You must have found yourself, at least a few times, in a situation where you’re facing a problem, choice or decision, and you’re going around in circles, feeling like you’re not any closer to a solution. This is frustrating and can be really upsetting because you know you should be able to arrive at a conclusion, but you’re just not getting there. Very often this happens when you don’t do clear thinking, but instead you just let your thoughts roam free in your mind hoping you’ll just stumble upon the right answer. It’s like expecting a win in a cognitive lottery – it’s naïve, hopeless and frankly, won’t get you the result you’re after.

Clear thinking is the antidote to this mental chaos, but often it is incredibly hard to start thinking clearly when you most need it. The way I approach important decisions, choices and problems is to let my mind do a bit of free roaming first, to keep the problem at the back of my mind and let it submerge and re-emerge over a period of time. This way I get a feel for the situation, which is also important for me. But then I say ‘ok, it’s time to think clearly about it’. And I get into my structured approach to thinking to tackle the situation.

However, I know that clear thinking is not the easiest to implement, especially in a world that moves fast and throws obstacles our way. Here are some of these obstacles which you may want to consider and implement solutions to help you deal with them so you can think more clearly more often.


Not acknowledging that you need to think something through

One of the biggest obstacles is trying to think about a problem, choice or decision just at the back of your mind, never acknowledging it as an issue that requires serious and dedicated thought. If you fail to think consciously, you won’t be able to think clearly. What works for me is to have a trigger, very often verbal, that forces me to accept I need to do serious thinking: ‘it’s time to think clearly about it’ does its job. I recommend that you develop your own trigger, it can be something you say or think to yourself, that will help you acknowledge the need to do some clear thinking.


Not dedicating specific time to think

The problem for most of us is that we don’t really see thinking as something that should have its own space and time. It’s tempting to think that thinking just happens effortlessly when we do other stuff. What really happens is that if we leave our mind to figure out a problem as we go on about our lives, it will keep bugging us, reappearing in the least suitable moments and just eating up our mental energy. And we won’t get any closer to finding a suitable solution. Instead, try this. After deploying your thinking trigger, look at your calendar and block out some time, depending on how big the issue is, just to sit down with a notebook to think about the problem you’re dealing with. When I do this, I’m much more effective and focused on resolving the issue and it usually takes much less time to work through the problem this way than just to let it run in the background. It also creates space for clear thinking.


Not adopting a structured approach

Many think that thinking is just this – thinking, something we do casually and normally at almost any given point in time. That’s why when most of us approach an issue that requires some thought, we just throw ourselves onto it and hope that the sheer intensity of our thinking will give us the desired result. I’ve learned this is very hard and often just doesn’t work; more often than not I’d find myself exhausted and no closer to a solution. This is why I developed a structured approach to thinking which I’m going to share with you soon. Adopting a structured approach to thinking helps you make the most out of the thinking time and energy you dedicate to thinking. You can’t engage in clear thinking if you don’t have a good, structured approach.


Rushing or prolonging thinking

Sometimes you may feel like you just want to be done with it, you just want to arrive at a decision and free yourself from having to think about an issue. Or the opposite, you may want to avoid deciding because it’s painful or you’re worried about the consequences. Both of these attitudes are strong obstacles to clear thinking. It’s a bit like with love, if you rush too much into it you may get burned, and if you put it off for too long, you may lose the opportunity – in either case this is clearly not the right approach. This is why I recommend setting thinking deadlines. After I use my thinking trigger, schedule time to think and engage in my structured approach to thinking, I set myself a deadline: I decide that I will finish the thinking process by the end of the day, or within 24 hours, and I’ll have a decision by then. This way I know I have to think clearly to meet my own deadline.


Using the wrong thinking style

A big obstacle to clear thinking is not selecting the right thinking style that matches the issue you have to face. This way you may well be aware you need to think, schedule time to do it, follow a structured approach, and yet still be very far away from clear thinking. You need to understand the problem first to adopt the right thinking style that will help you solve it, otherwise you’ll be equally confused as if you haven’t done anything to get closer to clear thinking.

It’s time to start working on eliminating these obstacles to clear thinking! Of course, I recommend you tackle the first one first: acknowledge you need to think and come up with a good trigger. Once you find it, share it in a comment below!

And now, let’s put thought into practice!

Clearer thinking starts with tackling the first obstacle. In the next day, every time your mind gets on a thinking spree, acknowledge that you need to think about this issue thoroughly, write it down, and return to it in a scheduled time to think.

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Marta Stelmaszak Rosa
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I'm a researcher, academic and writer dedicated to becoming a better thinker. Every day, I practise thinkfulness: consciously adopting a structured approach to thinking in order to understand and change the world. The world needs all of us to become better thinkers, so let's start a thinkfulness revolution together!

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