How you think in any given situation can determine how successful you are at solving problems, making decisions, and even getting to a satisfying place in your life. Going with your gut response is acceptable in some situations, but if that’s how you consistently operate, you are likely making things more difficult for yourself and the people around you. The same is true for over-analyzing or trying to clobber a thought or idea into existence before it has time to incubate.
Thinking is like kissing. One must use the appropriate approach according to the occasion. There are times when a quick peck simply won’t due.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that System 1 thinking, that impulsive, gut-reaction way of thinking, is an unavoidable part of our thought process. Problems can arise, however, when a situation warrants deeper thought but the thinker doesn’t proceed to a more considered and deliberative thought mode, System 2.
The reason why many people avoid System 2 thinking is because it’s hard work. As Kahneman puts it, “[A]ctivities that impose high demands on System 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting and unpleasant.”
Just think of it: thinking actually causes electrical activity to emanate from our brains. When we are alert and focused, our brains are producing beta waves ranging from 15 to 40 cycles per second. System 2 takes energy, which is why you hear people say things like, “I just like to go with my gut,” and why many of those same people suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They don’t put in the time and effort to evaluate a decision or its effects, resulting in a false assumption that they are doing are fantastic job.
Another reason someone might be a chronic System 1 thinker is because she just doesn’t see the point of System 2. She believes that intelligence cannot be changed and therefore avoids challenges where she might otherwise undergo a transformative learning experience or substantially improve her understanding of a situation or problem. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, yearn to learn. They understand that sometimes great effort is necessary for true understanding. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who introduced the world to the growth mindset concept, explains that people with a growth mindset “believe everyone can develop their abilities through hard work, strategies, and lots of help and mentoring from others.” They are therefore less likely to shy away from System 2 thinking because they understand that it is an opportunity for growth.
There are times, of course when the zealous, passionate kiss doesn’t have the desired effects either. In such cases it’s important to remember that there is such a thing as trying too hard. What’s more, when it’s not working, and you’re getting exhausted, sometimes trying even harder is only going to make it worse. Know when to throttle down.
Focused thinking can be exhausting, especially if there are a lot of distractions vying of your attention. Directed attention fatigue is common in our society. It happens at home, work, school and everywhere in between. We spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to maintain focus on whatever it is we’re doing and not fully appreciating the fact that the energy we’re spending is limited. As we lose that energy our ability to focus decreases and our attention becomes involuntary—the distractions win. This results in bad ideas, bad decisions, and bad attitudes. Thinking when your mental resources are depleted is like kissing while texting. Technically you may be going through the process, but despite what you may think, you’re making a mess of it and you’re clearly missing the point.
One way to avoid this ineffective way of thinking is to engage in a diffuse mode of thinking, letting your brainwave activity slowdown to 9 to 14 cycles per second. Think of diffuse thinking like a serene, lingering kiss. Author and Professor of Engineering Barbara Oakely explains diffuse mode like this:
Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. It is what allows us to suddenly gain a new insight on a problem we’ve been struggling with, and is associated with “big picture” perspectives.
Sometimes you have to ease up, clear your head and stop trying to force it. Attention restoration theory holds that one of the best ways to replenish your mental resources is to get out and experience nature.
Diffuse thinking is not to be confused with mindfulness. Diffuse thinking is letting your mind wander and reflect on your topic without strain, but you are still thinking as a means to reach some future outcome. In that way it is strategic. Mindfulness is most decidedly not that. It is intentionally observing the present moment.
If mindfulness were a kiss it would be the long anticipated kiss when you think to yourself, This is happening, this is really happening!
Mindfulness and meditation are great exercises for thinking. They train you to be aware and present, which is important when you’re a serious thinker. Understanding your behavior and what’s going on with your mind and body can help you adjust accordingly to react and think in the most effective way.
Just remember, the kiss needs to fit the occasion and if you’re serious about it, a lifetime of practice is required.