3 traps that crush us at work: Loops (Part 1)

When I coach people, I start by sending them my list of 3 mental traps: Loops, Distractions and Landmines. These crush us at work. And they surface within minutes of any meeting. They’re the mental (and emotional) traps that stall, side-track and sabotage smart people and sound strategies.

Why do we get trapped?

Simply put, we’re hard-wired to not think clearly.

Thinking strategically is hard for our brains because our lives right this moment don’t depend on it. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this System 2 thinking.

It’s our conscious thinking. And it requires a ton of energy (think fuel, like food and sleep). More than that, it requires us to slow down long enough so we can think. Otherwise, we default to our lizard-brains, which run continuously, scanning for threats, keeping us going moment to moment while making dumb strategic decisions.

To be fair, while we’re stalled, side-tracked or sabotaging ourselves, we can’t think strategically. So we don’t.

Fortunately, when we can think, we’re great at it. But we need our brains online to do that.


In a weird paradox, the best antidote to the worry, anxiety, and dumb decisions that derail our best plans is slow, deliberate thinking. Strategy requires and creates clear thinking. It also makes it easier to see where emotions fit.

The trick is give ourselves permission to think, so we can navigate the traps that crush our best plans… and us.

So what are LOOPS?

My simplest explanation: We create loops when we try to define and solve a problem simultaneously. We spin around in a loop because our brains literally can’t think about problems and solutions at the same time.

Loops also result from our mental angst and confusion. These are the classic What If’s that have no solution, often because they haven’t happened yet. In effect, we’re stuck at the looping problem, usually an imagined one. And even if it’s real, the solution can’t be found in the problem.

  • Trying to “figure things out” is a loop that will stall you forever.
  • Complaining hopelessly is a self-defeating loop.
  • Trying to get people “100% aligned” on a new idea or early strategy? Classic loop.
  • “Strategizing” how to sell the new service in two years when it’s not even in pilot yet? Yeah, that’s a loop too.

Here’s the rub: You can’t beat a loop. Its irrationality is unbeatable.

So don’t play.

Loops are pernicious traps because nothing ever advances in a loop. So the fastest path out of a loop is to do something else. Anything else. These also help:

  • DON’T BELIEVE THE LOOP. (It’s wrong.)
  • STOP TALKING. Unfortunately, the loop’s shrill voice is yours.
  • SOLVE A SIMPLER PROBLEM. Get something to drink. This breaks the loop’s stranglehold with a tangible problem, one easily solved with a quick decision: do I want a latte, a Coke or a beer? (If this problem sends you in a loop, I can’t help you.)

Groups loop too.

You do not need me to convince you of that.

Just for fun, however, at your next meeting, watch how easily the group falls into loops, pondering with high-pitched voices how to fix a “strategic” problem that hasn’t yet occurred by imagining solutions that won’t be available until many future complex decisions are made that leaders don’t want to make.

When this happens, I’d love to tell you to end the meeting. But trying to abruptly end a meeting usually backfires, amplifying the loop. Members in a group can really wind each other up.

So give the group a different problem to solve.

Say, hypothetically, that a team of middle managers is caught in a loop, assuming they need strategic direction from executive leadership in order to advance work on a new project. (Just imagine that….)

Now give them a simpler problem to solve. Make one up if you have to.

What do we need to deliver in the next 2 weeks? What can we do with what we know now? What do you think the strategic direction should be? What are 3 tangible things we can deliver in the next week?

It doesn’t really matter what the new problem is. You’re interrupting the loop by giving everyone something new to think about.

And cool thinking breaks loops.

carolyn solares
I help people navigate out of loops. Work with me at murphymerton.
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Photo by Kieran White on Unsplash