Think Better, Fast

The quality of your thinking is the factor that will most impact your life. Thinking well is essential to getting anything done, and this is as true for teams as it is for individuals. The better your thinking, the better the decisions you’ll make. This, in turn, will make it more likely you’ll achieve your goals. What would it be worth to you if you could think better, both individually and collectively? The dividends would be many-fold.

The first step to thinking better is understanding how you think. Many people believe thinking is something that only happens in the brain, which they see as some kind of meat computer. This is a misunderstanding. Cognition is more complicated than this. The brain is only one part of a complex system that extends outside of the body. As I write these words, I see them appear on the display of my MacBook Pro. My fingers move over the keyboard, and characters appear on the screen. The sentences I write don’t emerge fully-formed from my brain. Instead, the computer holds them for me in a temporary buffer where I can see and reflect on them. No, that’s not the right word; let’s try another one. I delete the word, type a new one. Over and over again. Little by little, the product of my thinking emerges from this brain-senses-fingers-keyboard-display system. The computer is part of my thinking apparatus, and not in a superficial way, but deeply. It would be more difficult for me if I had to craft the sentences exclusively in my brain and then transcribe them in “finished” form.

Of course, the extension of your brain doesn’t need to be a computer. You can also think with a paper-based notebook, a marker on a whiteboard, a stick on wet sand, etc. When you sketch or take notes in a journal, the notebook becomes a part of your thinking system. When you use a pile of stones to work through an arithmetic problem, the stones and the ground they’re lying on become part of your thinking system. You work through ideas by seeing them “out in the world.” There, you can explore relationships between elements in greater detail than you could if you had to hold everything in your mind. You change things, move them around, try variations, iterate, refine — much as I’m doing with the sentences I write here.

Thus, one way to improve your ability to think is by setting up environments that help you do so. This means environments that augment your nervous system, and which work with (and not against) you. For example, I find it very difficult to think well when there’s a television on in the room. I can’t focus on the task at hand. On the flipside, a quiet place that contains the “right” tools (in my case, a quality notebook and a particular type of pen, a comfortable chair, good lighting) reduces “friction” in the system. Which is to say, there’s a feedback loop between my nervous system and these external aids; when this feedback loop is tight, I don’t even notice the distinction between them. There’s no inside/outside: ideas simply “flow” onto the paper. (More accurately: they flow on the paper.) The paper, pen, eyes, ears, hands, brain, etc. — they’re all part of one thinking apparatus.

This internal/external thinking apparatus has many advantages beyond those already noted. For one thing, externalizing thoughts allows us to refer to them later. I keep my old notebooks on a shelf where I can revisit them at any time. This allows me to leverage my past thinking. I don’t need to clutter my internal memory with these thoughts; I know I can always go back to the books where the thinking happened if I need to. Also, by externalizing thoughts, we can bring others into the thinking process. This is why whiteboards are so useful: they’re an easy way for us to see what each other mean. When you and I meet in front of a whiteboard, it becomes a part of both of our thinking systems. The whiteboard is a shared cognitive artifact where we converge to leverage each others’ knowledge and expertise. Two minds merged on a wall in the room, thinking better than one could. It’s quite a trick!

As with all other abilities, you can improve your thinking with practice. You can also learn techniques to use your internal thinking abilities more effectively. However, both practice and “learning how to learn” take time. Optimizing the external components of your thinking system is much quicker. Your life would improve if you could think better, and tweaking the environments where you think is the quickest way to doing so. Investing a few hours into designing a better thinking environment will dramatically improve your ability to think.