If you’re anything like me, sometimes you have days when thinking just comes so easy and naturally. I’m facing a problem, and I just think about it a bit and a good solution appears as if by magic. But then there are days, sometimes too many at a time, when I’m frustrated by my own inability to think well and come to good, robust conclusions. Thinking feels very messy then, it’s difficult to focus and almost impossible to solve even the simplest problem. It’s not good to be oscillating between great days and really bad days: this always makes me feel like I can’t trust my own thinking. What if I get a bad day when I really need to be thinking clearly??
This is precisely why I started working on developing good thinking as a habit. I took the idea from my development as a runner. When I was a beginner, I used to have days when I was really in the mood for running and it felt so right, the weather was glorious, birds were chirping, and I was barely touching the ground. And then there were days when I couldn’t drag myself out of the front door. I realised that to benefit from running, I had to make it a habit, so I don’t give in to the pattern of good days and bad days. I decided to apply the same techniques that turned me into a regular, habitual runner to my growth as a thinker. And here they are!
Keep a to-think list
Apart from ever-present to-do lists, I developed a habit of keeping a to-think list. In any given day, my mind is bombarded with choices, decisions, thoughts, ideas that I simply don’t have time to deal with properly as and when they appear. Instead, I jot them down on my to-think list and I return to them in my designated thinking slots. You wouldn’t believe the mix that my to-think list can represent: anything from which new scarf to buy to an idea for a new research project and which methodology to choose. But the important point is that I have a place where to keep all these thinking points, and I can think better and more thoroughly about them in my scheduled thinking slots.
Schedule and commit to regular thinking slots
Book time in your calendar and label it as thinking slots. Make these commitments fixed and repeated, preferably on the same days and at the same time from one week to another. Start small, maybe with two or three thinking slots a week, half an hour each. First, use these slots just to let yourself think – about anything! I used to think a lot about food and clothes at first, trying to figure out what’s better to eat or which hat to buy for autumn. This was like a slow walk or a light jog for my mind. But you don’t become a marathon runner from one day to another… The key lies in consistency and keeping your appointments. After a few weeks, you’ll see you’ll be able to use these thinking slots in a much more productive way, and sticking to them will become much easier. And if you keep a to-think list, you’ll be able to get going with your thinking slots right away.
Develop thinking triggers
Even with a to-think list and a long stretch of uninterrupted thinking time ahead, I sometimes find myself struggling to get started with thinking. It’s either because my mind is racing with all the thoughts, or the opposite – it feels totally empty. To deal with the overwhelm, I use writing: I write down all that’s going on in my head that’s preventing me from engaging in a thorough and calm thinking practice. When I feel like I can’t get my thinking engine started, I use thinking triggers. They are the little practices and rituals that I developed to ease me into the thinking process. Sometimes all I need to do is to light my favourite candle, other times what helps is to think ‘If I was advising my friend about what to do, here’s how I’d approach this…’. I have a number of other thinking triggers, but it’s important for you to come up with something that works for you.
Notice progress and reward yourself
Every habit gets stronger the more we do it, and the more positivity we build around it. Noticing progress and rewarding yourself for the work you put in is one of the surest ways to bolster any habit. Now, you’re going to laugh, but the way I used to reward myself for cultivating and growing the habit of thinking was… allowing myself some time of no thinking at all, mindlessly scrolling through social media or watching a TV series, or looking at pretty clothes online. And it worked, because I knew that if I focus in my thinking slot and get done with all the thinking, next time I’ll be even better and more productive with the process, and so my rest will be even more deserved. I get similar kicks when I train as a runner – if I can run for longer or faster, I give myself more time to rest, or get a treat.
Keep a thinking journal
One of the best ways of noticing progress in your thinking is keeping a thinking journal. For me, it’s a pen-and-paper thing where I journal during my thinking slots about what I’m thinking about, how I’m going about the process, which thinking style I’m using, and what the outcome is. Keeping track of my thinking helps me with being more structured, but it also serves another function. Physical objects and the act of writing give a concrete shape and form to a very abstract process which is thinking. I have a tangible manifestation of my habit and I can see how I engage in it – this is a very powerful way of making the habit stick.
You can run occasionally, or you can develop a habit of running and embrace all its benefits: fitness, health, lower heart rate, endorphins, getting fresh air… You can think ad hoc and when needed, or you can develop a habit of thinking and let all its upsides transform your life. All it takes is to create a good system around it, and the tactics that I talk about above are a great starting point!
And now, let’s put thought into practice!
Think of a good habit that you’ve formed in the past. How did you get into this habit? What approaches, strategies and tactics worked for you? Write down three that helped you get going with the new habit. Share them in the comments below!