6 necessary habits of a good thinker

When I first set out on the quest to become a better thinker, I expected that I’d come across some books, blogs and podcasts, spend some time going over the material, and after a bit of time my thinking will become, well, better. And then I’ll be done and dusted, with my newly found knowledge about thinking ready to apply. How hard could it be to learn something in the 21st century after all? And to add to this, something as basic as how to think?

Fast forward a few years and it finally sank in: better thinking is not something you learn, it’s something you do. I realised that if I wanted to become a good thinker, I had to practise good thinking every day. In this sense, I found a parallel to thinking in my favourite sport, running. You don’t become a runner when you run a marathon and then you can stop because you’ve made it. You become a runner when you continuously, regularly, tenaciously… run. One run after another, you can run just a bit further, just a bit faster. And this is how you become a better thinker, too.

But as any practice, becoming a better thinker requires some habits to be put in place to support the growth and development. After all, you don’t just get up and run a marathon one day, you need months if not years of deliberate training. In running and in thinking, this training is built on habits. So let’s look at the habits I discovered that make good thinkers.

Habit 1: Treat thinking as a skill and regularly work on it

The most powerful habit I developed to support my growth as a thinker was to see thinking as a skill that needs regular, deliberate practice. This means that I constantly look for ways to become better at it, I search for sources, and I consciously engage in training. Yes, this means I have time blocked off in my calendar to practise thinking skills. And if you’re serious about becoming a better thinker, I recommend you take a similar approach.

Habit 2: Schedule time to think

Once you accept that thinking is a skill that requires practise, you will set aside some time to improve it. But this isn’t enough. One realisation I had was that we face hundreds of choices, problems and decisions every day and they require us to think about them, but we very often just snap into a quick thinking process and decide on the spot. This isn’t only draining our cognitive resources at several points throughout each day, but it’s not optimised for the best outcomes. Instead, write down all things that require you to think on a to-think list and schedule some time in the day to go through the thinking process about all of them at once.

Habit 3: Think about how you think

Thinking, like breathing, comes so naturally to us that we hardly ever reflect on whether and how we do it. But in the same way as focusing on your breath can bring great benefits, zooming in on your thinking can help with improving clarity and efficiency of thought. Thinking about thinking, that is meta-thinking, is something I do especially around big decisions or long problems. I ask myself how I thought about a particular thing, why I thought about it this way, how could I have approached this thinking task better.

Habit 4: Use the right thinking style

I admit that in the beginning of my journey to become a better thinker, I knew so little that I assumed I’ll just learn a few general principles and I’ll be done. I never expected there to be so, so many thinking styles and approaches to choose from. Now that I’m much more aware of the sheer variety and diversity of thinking styles out there, I developed the habit of first considering which style will work best with the problem or decision or situation that I’m facing. Is this choice better tackled with analytical thinking or integrative thinking? Should I solve this problem with creative thinking, or probabilistic thinking? I discovered that applying the right thinking style can lead to better outcomes.

Habit 5: Think in a structured way

A serious consequence of the long-established assumption that thinking is something that comes to all of us naturally is the fact that we’re left with very little training in how to do thinking. One of the best habits you can develop to become a better thinker is to adopt a structured process of thinking and apply it every time you have to solve a problem or make a decision. Over the years, I’ve developed my own structured approach to thinking, and I’m going to share it with you as well. For now, start by writing down how you structure your thinking process and begin to identify how you could improve it.

Habit 6: Stop thinking at the right point

Have you ever found yourself thinking and re-thinking a past choice or decision over and over again? Have you ever experienced analysis-paralysis, where you just can’t make up your mind because you’re in a never-ending loop of thinking? Have you ever tried to solve a problem by stubbornly thinking about it for hours without a break? I’m guilty of all three and more, and it took me years to realise that being a better thinker means knowing when to stop thinking. It feels counterintuitive, but sometimes stopping to think is the best approach to thinking about an issue. Give it a try.

I could draw dozens of parallels between learning how to become a good thinker and training to become a good runner. You know, reading up, getting the right shoes, making sure you build in rest days, having a training plan… But perhaps the most useful comparison is this one. As a runner, you don’t necessarily train to reach some sort of a milestone and then stop. Rather, you train to be better every single time you run. In the same way, you put thinking habits in place to be a better thinker every time you think.

And now, let’s put thought into practice!

Pick one habit out of these I described above. I recommend Habit 2 or 6 as they’re more concrete. Set aside half an hour this week to think about this habit and plan how to add it to your life. How did it go?

If you know someone who'd benefit from becoming a better thinker, share:
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Marta Stelmaszak Rosa
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I'm 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!
October 21, 2020

I am not academically trained, so have never done any really organised thinking. I tend to be a bit impulsive, and with small decisions (which dress to buy, what colour to paint the bathroom, I decide very quickly. But when I consider that statement, in fact I would have been thinking a fair bit about the dress I want or the kind of colour scheme I want well before actually going to the shop to choose.

I often use swimming time to think because I can’t have a radio on. During my professional career I know that I used to get some of my ideas while working my way through the laps.

Other times, and especially since living alone, I find I need noise in the house. When not working it’s usually a serious talk programme – radio 4, LBC. I often put Classic FM on for concentrating work.

But it’s often the case that I hear but don’t listen. In other words, the noise is there, but I am not taking in what is said. To really listen I need to stop doing whatever else I am doing and properly pay attention. Maybe I should switch off sometimes and just sit and think without the stimulus of radio. But I tend to fill every spare minute with some kind of activity, which could be as mundane as a jigsaw puzzle or a game of solitaire.

And a habit of mine is to act quickly. I don’t mean without thinking at all about whatever the situation is, but without letting it lie overnight. Sleeping on it is actually very good advice, because somehow the brain sorts out all sorts of confusion while sleeping and the answer comes clear next morning. So I try to let important emails sit on the PC overnight before hitting send.

And what do I think about? Family, Friends, Work, Brexit, Covid, Trump, Where is civilization heading? What to have for dinner, my health. Nothing really philosophical at all – or only very marginally so, and the more complicated a situation becomes and the less control I have over it (Brexit and Covid are included here) the more I switch off from thinking about it.

Making the time to think is an excellent piece of advice and yes, I should do this more. Just sit and think about a particular problem or issue. Your analysis paralysis occurs with me on the already-mentioned big issues that I have no control over.

Thanks for pointing me at your blog.

Marta Stelmaszak Rosa
October 21, 2020

Thank you for stopping by, Lucy! It was great to find out more about how and what you think about. I agree that sleeping on things really works. It helped me a lot when I was completing a tough assignment on machine learning just a few months ago… I hope you’ll find other articles here useful too.

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