How to Regain Positive Momentum in the Midst of Negative Circumstances

Boundaries for LeadersI (Dr. Cloud) was addressing an organization in the aftermath of a financial meltdown. We discussed why so many people were feeling down, defeated, and unable to perform at the levels they were used to. (It is amazing how just knowing that there is a reason for why you feel the way you do can be helpful. I wanted them to know that they weren’t crazy.) But then, I heard the words that I never want to hear.

“So, what you are telling us is that we are basically screwed,” an attendee said. “We are just going to feel this way until the economy is different. This is just the new normal.”

“Yes, you are right,” I said. “This has become the new normal. And that is exactly your problem.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Your creative drives, the energy that you summon to go out and win, have shut down,” I said. “You feel that since you can’t control the economy, you can’t control anything. And now that you have been feeling that way for a while, your brain has tricked you into thinking that that is the way it really is, that there is nothing you can do about it. And it has become, as you say, ‘normal’ to think that way.”

I went on to explain that the thing she was calling the “new normal” was a state inside her head. “It has become normal to you to feel that there is nothing you can do.”

“That is how I feel,” she said. “I just find myself not knowing what to do.”

“Exactly,” I said. “But if anyone knows what to do, it is probably you. You have been a leader at this company, and in this industry, for over a decade and a very high performer. If you can’t figure out something to do, who can?”

What I am about to tell you is going to sound so simplistic that you might miss the profound value that it has. But you have to just trust me that its effects can be incredible for your life.

First, take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page, creating two columns. In column number one, write down all of the things that you have no control over that are making your business difficult, such as the economy, the stock market, your customers’ finances, the banks, your boss, the parent company, the health care cost increase, the company’s overall budget, the board, the elections, the newscasts that hurt your business, etc. Those are the things that you have no control over that truly are affecting you. Get everything in that column that you can think of.

Next, I want you to really worry about these items, even as a group. Obsess over them. Ruminate. Dwell. Think it through over and over…FOR ABOUT FIVE OR TEN MINUTES. Then, I want you to set the list aside until the next day when you can do the same thing all over again. The reason I suggest that you do this is that you need to! You need to worry about this stuff, and get into “Ain’t it awful!” for a few minutes because it is! It is really bad stuff. I do not want you to be in denial. Besides, your brain needs to complete the loop of making sure that you know how bad it is. Otherwise, it will continue to remind you of it, probably in the middle of the night or every time you have some good idea. So, focus on it. But…only for about five or ten minutes.


Click to Tweet: Optimism is powerful. But, its resurrection cannot take hold until a sense of control is regained.


Next, after you have had your “worry time,” I want you to draw a circle around that time block and stop thinking about that column. Quarantine it. Put a boundary around it. If you find it helpful, put a red STOP sign on it. No more thinking about those things.

Next, and most important, let’s go to the second column. In this column, I want you to write down everything that you DO have control over that can drive results. This need not be a final list. You can always add more activities as they occur to you and your team, as they probably will change as time goes on. But once you have the list in the initial form, I want you to focus on it every single day. Make prioritizing and doing those activities the primary focus of every day. Work the list.

What makes this simple exercise so powerful is that it speaks directly to our brains’ executive functions and our desire to have control. The brain begins to “attend” to the actual activities that it can control, and it “inhibits” the thoughts, behaviors, and information that interfere with positive actions. The process of doing this, individually and collectively, builds up working memory and creates those positive, action-oriented behaviors that lead to better results, new products, new partnerships, new customers, and a lot more fun. The brain begins to get out of the mud.

Optimism is powerful. But, its resurrection cannot take hold until a sense of control is regained.


Is negative thinking overwhelming your ability to get results in your personal life, your organization, or your workplace? Discover why some people get results and others don’t in Boundaries for Leaders by Dr. Henry Cloud.

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  1. Linda says

    The last thing I need is encouragement to worry and obsess. Obsessive thinking is one of my biggest problems. I need to learn how to STOP doing it, not set aside time everyday to do it with permission.

    I don’t know about this advice. Maybe it works for “normal” people, but for addictive personalities like me, this just makes it worse.

    • Videot says

      He isn’t saying to worry about it everyday. In fact, quite the opposite. 5 to 10 minutes the first day and then again on the second day. After that, he says to STOP worrying about the first column and go to the second column which is the list that drives results: the solution. It’s this second column that you think about every day.

    • dzsipo says

      I believe the idea is to practice doing it in a controlled manner so the thoughts are compartmentalized and quarantined instead of randomly poisoning all of your other thoughts and feelings.

    • Kitty says

      Linda I Can So Relate! At The Same Time Though I Can See The Value In Making The Two Lists…I Love Lists. Sorry Don’t Know Why Every Word Is Capitalized.

  2. Liz says

    Dr. Cloud did not say to dwell on the things you don’t have control over EVERY DAY. It said the NEXT DAY and only for a few minutes to complete the loop of worry. The article then gors on to say STOP looking at that column and instead FOCUS on the column of all the things you do have conrol over. It makes perfect sense to me. Try it. It may help you to stop obsessing over things.

  3. cb says

    I have started a list for my marriage that’s been in shambles for 6 years. This offers me so much hope. I haven’t started the second column yet, but now I have something positive to think about. I haven’t been able to get past what I don’t have control of and put it to rest. I knew iit was key. But I had no tools to actually help me focus on what I could do as opposed to the oppression I have been feeling. Thank you!!!

  4. Pam says

    In the Bible where it says “take every thought captive” I have been overwhelmed because I have obsessive thinking and it has been impossible. I am now encouraged, because I can create one boundary around the whole LIST of negative obsessive thoughts & also create a mental “stop” sign for my brain to not be allowed to enter. This has brought me hope.

    • Tanya says

      What stood out to me was the idea of letting our brain complete the loop by allowing a controlled amount of time to worry. That just speaks truth to my spirit. We have to take moments to acknowledge pain or worry about real situations. The issue I believe is when we keep pushing it away and trying to avoid it the pain or difficulty of it. Or we allow ourselves to get stuck in it.
      I will be using this. Thank you Dr’s!

  5. April says

    It’s about discipline over your self. Control your thoughts and control your future. If you can control yourself and your thoughts when you have a sense of feeling control which will enable you to move forward. The reality is is that each and everyone of us likes to focus on the negative each and everyone of us likes to worry this is how we end up floating through life without any sense of direction. Have faith in yourself know that you have within yourself the ability to control your thoughts which will define your future write them out put them in clear and concise plans with steps to be achieved a definite date and you will find that you’ve mastered with 98% of the population cannot control .


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