The analytical mind is a powerful tool to be used, but sometimes we let it use us instead.
Software engineers, and analytical people in general, love to classify things. This can be a useful and positive tool for the mind, since it lends itself to the ability to build the conceptual abstractions that are required to create software.
However, this need to classify comes with a down side. In particular, I am talking about its impact on the lens through which we view the world. Dear reader, there is a deep life lesson here.
Catastrophic Thinking Explained
Let’s say I am working on a new version of an existing legacy application. It turns out that it is very challenging to sunset this legacy application, because it contains a bunch of tightly coupled concerns that have been cobbled together over a long time span.
I could certainly look at such a legacy application as an engineering failure. After all, we’re after loose coupling of concerns in today’s software, right? One might even go as far as to say that this legacy application has become a “a piece of garbage,” or worse. By extension, the engineers that touched it along its lifespan might also be regarded as less than competent.
You can see that this way of thinking can quickly descend into very negative viewpoints for the analytical mind. It is no coincidence that classifying in such absolute terms is also a common attribute of people suffering from depression and anxiety.
I was deeply afflicted with this myself, so I speak from my own personal experience here.
Thinking like this is sometimes referred to as “black-and-white thinking,” because it is often characterized by the use of polarizing points of view. I choose to call it “catastrophic thinking,” because we can often detect it by noticing the use of absolute terminology or catastrophic words. For example:
- “That team never fixes their stuff.”
- “You always say that.”
- “That’s never going to work.”
- “That code is the worst that I have ever seen.”
This kind of thinking is like a box that we climb into without even noticing, yet it can be quite difficult to escape. In fact, it may be more like an Iron Maiden than a box!
I have found that when I use such terminology, my attitude quickly becomes gloomy as I judge the entire world for somehow not living up to my own expectations. In turn, I start to use more negative terminology, which leads to more gloom….and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
When left unchecked, catastrophic thinking leads directly to negative outcomes in work, in relationships, and in life.
The good news is that there are ways to stop thinking this way, and indeed to reverse the behavior. It is within our power. I am living proof of this.
How To Alter Your Analytical Mind
I will share a technique that I still use today to help alter my own perspective and avoid the pitfalls of catastrophic thinking.
Step 0. Accept This Posit
Science seems to be only starting to understand this, but in my experience, there is a relationship between our speech, and how we view and feel about the world. If you don’t accept this assertion, this approach might not work for you. I invite you to cast aside your doubts and try it anyway; just think of it as your own personal science experiment. If it works, great. If not, move on and find something that does.
If you are curious to investigate this further, look up the term “right speech” on the internet; you will probably find it connected to Buddhism, but nevertheless it is practical outside of any religious context.
Step 1. Realize The Distortion
The next step is to realize that absolute words are usually a distortion of reality. You must question the validity of the absolute position that your analytical mind is taking on the topic. In my legacy application example, the truth is probably much more complex. The original engineers on the legacy project were most likely doing their best, but were compromised by cost constraints, schedule pressure, training, resources, and so on.
No engineering project or software project stays pristine for very long. The reality is simply more complex than any absolute position indicates.
My specific technique for exercising this step was: for a one week period (yes, one week) I took every catastrophic word that I could hear myself uttering, and I questioned it.
For example, if I caught myself thinking “That code is terrible,” I would quite literally talk to myself: “Is it really terrible, or did it get that way from years of maintenance? Does it just need your help to clean it up? The code by itself is inanimate and it cannot be terrible….” and so forth. It was an intense period of introspection.
I still do this exercise from time to time, when I find that I need to re-focus on my outlook.
Life situations, software scenarios, software designs, project outcomes – there is rarely “good” or “bad”, there are only the results that come from it. This viewpoint deserves your study.
Step 2. Awareness
The most important step in any self-improvement exercise is to realize what is happening. In this case, you must start paying attention to the words that you are speaking. Are they harsh? Are they judgmental? Are they catastrophic sounding?
I suggest engaging a close friend to help, having them listen to your words, and alerting you when you are speaking in absolutes.
Some people use wrist bands or other physical artifacts as reminders to pay closer attention. Some people write it down. There is probably a mobile app for it. You will need to find what works for you, and do it.
I suggest that you take a week or more to practice being aware of your own speech. Just try it. What is there to lose?
Step 3. Cancel It Out
I learned this from a fellow who applied the technique to help himself out of deep depths of depression. When you utter a catastrophic sentence (because you did Step 2 and you notice it easily, right? If not, go back to Step 2 because you are not ready for this step yet) you must re-phrase it with something less catastrophic and more positive.
You must do this within ten seconds of uttering the sentence in the first place. The point is to pounce on your own words, and re-structure them into something that is more reasonable, positive, and constructive.
For my engineer mind, the ten second goal was a tangible requirement on which to act, which seemed to make the exercise easier. I try to vigilantly do this, even years after I first went through the exercise.
Step 4. Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Step 4 consists of alternating between Steps 2 and Steps 3 when you need to, and as often as you need to. Try not to look for a “right” or “wrong”, because this is also an absolute position.
You are shaping your own attitude using this approach. Think of it as a tool in your tool chest.
Is It Working?
A fair question that any engineer would ask: how do you know if this is working? The proof is very personal, and something that you will have to judge for yourself.
I can only express what I discovered for myself.
I have been alternating between Step 2 and Step 3 for nearly 10 years as of this writing, combined with several other tools that might be the topic of other posts.
The practice of moving toward a more positive perspective had a enormous impact on my life. I no longer struggle with depressing thoughts. I don’t dwell on negative outcomes as much as I did years ago. Personal goals that were made unachievable by my own attitude, were no longer out of reach. I stopped struggling so much to find peace in my own existence. It was well worth the work.
If you find this tool to be useful, pass it on to others.