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how to think effectively

Thinking About Thinking

Thinking about my thinking.

Thinking about my thinking.

Let’s say your sweetie is feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky. Would you help her?

Of course, you would. You might start by asking simple, straightforward questions, like: What’s going on? Why are you feeling down? How can I help? Simple, direct questions are effective because they’re thought provoking. They can cover a lot of mental territory. Ambiguous questions help as well. They allow your sweetie to frame her response based on her needs, not yours.

Now, let’s change the frame. If you were feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky, would you ask yourself the same questions? I’ve asked this of many people and the most common response seems to be: I don’t think I would think of doing that.

The trick here seems to be the ability to convert a monologue into a dialogue. We all have a little narrator in our heads who comments on what’s going on around us. I call mine the play-by-play announcer because he (she? it?) serves the same function as a sports announcer – narrating the action.

When I watch a sporting event on TV, I just want the narrator to explain what’s going on and why. I want the same of my internal narrator. I don’t normally question the sports narrator; I just go with the flow. I do the same with my internal narrator.

The narrator – whether sports or internal – is in a monologue. It takes an act of imagination to question the narrator. When I’m speaking to my sweetie, it’s natural and obvious to create a dialogue. When I’m speaking to myself, it’s not at all obvious. I don’t naturally think about my thinking.

I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to teach myself a new trick. When I notice certain cues, I ask myself simple, direct questions to better understand the experience. What are the cues? There are at least three clusters:

Cue 1 — when I’m feeling anxious or stressed or blue or just plain cranky. I’ve learned to take note of this condition and use it as a prompt to ask a simple question: Why am I feeling this way? This helps me bring my feelings and desires to a conscious level and sort them out logically. In Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, I’m using my System 2 to check on my System 1.

Cue 2 – when I’m feeling really good, energetic, or enthusiastic. I’d like to feel this way more often. So, when I’m in a great mood, I prompt myself to ask: How did this happen? I’ve discovered some interesting correlations – not all of which I’m going to share. The best correlation may be obvious: Suellen is often around.

Cue 3 – when I have a good idea. I like having good ideas. I feel productive, creative, and smart. So, when I have a good idea, I prompt myself to ask: What was I doing when this idea popped into my head? Again, I’ve discovered some interesting correlations. Most frequently, I’m moving rather than sitting still. I don’t know why that is but I know it works.

I could probably apply the same introspection to other cues as well. At the moment however, I’m just trying to master the trick under these three conditions. What about you? When do you think about your thinking?

Seeing And Observing Sherlock

Pardon me while I unitask.

Pardon me while I unitask.

I’m reading a delightful book by Maria Konnikova, titled Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes. It covers much of the same territory as other books I’ve read on thinking, deducing, and questioning but it reads more like … well, like a detective novel. In other words, it’s fun.

In the past, I’ve covered Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman argues that we have two thinking systems. System 1 is fast and automatic and always on. We make millions of decisions each day but don’t think about the vast majority of them; System 1 handles them. System 1 is right most of the time but not always. It uses rules of thumb and makes common errors (which I’ve cataloged here, here, here, and here).

System 1 can also invoke System 2 – the system we think of when we think of thinking. System 2 is where we logically process data, make deductions, and reach conclusions. It’s very energy intensive. Thinking is tiring, which is why we often try to avoid it. Better to let System 1 handle it without much conscious thought.

Kahneman illustrates the differences between System 1 and System 2. Konnikova covers some of the same territory but with slightly different terminology. Konnikova renames System 1 as System Watson and System 2 as System Holmes. Konnikova proceeds to analyze System Holmes and reveal what makes it so effective.

Though I’m only a quarter of the way through the book, I’ve already gleaned a few interesting tidbits, such as these:

Motivation counts – motivated thinkers are more likely to invoke System Holmes. Less motivated thinkers are willing to let System Watson carry the day. Konnikova points out that thinking is hard work. (Kahneman makes the same point repeatedly). Motivation helps you tackle the work.

Unitasking trumps multitasking – Thinking is hard work. Thinking about multiple things simultaneously is extremely hard work. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible. Konnikova notes that Holmes is very good at one essential skill: sitting still. (Pascal once remarked that, “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit still in a room.” Holmes seems to have solved that problem).

Your brain attic needs a spring cleaning – we all have lots of stuff in our brain attics and – like the attics in our houses – a lot of it is not worth keeping. Holmes keeps only what he needs to do the job that motivates him.

Observing is different than seeing – Watson sees. Holmes observes. Exactly how he observes is a complex process that I’ll report on in future posts.

Don’t worry. I’m on the case.

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