Thought Stopping

A deceptively simple yet potent tactic for getting unstuck.

Posted Jun 13, 2018

Wikimedia, Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia, Public Domain

At least with my career counseling clients, among the most potent tactics for keeping them moving forward rather than stayed mired in, for example, “No one will hire me,” “I’m so angry at…” or “I’m an imposter” is thought stopping: As soon as you become aware of an unproductive thought, literally say “Stop!” and ask yourself, “What constructive task could I turn my attention to? What’s the first one-second baby step on that task?”

For example, if the unproductive thought is, “No one will hire me?”, an appropriate distractor might be, “Should I get a new skill, fix my resume, network more, or change my job target? Then, after picking one, take that next baby step. If it’s to get a new skill, it might be reading an article near the top of a Google search result, watching a YouTube video, or signing up for an online course through Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, or Coursera, or an in-person course at a local college or extension. If it’s to fix your resume, a baby step might be to show it to a trusted colleague and ask for feedback or to play around with Zety, arguably today’s best resume builder. If you want to network more, should it be with your existing friends and colleagues for example by inviting them to your place, out for dinner or drinks, or to take a hike? Or is it to extend your network, for example, by attending a professional conference or Meetup? If you think you might need to change your job target, perhaps your current field is overcrowded, or the level of job you’re targeting is too high at least for now.

If your unproductive thought is, “I’m so angry at” your boss, spouse, parent, etc, the distracting positive baby step might be to ask yourself whether you should try to fix the relationship, journal about it, or just move on. Sometimes the best revenge is success, to prove the fool wrong.

If the unproductive thought is, “I’m an imposter,” recognize that so much of what is taught in university-based training programs is theoretical and that even the practical, because so much content is dropped on you en masse, by the time you need to use it, you may well have forgotten it or it has become obsolete. So, to the extent you are an imposter, some of the blame may well rest at your training program’s feet. That said, we live in an era in which practical learning of quality is easier to obtain than ever: Whether it’s hanging out on your field’s online forum, picking out a top-rated online or in-person course, hiring a tutor live, by phone, or Skype, or simply Googling and checking out articles and videos on a just-in-time basis, it’s easier than ever to get more competent. I describe the art of self-teaching in greater detail HERE.

Of course, no one need be productive all the time, so it’s also okay to distract yourself with, “What fun or at least more pleasant activity could I do now?” Perhaps even doing the laundry, going shopping, or cooking something fun can do the trick. Anything’s better than revisiting unproductive thoughts.

I am well aware that some people’s stuckness resides deeper than thought-stopping can address. But a surprising number of my clients, even those who have had a lot of psychotherapy, find thought-stopping to be a potent tool for getting unstuck.