How to think

We’re one week away from 2015, people will make their resolutions and try to keep them for a whole year; which usually doesn’t work out as planned. One resolution, an ongoing effort actually, that we should all aim for on a daily basis is that of making better decisions.

That means thinking better, which will have a cumulative effect in all else we do; including executing on our New Year resolutions.

A question I get asked often is something along the lines of , “How can I improve my ability to make better decisions?” To this, I respond with a counter question, “why do you think you make bad decisions in the first place?”

The reframing of the question, is good example of “what to do” to make better decisions. Thus, an easy way to make better decisions is to ask yourself questions, but that usually comes after you’ve done some grunt work to define a better question beforehand.

That isn’t the only way to think better…

Many years ago I read a very simple yet effective post on TechReview that tackled this very question, I liked it so much that I wrote the main points on a whiteboard that hung above my office desk. The original post had 10 tips, I’ve added five more. Here then are 15 ways to help you think better:

  1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you’re reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.
  2. Learn how to learn (rapidly). One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent. Be able to rapidly prototype ideas. Know how your brain works. (I often need a 20-minute power nap after loading a lot into my brain, followed by half a cup of coffee. Knowing how my brain operates enables me to use it well.)
  3. Work backward from your goal. Or else you may never get there. If you work forward, you may invent something profound–or you might not. If you work backward, then you have at least directed your efforts at something important to you.
  4. Always have a long-term plan. Even if you change it every day. The act of making the plan alone is worth it. And even if you revise it often, you’re guaranteed to be learning something.
  5. Make contingency maps. Draw all the things you need to do on a big piece of paper, and find out which things depend on other things. Then, find the things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
  6. Collaborate. Not just with people like yourself, but with new and different people who can enhance and add a fresh perspective; diversity breeds innovation.
  7. Make your mistakes quickly. You may mess things up on the first try, but do it fast, and then move on. Document what led to the error so that you learn what to recognize, and then move on. Get the mistakes out of the way. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
  8. As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols. That way, when you return to something you’ve done, you can make it routine. Instinctualize conscious control.
  9. Document everything obsessively. If you don’t record it, it may never have an impact on the world. Much of creativity is learning how to see things properly. Most profound scientific discoveries are surprises. But if you don’t document and digest every observation and learn to trust your eyes, then you will not know when you have seen a surprise.
  10. Keep it simple. If it looks like something hard to engineer, it probably is. If you can spend two days thinking of ways to make it 10 times simpler, do it. It will work better, be more reliable, and have a bigger impact on the world. And learn, if only to know what has failed before. Remember the old saying, “Six months in the lab can save an afternoon in the library.”
  11. Ask questions. Simply stated, better questions lead to better answers.
  12. Consider alternate scenarios. At the beginning of any project there isn’t a single way to achieve something, there are many. But that one way will eventually be discovered and it won’t come from a linear approach. Avoid the narrow frame and open yourself up to possibilities.
  13. Prepare to be wrong. Similar to the previous, do a pre-mortem to consider the ways in which you might fail.
  14. Sketch it out. Goes with point #2, put your ideas in writing, in a drawing, a mindmap, whatever way possible that it helps you and others “see”.
  15. Question assumptions. We all fall face first many times over without considering other options, the key is to take a step back and get some perspective. The way to do that is by simply questioning the way things are, making a list of the assumptions you are making and then turning them on their head. Do that, and you might have found a new of looking of things.

Bottom line: The way we are brought up, by our parents, our friends, the school we go to influences how we think. Mostly, we are taught “what to think”. There are many people out there who have the same thoughts and approach life the same way. Frankly, if we are to reach our full potential we don’t need anymore automatons in the world; we need to teach to people “how to think”. The above tips are nothing out of this world, they are very simple tips that in accumulation can impact our life when we put them into practice.

Also published on Medium.