When was the last time you stopped to think?
I mean really stopped.
I hope you’re in the minority of people reading this who can immediately recall a recent time when they fully engaged their thoughts. And I don’t mean as part of a multi-task, but in a dedicated, single-minded, single-tasking way.
Chances are you’re not in that group, though. And that’s okay.
Chances are, your distracted mind and our society’s insatiable hunger to gobble up every crumb of your attention have conspired against you truly indulging in the full wonder and complexity of your thoughts and ideas.
And that’s a shame.
But hey, I feel you. I would be right there with you, except …
I recently had the good fortune to get to work on a new podcast project by Sean Jackson. It’s called THINKERS Manifesto, and it’s a beautifully produced distillation of Sean’s philosophy on how to think better.
I’ve been taking what I learned and applying it to my own thinking.
And yes, I’m already thinking better.
So as we launch this new capsule podcast (all seven episodes, all at once), I wanted to share an overview of Sean’s seven-step process … because it’s high time we all started thinking better.
And I guarantee that there will be at least one nugget in here that will make you a better thinker.
Step #1: Recognize your two different modes of thinking
What is always the first step in solving a problem? Admitting that there is a problem.
That is why the first episode of THINKERS Manifesto is called “Why We Suck at Thinking.”
While that sounds harsh, it’s not meant as a collective insult. Instead, it’s meant as an acknowledgement of the blind spots that we all have because of the way our brains are wired.
And these blind spots make us susceptible to manipulation.
In his groundbreaking book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman outlines how our thinking is broken down into two different systems:
- System 1 is a fast, emotional, automatic thinking process driven by activity in the amygdala. Advertisers love to tap into this kind of thinking in their attempts to compel us to emotionally driven action.
- System 2 is the inverse. Driven by the prefrontal cortex, System 2 thinking is much more deliberate and analytical. In this type of thinking, emotions are filtered out and logic is allowed to take over.
Both systems can prove highly productive in certain situations, and highly destructive in others.
If you go camping and get chased by a bear, System 1 thinking is great! Athletes and musicians rely on System 1 instincts that have been honed by practice. System 2 thinking would not work well in either case.
However, System 2 thinking would work well if you were, say, planning an escape route for a potential bear chase ahead of your camping trip. And athletes and musicians use System 2 thinking to study their performances and plan future practice so that they can improve.
The key is to match the type of thinking to the situation.
A good match can yield good thinking and good decisions. A bad match … and you’ll end up pondering the best escape route while being mauled by a bear.
Ouch. Hurts to miss that one.
System 2 thinking infiltrating a situation that calls for System 1 thinking is far less likely than the opposite scenario: a situation that calls for deliberate, logical thinking instead being hijacked by emotional, reactive thinking.
What can you do to combat that when it happens?
Step #2: Create your own emotional circuit breakers
Emotions are not inherently bad.
Quite the contrary. Our emotions are what make us human. They create the full kaleidoscope of human feelings that makes life such a wondrous, complex, wide-ranging experience.
And yet, at certain times, emotions can drive us to decisions and actions that can at best be regrettable, and at worst cause life-altering decisions with negative consequences that take years to rebuild from.
That is why knowing yourself and understanding your emotions well enough to develop emotional circuit breakers that work is so important.
An emotional circuit breaker — like someone counting to 10 when they get angry — helps us circumvent an emotionally charged moment driven by System 1 thinking so that we can move to a less charged moment and incorporate some much-needed System 2 thinking.
But there are no one-size-fits-all emotional circuit breakers. While we can certainly take ideas from what has worked for others and try them in our own lives, all that matters to you is what emotional circuit breakers work for you.
Having these tried and trusted emotional circuit breakers in our back pockets is one of the most important ways we mature as adults, because they will lead us toward better thinking.
The same is true for understanding the importance of your environment and how it impacts your mood and thought processes.
Step #3: Put yourself in environments that complement the kind of thinking you need to do
Did you know that certain environments are conducive to certain types of thinking?
My guess is that you probably assume this intuitively, but there is also plenty of science to back it up.
Some people like to go to coffee shops to write. And that’s great.
But it’s important to know that environments with a moderate amount of ambient noise are good for abstract, creative thinking, but not necessarily for deliberate thinking.
Deliberate thinking — like, say, doing your taxes — is best done in a quiet, structured, organized room.
The physical and audible environment we’re in helps shape how our brains operate, which will shape the kind of thinking we are able to do.
Be cognizant of this. Use it to your advantage in planning ahead for the kind of thinking you need to do so that you choose the right environment for that type of thinking.
Then, once you sit down to think, make sure that you actually invest your time in thinking about the right things.
Step #4: Limit your thinking to problems you can define clearly
A lot of the time we spend thinking is spent thinking about problems.
And by “problems,” I don’t mean math problems, or obviously, urgent problems like: Do I call a plumber or a sprinkler repairman if my front lawn is flooding?
The problem might be micro in scope about something we’re doing right now: I need a good internal cliffhanger to link one section of this blog post I’m writing to the next section.
Or it might be specific to an upcoming point in the future: I only have an hour between picking my daughter up at preschool and the start of the basketball game, so what am I going to make for dinner?
But hopefully it’s not something nebulous like: I feel like I eat too much and have gotten out of shape.
Take a look at those first three problems I listed.
What do they have in common? They are clearly defined, and there is a narrow space where a specific answer can fill in the gap causing the problem.
- Do I call a plumber or sprinkler repairman?
- What words will I write that keep people reading from one section to the next?
- What quick meal do I have the ingredients for here at home that I can cook?
But what on earth am I supposed to do with that last one?
Sure, it’s a problem. I’m out of shape. I know it! And I know I need to do something about it.
But the problem, as described there, is so poorly defined that all I’m going to end up doing is lamenting the development of the poor habits, fearing the hard work and discipline it will take to reverse them, and then not really doing anything about it.
It’s an open invitation for self-loathing and procrastination, and certainly not the beginning of a path toward a reasonable solution. So I’m just going to waste my time and energy thinking about it in this way.
What I need to do is redefine the problem, so that I can actually think clearly about the solution.
Let’s try this instead: I snack too much, and I’m not creating time to work out in the mornings and evenings like I did before my daughter was born. Thus I’ve gained weight and gotten out of shape, and now I need to do something about it.
See how clearly defined the problems are there?
I’ve narrowed them down so that I can actually create specific action plans to combat them. And now my time spent thinking about this problem can actually be spent productively.
Even if I spend most of that time rejecting the ideas I come up with.
Step #5: Harness the power of creative destruction to fully develop your ideas and find winning answers
How often is your first idea your best idea?
Probably not very often.
Sure, your final idea — whether it’s a solution to a problem, a piece of writing, a recipe, etc. — might have seeds of your first idea in it, but if it’s truly your best, then it has probably been sculpted into its final form by chipping away at all of the unnecessary, incomplete, and just plain unsatisfactory elements that have come along for the ride during its development.
That is “creative destruction” in terms of thinking: taking our initial ideas, in whatever form, and editing them down to a coherent form through persistent and often disruptive ways.
This concept is why brainstorming sessions are so much better when they are unencumbered by needing to be “right” or “good” and instead inspired by being “open” and “free-wheeling.”
Get all of the ideas out there! Even the absurd ones! The more the merrier! The crazier the better! Give yourself a massive ball of idea clay …
And then spend time discarding the bad ideas, finding the common thread that connects the good ones, and whittling those down to a final form with the directive you defined clearly in Step #4 above.
It’s the only way to stay on the path toward mature, fully-formed ideas and solutions. And if that isn’t the goal of our thinking, then we’re a long way away from thinking “better.”
But notice that I said “stay on the path toward,” not “arrive at.”
And I said that because there is another massive step we must take to move from an idea that’s just on the right path to an idea that is truly ready to affect positive change on some element of our world.
And it’s a step you can’t take alone …
Step #6: Collaborate and share intentionally
When you have good ideas, what is it that informs those good ideas?
It’s some combination of the time and effort you invest in developing the ideas plus the experience, knowledge, and open-mindedness you have available to apply to the ideas.
Add up all of your available time, effort, experience, knowledge, and open-mindedness, and it’s a lot. You can be a wonderfully productive idea machine all on your own.
But you’re just you. One person. With a finite amount of all those elements. Your ideas will always be limited by your own limitations.
Until you share your ideas with others. Until you collaborate.
Because now you can take the time, effort, experience, and knowledge that you bring to the table and multiply it by the time, effort, experience, and knowledge that someone else brings to the table.
Plus someone else …
Plus someone else …
And on and on.
That is how ideas grow, flourish, and spread — how ideas, literally, change the world.
And the experience helps make you a better thinker.
After all, isn’t that what you want?
Step #7: Give yourself the permission and space to think creatively and strategically
Becoming a better thinker who comes up with better ideas and better solutions isn’t going to happen by accident.
You have to want to become a better thinker, which means learning and really understanding how you think.
That’s why we created THINKERS Manifesto: to teach you how you think and show you a path toward thinking better.
But it’s up to you to put this knowledge into action.
You have to give yourself permission to be intentional about thinking better. We think all the time, so it’s easy to assume we can just flip a switch and think better. But it doesn’t work like that.
As you’ve learned in this blog post, you have to:
- Recognize the different types of instinctive thinking you do.
- Learn how to manage your emotions.
- Cultivate your environment.
- Define what you’re actually thinking about.
- Be willing to destroy your ideas to create better ones.
- Share your ideas with others so feedback can make them better.
That’s a lot to think about just to think, but it’s a proven process that will lead you to thinking better.
Certainly it can help to have tools that are specifically designed to make the process easier to carry out in practice, and you’ll be hearing more about such a tool in the future.
But for now, just focus on the process. Because a tool without a process for using it is just a useless paperweight.
We want you to become a better thinker.
The THINKERS Manifesto podcast will show you the way.
Reader Comments (5)
Olumide Samuel says
You’ve really tackled this vital topic well. What can we achieve without proper thoughts?
One of the biggest differences between a great and poor writer is their thought processes. Regarding the environment to think, I think it may depend on an individual. Some people prefer perfect silence while some prefer low noise.
Another thing I want to add is about creating a schedule for thinking. We can improve our thinking if we make it a habit rather what we just do once in a while. Or when a problem beckons.
I remember one of James Altucher’s posts on Quora where he said people should keep a book where they should write 10 ideas when they wake up in the morning. Of course, many of these ideas will be useless. But it will train an individual to think better.
I believe writers can apply this too.
Christopher Scott says
Thanks for this post. Some great tips!
One thing I have found that helps me think is to keep a small pad of paper, a pen, and small light next to my bed. Some of my best ideas seem to come out as I lay down for bed going to sleep. Sometimes ideas come when I finally lay down in a quiet bed. So I put them down as often as I can. And one great thing is that the practice of putting my ideas on paper helps me get them out of my head and helps me sleep better.
That is just what works for me. I know everyone is different. But that has helped me in my thinking a lot.
Icy Sedgwick says
“When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Looks like the White Queen of Through the Looking Glass was onto something!
Peter Doswell says
The majority of the human population, do not do enough of the right type of thinking.
In fact there are two very important creative ways of thinking, that shape our whole futures.
Both will ultimately, bring into play the very things that we have thrown into the thinking arena.
There is the positive, and the negative.
There is the pessimist, and there is the optimist.
There is light thinking, there is catastrophe thinking.
There is the power to build, and the power to destroy.
Getting it right requires very deep focus, to reap the rewards, of a very strict mental diet!
Bob Knill says
Hi Jarrod! Thanks for posting this! Number 4, clearly identifying the problem, is huge. We humans are thinking All. The. Time. It’s what our brains do and it’s served us well. More often than not, though, we are not aware of our thoughts. As a pre-requisite for Step 4, it may be helpful to actually step back and take a look at our thoughts (meditation is good practice for this) so we can sort out the kinds of specific problems that need answers (call a plumber or sprinkler guy) versus the kind of low-frequency, under the radar rumination that generally doesn’t serve us and offers no hint at a solution. Thanks again for this…I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this post.
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