10 Cognitive Distortions that are Stressing You Out and Sapping Your Productivity

The sculpture, Parable with a Skull, by Jaroslav Róna features a giant skull resting atop a person’s back weighed down on their hands and knees, and was inspired by the works of Franz Kafka, whose characters are fraught with this very depiction of over-thinking and psychological torment. It is a stark example of what distorted thoughts can do to our minds and bodies, but is an essential reminder, nonetheless:  we need to truly learn to master our own minds, so that unruly thinking does not become our master.

According to cognitive-behavioral theory, it is not external experiences that contribute to our stress, but rather our thoughts and feelings. If you can become more aware of these underlying, negative thoughts, and replace them with more positive and realistic ones, you’ll be well on your way to living a happier and more productive life, at home, work, and at play.

Here’s a list of ten cognitive distortions that may be weighing you down, and some helpful examples of “counter” statements you can use to get you in a far healthier state of mind:

1. All of Nothing Thinking:  Seeing things in black and white; that if one thing goes wrong you think you are a total failure.

Counter Statement:  “This is just one event that didn’t go the way I planned, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a successful person.”

2. Overgeneralization:  When something bad happens, you overgeneralize and think that something bad is always happening to you, when in fact, it isn’t.

Counter Statement:  “It seems the whole world is against me sometimes, but I know that’s really not true; many good things do come my way.”

3. Mental Filter:  You only see the negative in a situation and ignore the positive.

Counter Statement:  “My boss didn’t like my marketing plan, but she really loved my choice of graphic design.”

4. Disqualifying the Positive:  Finding a reason to not accept positive feedback.

Counter Statement:  “It made me feel good when my co-worker said I did a great job on my presentation. I know she meant it.”

5. Jumping to Conclusions:  When you make a negative interpretation and conclusion even though there are no definite facts for it.

Counter Statement:  “This traffic looks pretty bad, but I know I’ll make it home eventually.”

6. Catastrophizing:  You exaggerate the importance of things and they become way beyond their reality.

Counter Statement:  “My boss didn’t get back to me when he said he would, but I’m sure he’s just busy. I can check in with him again at another time.”

7. Emotional Reasoning:  This is when you assume that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are.

Counter Statement:  “I might feel a little undervalued, but when I take a step back I do see that my hard work is acknowledged.”

8. Should Statements:  When you try to motivate yourself by having too many “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” about how you should act, or how the world should be.

Counter Statement:  “It’s healthy for me to accept some things the way they are.”

9. Labeling:  Giving yourself or others a definitive label that can not be an accurate description.

Counter Statement:  “I know it’s not helpful to say that I’m weak or a failure. I’m a good person and I can grow, learn, and improve myself.”

10. Personalization:  When you see yourself as personally responsible for an outside event; basically, you confuse influence with control.

Counter Statement:  “The downturn has affected the economy in unforeseen ways, but I’m doing well at steering my business in the right direction.”

What cognitive distortions do you find yourself saying? What are some of your own suggestions to counteract them, or remind yourself to think more positively?

Author of The Accomplishing More With Less Workbook, Pierre Khawand is the Founder and CEO of People-OnTheGo, a San Francisco-based company offering in-person and online training in the areas of time management, productivity, technology, wellness, and more to individuals and corporations. The information in this article is based on the work of Dr. Alicia R. Maher, who created People-OnTheGo’s Stress Management workshop. Please visit www.people-onthego.com/webinars for information on upcoming webinars, and much more.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

9 Responses to 10 Cognitive Distortions that are Stressing You Out and Sapping Your Productivity

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  3. Tim says:

    1. All of Nothing Thinking:
    The “of” should be “or”.

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