here today. It is because you sat too much, ate too many chips, drank too much juice, inhaled too much biriyani, watched TV instead of sleeping etc that we are having this conversation.

reinforce the goal daily

You wake up today and tell yourself that you will go to the gym, or if that fails, you will go on a walk. You make a decision that you will not eat sugar today. Done!

Stick to the plan for today.

Tomorrow is another day and you can set your goal and reinforce it in the morning.

If today is a special day (birthday in the family, seeing a buddy after ages etc), then you can plan that goal-setting in the morning accordingly. You will eat a gargantuan salad for lunch, you will get your workout in and then you will head out and have fun and eat lots of cake and drink lots of beer.

And tomorrow, you will come back and go to “NO” to everything. And do that for a few days to balance out the excesses of that special day.

just one bite, please .

The issue arises when you tell yourself it is just one bite of cake, or just a few bits of chips and what-not. You are not skilled enough or responsible enough to do that. So, just stop with it!

These things add up. More than you realise. The only other way is to maintain a diligent food journal about all of it and ensure that they don’t actually add up.

How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearlyPhoto by David Holifield / Unsplash

And you are measuring what you need to measure daily/weekly/monthly right?

If you are doing enough of the right things, then the measurements will move in the right direction.

The issue with a bite of cake here, a piece of candy there and all that is you think you are doing enough of the right thing but the scale is not moving in the right direction. And you blame me (or your gym or whatever) for not being good enough. When the issue is simply one of you not being honest with yourself about your actions and goals.

no moderation for you

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

You (obviously) are not lying intentionally. You (obviously) are not trying to fool yourself. But you are. And it is much easier to blame someone else than yourself when results are not where they should be.

So, just stuff it with the moderation game. You will get there someday. But maybe not today.

How to avoid binary thinking and think more clearlyPhoto by Daniel Lanner / Unsplash

For now, binary thinking works. Yes or No. No means no. No does not mean “a little bit”.

Do what you need to do. Measure. Do more/better.

You’ll get there. It might just take much longer than you think. But you will get there.