When was the last time you made an important decision in your life, solved a complex problem, created an innovation, thought about the purpose of your life or planned for something big? How long did you spend on that?
What kind of thinking are you better at? Are you a good decision maker? A problem-solver? A planner? A visionary? Are you a person who makes a lot of sense, or a person who says “I don’t know” a lot?
One useful way to answer these questions is to start by describing why we think, and what purpose it serves for us. If we examine the reasons behind the thinking process, we can better understand how thinking can be helpful in our lives.
To make decisions
According to the Millennium Project, our capacity to decide is one of the 15 global challenges for the humanity in the coming years. Making decisions is perhaps one of the most legitimate reasons for thinking. We have choice A and choice B. We think about both; then, we decide to go for one of them. Simple? Looks like it. And that’s basically how we make simple decisions like what to eat, what to wear or where to go. The same brain and similar method also helps us make some very complex decisions such as whom to marry, what to believe in and what to do with our lives. The principles are the same: define a dilemma, identify various options, apply a thinking process (for example, weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the given options), choose one option and go for it.
To solve problems
Being able to solve problems is actually a good way to make money by thinking. People are willing to pay us if we know how to solve their problems. And to do that, we need an unpleasant or unsolved situation, a few assumptions, some data, a good analytical mind and then boom: a solution. Easy? Sounds like it, but it’s actually more complicated than it sounds.
Doctors solve problems every day by diagnosing diseases and treating them. Management consultants do pretty much the same thing, the difference being that their clients are businesses, instead of patients.
There are also plenty of examples of problem-solving in everyday life: how to get through heavy traffic and get to our destination on time, how to get out of an unpleasant situation, or how to avoid a certain person as much as possible. Solving problems—which requires thinking—is part of everyday life and it may be part of one’s job too. So it’s very beneficial to become good at it, as it can differentiate us from others who are less skilled in solving problems.
To create something new
Composing an original song, programming software, writing a novel, making a film, designing a building and generating an abstract painting are all examples of creativity and innovation. It is a type of thinking that creates something where nothing previously existed. Literary works, arts, and musical masterpieces are made as a result of thinking in a creative way.
From time to time, we may need to think creatively about ourselves. Envisioning what we want to do in the future and where we are going in our life or career often requires creative thinking. In other words, it’s all about imagining a state of being that doesn’t exist right now, or exists only as a possibility, and then envisioning how we might make it happen somewhere down the line.
Doesn’t it sound important? Of course it does. Not just for the advancement of science, technology and the arts; not just for the sake of social reforms and the spread of democracy; but also for the actualization of each individual’s dreams. If we ask a talent show contestant, “Who is the next American Idol!?” the answer—without a second of hesitation—will hopefully be, “I am!” The journey to become something of greater value starts with a belief. This belief is basically a thought. It’s a way of thinking creatively about oneself.
Also, it’s interesting to note that creative thinking can happen in parallel to other forms of thinking. For example, some types of problem solving would require creativity on the side and the same is true with good planning and decision making. Creativity is an integral ingredient of higher thinking for any reason or purpose.
To understand something
Thinking is a great way to understand things. There are plenty of ways to create understanding, but in essence we can categorize them into three main groups:
When we see A, we think of B. When we hear C, we think of D. When we eat E, we are reminded of F. Our brains are wired in such a way that we naturally make associations. One thing always makes us think of another thing.
When we see A, we think it’s good; when we see B, we think it’s bad. Making judgments is a way of thinking that puts a positive or negative value or label on everything we see, hear or think about. It’s similar to making an association but with a positive or negative value judgment attached to it.
When A and B happen, we can predict that C will follow. These conclusions utilize logical thinking, and generally are based on what we assume, have seen or experienced in the past. Making sound conclusions is not always easy and anyone may fall into the trap of making a conclusion based on what he or she wants to see and not based on sound judgment and what the facts tell.
To plan for goals
This is the tactical and operational function of our thinking. Our minds have an extraordinary ability to identify the tasks we need to complete in order to achieve a certain goal. For example, you may want to organize a successful party. You break down the tasks into inviting people, buying and cooking food, entertaining the guests, serving the food and drinks and cleaning the house after the guests leave.
A party is a relatively simple goal and most of us have already some experience with it. For more complex goals, it doesn’t make much of a difference and we can still use the same planning method. We begin by thinking about what needs to be done in order to achieve our goal, then we complete the tasks one by one and in the order we determined. And we persist until the goal is achieved. This is, in essence, an instinctive type of project management. And it seems that some aspects of our lives can be planned for like projects. Some real-life examples are getting into college, buying a home, organizing a wedding or applying for a job.
To fill in the gaps
Sometimes we have a capacity for purposeless thinking. These are the times when we’re alone, not talking with anyone and not doing anything in particular. We’re simply letting our thoughts wander, filling in the mental gaps, the moments of silence, the unstructured time. Just thinking… daydreaming… sometimes escaping the reality of our lives…ruminating on our thoughts… going round and round in mental circles… not planning, not creating, not making decisions, not solving problems, not even understanding things… just floating in our thoughts and enjoying the taste of thinking with no particular reason or purpose. This might be how some of us spend the majority of our free time. It’s like thinking in a loop: Starting from A, we go to B, then C, then D and then back again to A; on and on until something interrupts our train of thought. A person might do this day after day, week after week and year after year. There are many people whose thinking habits are just like this.
My new clients are usually surprised when I ask them to spend one hour in a given week just thinking. They often say, “I think for hours every day and you want me to think for just an hour a week?” Well, they have a point, but those hours of thinking they refer to are the loop-thinking or the gap-filler type of thinking. Although it might be very relaxing or preoccupying to think in loops, but from a practical point of view, this method of thinking doesn’t usually lead to a solution, a decision, a plan or a conclusion. So, it’s important to have this distinction in mind when you consider adding a Thinking Hour into your weekly schedule.
The Thinking Hour
Now that we have had a look at the six main types of thinking, let’s find out something about who you are based on how you usually think. Look at the following list of thinking-related tasks and functions. Then choose three of them that you believe you are quite good at and draw a circle around them:
- Making decisions
- Solving problems
- Envisioning the future
- Creating a story
- Creating a melody, a body movement (in sports or dance) or any other form of art
- Analyzing a situation, an observation or a behavior
- Criticizing a situation or a person
- Making judgments about situations or people
What does this tell you about who you are based on the thinking types we learned earlier? How often are you using those top three thinking powers in your daily life? If you are interested in a self-improvement program, is there room for improvement in any of them?