In an effort to make my brain dribble out of my ears, I've been thinking a lot about thinking this week.
It all started when I went on a rant about Primark and ASDA. I stopped halfway through and listened to myself, then had a stern word with myself. I was being what's known as "a bit of a dick".
And there's been a lot of that about lately.
This article is an effort to gather all the things I've learned – and am learning – about how to think deeply and critically about important stuff.
If you fancy a read, grab a cuppa and settle in.
Just because I got elbowed in the face once in Primark doesn’t mean everyone who shops in Primark is an arse. Just because I got elbowed in the face once in Primark doesn’t mean everyone who shops in Primark is an arse. Repeat until I believe it.
Do you know how I rationalised that ugly little belief? By telling myself I don’t shop in Primark because it’s unethical and because I want my clothes to last for more than two washes. (Both those things are also true, it’s just not the true reason I don’t like Primark.)
One bad experience created a connection in my mind: a person who shops in Primark elbowed me in the face; ergo, all people who shop in Primark are total arses. Oh, except my friend Linda. She’s okay. What’s that you say—Jane shops there too? Oh. I guess she’s fine as well. But everyone else… Grr to them.
This is an actual peek into the inside of my brain. Ridiculous, eh? But it’s a decent example of how we don’t really think.
We get into bad thinking habits, one of which can lead us to lump all Primark shoppers into one stinky heap… and others can lead us to automatic thoughts like, “I know what I think. I know what I like. I know who I am. This is the way I vote. This is what I think about politics, religion, and that annoying man down the road.” We get into the habit of adopting instant opinions, fed to us by social media and the traditional media.
And we allow negative automatic thoughts to stop us from doing the cool stuff we could do if we could just stop beating ourselves up for five damn minutes.
And the whole thing is totally understandable because thinking is hard work man, and frankly it’s easier to get my opinions from the media and have someone else make my decisions for me.
I’m not just being facetious, either: we’re hardwired to do as little thinking as possible because our brains use more energy than the rest of our bodies. Thinking is hard work, so our brains do as little of it as possible to conserve energy. It’s a survival thing. Just because there are no sabre-toothed badgers around to eat us anymore doesn’t matter. Our physiology hasn’t caught up yet.
Because of this evolutionary thing, we have two systems in our brains: the imaginatively named System 1 and System 2. (I thoroughly recommend you read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman if you’re interested in how the brain works because it’s a damn fine book.)
System 1 deals with the automatic stuff: brushing our teeth, driving around, watching TV, doing the laundry, smoking, having another drink, and so on. The stuff we don’t have to think about because it’s automatic.
System 2 solves problems and learns: it does the hard work. Like learning to drive, deciding to floss, learning a new language or a musical instrument, critically evaluating whether we should vote for this person or that one, and so on. The stuff that requires energy and resources.
Our brain defaults to System 1 where possible because it’s low-energy and high-efficiency—which is usually a good thing. If we had to go around thinking about every tiny element of brushing our teeth, we’d never get out of the bathroom.
But it’s not always better. When it comes to voting, or making business decisions, or writing a book or an advertisement or a webpage, System 1 is a disaster.
Let’s define thinking for a moment because we all—me included—often think we’re thinking when really we’re not. Take multitasking, for example—which isn’t a thing, by the way. You can’t multitask. I can’t multitask. Humans cannot multitask. What we do is task-switching, very fast, and we don’t do any of them very well. But I digress.
You cannot think when you’re task-switching.
Thinking is concentrating on one thing for enough time to cultivate an idea about it. Thinking is not memorising a load of information or learning other people’s ideas—although those activities can be useful.
Thinking for ourselves is crucial, or we’re just sleepwalking through life.
I need to think because I don’t want to be just another mindless goo-roo regurgitating other people’s thoughts online. I want to develop my own ideas. But that’s hard work. And like many things that are hard, it’s crucial.
Here’s what Linda Elder, the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking says: “many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.” Take it to its conclusion and you get mass atrocities: people going along with one small bad act after another, until eventually nobody questions the big horrific one.
Bertrand Russell said, “The great majority of men and women, in ordinary times, pass through life without ever contemplating or criticising, as a whole, either their own conditions or those of the world at large.” I’d go further and say this leads to people accepting the world as it is, even if that part of their world is crap—then blaming that crap on people who are different from them. It leads to people not wanting to make things better, but have someone else do it for them.
Here’s why critical thinking matters:
Over the past few years, I’ve done loads of reading, studying, and generally trying to make myself a better person (remember the Primark prejudice? That’s just one reason why). Here’s what I’ve discovered—and what I need to do more of, too.
Because although these 8 things are pretty cool, we’ve also got to remember nobody thinks critically all the time. Sometimes I’m tired and make snap judgements and say stupid things. Sometimes I think unworthy thoughts. And sometimes my inner toddler tantrums its way out and that’s that.
That’s okay. We’re humans not robots and we’re allowed to fuck up sometimes, okay? As long as fucking up isn’t the default. Nobody wants to be the Big Orange Toddler. (See, that’s me allowing my own inner toddler out to have its say, and I’m fine with that.)
This is a bit meta, but it’s a really cool skill to have. We think so fast, we barely notice it’s happening—and before we know it, there’s an assumption digging a hole in our brains and settling in permanently. I learned to think about what I’m thinking about when I had CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for my depression and anxiety. I’ve found it’s an invaluable skill throughout life.
Here’s how it works: every time you have a thought, pause and question it. Am I right? What are my cognitive biases? Am I being prejudiced? How are my habits affecting my thought processes?
For example, when I catch myself being snotty about Primark or ASDA or something, I stop myself and really think about what I’m thinking. Is it fair to make an assumption about people who shop at Primark? No, of course it’s not. Am I being prejudiced? Yep, I am. Am I comfortable with that? NOPE. The whole idea is to change my thinking habits. Eventually I’ll be less of a dick about Primark.
It’s equally important to do this when your Inner Dickhead pipes up to tell you that you’re crap at writing or nobody will be interested in your book or that you’re just generally an awful human being. My Inner Dickhead tells me stuff like that all the time. Don’t let it go: stop and grab hold of the thought, and examine it. Is it correct? Fair? True? No? Hold onto that instead and carry on writing.
“I know what I like” becomes “what do I like? Maybe I could try this”.
“I know what I think” becomes “might I be wrong? Let’s find out”.
“I can’t do this” becomes “what if I try this?”.
The idea is to test our basic assumptions about the world because quite often, they’re wrong. They’re just ideas we’ve absorbed and internalised over the years, often from the adults in our lives who are—newsflash!—just as flawed and prone to bias and prejudice as we are.
Question everything. All the time.
Humans are magnificent at overcomplicating everything. I know I am. If you’re trying to solve a problem or come up with an idea, try this: start simple.
Ask these questions: What do I know? How do I know it? What am I trying to prove or find out? Am I missing anything?
Let’s take the age-old question about what came first—the chicken or the egg? Nerd answer: the egg came first because dinosaurs were laying eggs long before chickens came along.
But let’s imagine if the chicken came first. How would things look then?
Turn a causal problem around and see what it looks like. The answer you get may be ridiculous, but do it anyway because it’ll give you a different point of view.
For example, instead of thinking poor people are poor because they’re financially irresponsible, perhaps that perceived irresponsibility is caused by their poverty. I know a lot of people who make the assumption that poor people are poor because they’re irresponsible. More often than not, the reverse is true and what we see as irresponsibility is desperation and short-term thinking.
A simple reversal can change the way you look at the world for the better.
Instead of assuming someone who disagrees with you is wrong (or stupid, as has happened a lot recently in the UK) put their skin on and look at the world from their point of view.
You might eventually come to the conclusion they are, indeed, wrong—but you’ll understand why and you’ll have a better idea of why you believe what you do.
Maybe you’ll change your mind about things completely if you play devil’s advocate for a while. There are very few things that are black and white.
If you hold a belief or an opinion, it must be based on some evidence. Where does that evidence come from? Is it actually reliable?
There used to be evidence to suggest smoking was good for you. Where do you think that research came from? Who funded it? (Hint: it was the tobacco companies.)
Anti-vaxxers are great at providing “evidence” that vaccines are harmful—but their information comes from companies that have a vested interest in peddling useless at best and harmful at worst homeopathic stuff.
Climate change deniers pick the evidence from the 0.1% of scientific studies that are ambiguous—and ignore the 99.9% of studies that say it’s a thing and it’s destroying us all.
Check your sources and read beyond the headlines and soundbites.
It sounds obvious and we often think that’s what we’re doing... but how often are we having our opinions fed to us by social media? The news? More often than is comfortable.
I know I’ve ended up with opinions about things and people in the past and they’re not really mine; I’ve just absorbed them from the bullshit that pervades social media. It’s why I’ve ditched Facebook from my phone and largely ignore it.
To write we have to think more deeply. When we write, we have to consider the thoughts in our heads and turn them into something coherent other people will understand. I often don’t really know what I think about something until I start to write about it.
Even if you’re “not a writer”, try writing things down when you have a thorny problem to solve. You’ll be amazed at how much clearer your thinking becomes.
These are my top 8 tips to help you think—and write—more clearly. Make 2020 the year you start undoing the bad thinking habits of a lifetime. That’s my goal for next year: think better, be better.
If you want to learn more about how to write, self-publish, and market a book for your business, snaffle yourself a copy of How The Hell Do You Write A Book? Then check out the blog and podcast for more articles and guides. If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me.
Vicky Fraser is the founder of Moxie Books and author of How The Hell Do You Write A Book and Business For Superheroes. She helps business owners write life-changing books, connect with readers and new customers, and grow their businesses. When she's not doing that, she's hanging from a trapeze by her feet.
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