Thinking, Feeling, Doing

Vita’s Decisions courses are cognitive behavioral programs. So what exactly does that mean? Cognitive Behavior Interventions (CBI) focuses on thinking patterns and their effects on emotions and behaviors. Problematic thinking is often habitual and is repeated even if it doesn’t lead to success.

It’s important to recognize your thinking patterns and figure out if they’re helpful or not. If not, you can learn new ways to think that will lead to different, more successful behaviors. That’s exactly what our Decisions programs aim to do. Through structured sessions, we introduce new thinking strategies. Participants are then given opportunities to practice these skills in their own lives.

CBI also looks at the influence of attitudes, values, and beliefs. These all play a role in how we look at situations and the choices we make. We start by identifying these factors and then explore whether they are helping or hurting us in situations. Many people don’t realize that attitudes can actually be chosen. We’re often more successful in reaching our goals when we’ve selected attitudes that will positively influence the situation.

One of the outcomes of CBI is an increase in self-efficacy. This is the belief that you’re capable of exerting control over your life. Most people feel better about themselves, are more likely to persist at difficult tasks, and make better choices when they believe that their efforts will positively impact their future.

Baby Steps

“Not only does moving the goalposts forward tend to increase our motivation, but we repeatedly prove to ourselves that we’re capable of accomplishing them.” Shane Parrish

The goal gradient theory suggests that we work harder right before we achieve our goal. This has been found in both people and animals. Mice run faster at the end of a maze. Salespeople push harder as they reach their quota. Long-distance runners have a kick of energy in the last leg of the race. So what does this mean to you? It suggests that you break your big goals into multiple smaller goals. This can help buoy motivation as you near each small goal. Plus it gives a sense of accomplishment with each item you successfully complete; another box checked off, another step closer to the big goal.

Imagine you’re heading back to school with the goal of graduating with a 4.0 grade point average. You could set smaller goals for each semester and each course. “I’ll get an A in Economics this semester,” is doable and can be achieved in months rather than years. By the end of the semester you’re close to your goal, and may put out a big effort for the last paper due and the final because you’re so close to that goal. Repeating this each semester keeps you motivated and working toward graduation.


At Vita we talk a lot about boundaries when preparing people to teach Decisions. Boundaries define your role and relationship to the client. Boundaries include issues of: time, place, self-disclosure, space, gifts, language and personal presentation. The important thing to remember is that you are a teacher or facilitator, not a friend. A teacher meets with students in a particular place at a specific time: “We’ll meet every Tuesday at 1:30,” in contrast to a friend who might drop by for a chat or arrange a casual meeting. A friend might hug or give a kiss on the cheek when greeting a friend. Imagine how confusing this would be to a client; is this friendship, romance, or something else altogether? Clear boundaries help the client understand the nature of your relationship, which then helps you both decide how to act with one another.

Boundaries give your clients space to make their own decisions. A Decisions’ success is when the client completes the course better able to think clearly. If you as the instructor give your opinions or tell your client what to do, you rob him of autonomy. Without meaning to, you have worked against your client’s best interest. This can be hard to do if he appears about to make a mistake, “I’m going to tell that guard exactly what to do with his rules!” Instead of giving advice, “Don’t do that, you’ll get in trouble,” rely on the process. “Let’s look at Point 4. Think of all the possible outcomes, both positive and negative, that could happen if you told-off the guard.” Putting the situation into the process allows the client to shift from emotional talk to clearer thinking. This puts him in a better position to make a reasoned decision. And that’s exactly what you’re there to teach.

Making Choices Easier

You may have heard about the jam studies done by Sheena Iyengar in the late 1990s. In the study she offered samples of jam to shoppers in a gourmet grocery store. Some of the time shoppers were offered six jams to sample, and other times twenty four jams. Although more people were drawn to the samples when 24 were offered, only 3% of those people bought jam. Of the shoppers who were only offered six, 30% bought jam.

Sometimes having too much choice can be overwhelming. Have you ever struggled to decide what to eat in a restaurant with a huge menu? Eliminating choice isn’t the answer. But creating your own guidelines is. In case of the menu, you might start by saying to yourself, “I don’t eat red meat, I already had a salad today, and I don’t want to spend more than $20.” This way you’ve honed your choices to those that fit the categories you’ve determined. How about deciding which colleges to apply to? There are over 4,000 in the United States! The first question probably shouldn’t be, “which schools?” but should be “what do I want in a school?” If you can rule out schools that don’t fit your criteria (size, distance, cost, majors offered) you make the choice easier.

Next time you’re wrestling with a choice, see if you can establish criteria to rule options in or out. Not only will it make your choice easier, but you’ll also stay true to what matters to you.

Feelings and Decision Making

Blame Mr. Spock. One of the biggest myths of decision making is if you want to make a good decision, keep your feelings out of it. Spock was all logic and no emotion. But this didn’t always work out for Spock, and it’s practically impossible for us. It turns out that you need emotions to help you make decisions.

Researcher Antonio Demasio discovered this while working with patients with injuries to the part of the brain that generates emotions. (You can watch his interview, When Emotions make Better Decisions, on YouTube.) Being logical and devoid of the experience of emotion left these patients unable to make even a simple decision, such as where to go to dinner.

So what this is telling us is that we need emotions; they give us useful information. The caveat is that emotions can hinder decision making. Strong, overwhelming emotions can decrease your ability to think clearly, and that’s a problem when making a decision. To counter this, you first need to identify which emotions cloud your thinking. It could be anger, jealousy, fear or anxiety. It could also be love. Once you’ve identified these emotions, you can use those feelings as a cue to take a moment to reflect before taking action.

Asking the Right Questions

“Intelligence is something we are born with. Thinking is a skill that must be learned.” – Edward De Bono

Cognitive skills are brain-based activities that involve thinking. They’re the mental processes we use to carry out tasks and function in the world. Critical thinking is a cognitive skill that involves rational thought: you are actively asking questions, making connections, looking for evidence, challenging assumptions and applying logic. The outcome of critical thinking is deciding what to do or believe.

Thinking critically is demanding; you aren’t just passively taking in information. You’re using various cognitive skills to work with information. For instance, the process of asking and answering questions pushes you away from impulsiveness and the consequences of knee-jerk reactions.

Imagine someone tells you that your new coworker is incompetent. Instead of just accepting this statement as fact and treating the coworker like he’s inept, as a critical thinker you would ask questions. What evidence is there? Does the person telling me this have a motive for saying this? Does this person have first-hand experience? Other than incompetence what else could explain the new coworker’s behavior?

One of the trickier requirements of critical thinking is the need to think about your own thinking, also called metacognition. When posing questions about a situation, you also have to question yourself. Do I have biases that are in play right now? Could I have made a mistake? Am I unwilling to change what I think about this?

In Vita’s Decisions programs we focus on the importance of asking questions as a way to engage critical thinking. Critical thinking that leads to better decision making allows you to take charge of your life and your future.