Thinking traps are common thinking habits that drain our energy and lead to poor decisions. Wellbeing expert Kim Tay describes some thinking traps that we all fall into, and tells us how to avoid them.

Mental flexibility is also useful for us because it’s really common to fall into a Thinking Trap, especially when we’re tired or stressed.

Thinking Traps are errors in logic. They can be automatic, fixed patterns of thinking. They drain our energy, and can lead to poor decision-making. Here are three common thinking traps.

1. Mindreading

Imagine you’ve had a drop in sales. You ask John in your team if he’s noticed anything that might be contributing sales being down. John thinks “oh no, the boss thinks I’m useless”.

He’s fallen into the Mindreading trap, believing he knows what you’re thinking. He makes up a story inside his head, and thinks you’re blaming him for the decline. He responds defensively and says “oh I dunno”.

He feels anxious, demotivated, and doesn’t feel like coming to you with any of his ideas on what actually might be going on.

You can see how mindreading plays out.

It leads to miscommunication or blocked communication, negative emotions and ultimately poor performance. John’s not exactly going to be great dealing with customers when he’s feeling this way.

To challenge mindreading, we need to ask ourselves “what’s the evidence for thinking this way”. “How do I know my boss is blaming me for the drop in sales?”

Mindreading can also happen when we expect others to know what we’re thinking. To avoid this happening, we need to make sure we are really clear in our communication so there’s no room for confusion or second-guessing. It seems so simple, but often when we’re in a hurry, we assume everyone knows what’s going inside our heads.

2. Magnifying and minimising

It’s easy to fall into this trap due to our negativity bias (see “Overcoming the Negativity Bias” in this series).

We focus too much on the bad aspects of a situation and ignore the good aspects. For example, we might get customer reviews that make us question whether we should stick with a new product line. But if we counted the reviews, we might see that overall, there are more positive than negative reviews about the product.

Another example of ‘magnifying and minimising’ is magnifying the financial losses in one area of our business. We might focus on those and feel like the business is failing. We might minimise the area where we are profitable – which means we miss opportunities to strengthen what we’re doing well, and build up that area.

To avoid falling into the Magnifying and Minimising trap, we need to weigh up all the evidence, take a broader look, and make ourselves notice the good and bad equally.

3. Catastrophising

When you fall into this trap, you expect things to go really, really badly. For example, you think that not only will the meeting go badly, but the client will post a negative review about your business, the review will go viral, you will end up with no new customers, the client takes you to court, you spend all your money on legal fees, you exhaust your mortgage lending, you have to sell the house and move into a caravan park, your partner leaves you, and you end up alone and penniless.

Now of course I’ve taken this example to the extreme, but that’s exactly what you need to do when you find yourself catastrophising. Imagine the worst-case scenario. Write down all the possible horrific things that could go wrong.

Then do the opposite. Force yourself to write down the most extreme best-case scenario. Maybe the meeting goes really well, the client posts an incredibly positive review that goes viral, you end up with more customers than you can handle, a big player in the market buys your business, you give some of the profits to cancer research, the researchers makes a breakthrough and you end up on the cover of Time magazine.

Again, you can hear this is extreme but what’s happened now is that you’re feeling a bit more light-hearted. Now that you’re in a more positive frame of mind, your brain can think more accurately instead of focusing on the negative.

The third step is to write down what is most likely to happen. In this example, perhpas the client is difficult, you struggle through the meeting and you don’t fully agree on the next steps, but you make progress.

The fourth step is to make a plan to deal with the probable situation.

You go into the meeting with a list of compromises you’re willing to make, a list of questions to ask, like getting the client to explain what’s really important to them, and you plan that if things get heated, you’ll suggest pausing and getting back together another day.

For any kind of Thinking Trap – check to make sure you’re not jumping to conclusions, and ask yourself – “what evidence do I have that this is true?”

Learning to be more flexible in how we see a situation and learning to challenge our thinking helps us to be more adaptable. That can save us precious time and energy.