Thinking is a meta-skill.
These days, it’s as out-of-fashion as feature phones, which is heartbreaking.
Most people let others do the thinking for them – media pundits, social media “intellectuals”, bosses, elders and so on.
But being a good thinker offers the following benefits:
- It brings clarity,
- It makes you better and faster at problem-solving,
- It makes you more creative.
All this turn you into the go-to person when people can’t get their heads around a situation. Not to mention how much it improves the quality of your decisions, which affect how you live your life.
To become a better thinker, you must apply a framework, one you can rely on to build strong mental models.
Here’s a 5-step process that works for me.
Step 1: Question
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes reframing the question.” – Albert Einstein
Every interesting thought starts with a question.
The world’s most successful and creative people are expert questioners. They often question the conventional wisdom of their industry.
Effective questioning is the first step to become a better thinker. Confront the scenario and frame questions clearly to get responses.
Asking follow-up questions until you’ve got a bird’s eye view of the problem and its context. My favorite quote from Jason Fried isn’t just applicable here, it’s something I live by: The question gets you the answer, but the followup question gets you gold.
How can you tell when you’re asking the right questions? When people often answer it with, “This is how it’s always done.” Breakthroughs in thinking arise when you question the status quo.
Step 2: Understand
After you pose questions, check whether you understand the answers and the context.
Most problems arise because people skip steps one and two. They don’t pose questions nor do they try to understand a problem. The result is the glorified action of fire-fighting.
How can you tell whether you understand a situation or problem? When you can explain it in simple words.
“If you can’t explain something in simple terms, then you don’t understand it.” – Richard Feynman
Step 3: Plan
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
Don’t jump into problem-solving right away.
Doing so is akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall and looking for something that sticks. You’ll have to depend more on luck for the outcome. It’s also a terrible waste of time and energy.
Step 3 is to plan your solution. Analyze the information at hand. Make a list of the exact steps you’ll take.
An effective way I use to plan my actions is to ask myself, “What inputs do I need to achieve this?” I plan how I’ll collect that information before I jump into problem-solving mode.
Step 4: Dissect
“Reduce a problem where you know how to solve it and write the solution. Then expand the problem slightly and rewrite the solution to match, and keep going until you’re back where you started.” – V. Anton Spraul
You can’t solve the whole problem at once. It will clutter your thought process. Instead, break the problem down into smaller problems. Then solve them one by one.
Smaller problems are easier to solve. Solve the simplest problem first, then the next small problem, and so on. Eventually, you’ll get in the groove to solve all sub-problems.
When you piece them together, you’ll find the solution to the entire problem without busting your brains.
Step 5: Apply
“The doer alone learns.” – Bruce Lee
This is an important step, one that many people avoid.
Most people feel that good thinking rhymes with giving a solution, dropping the mic and walking away, expecting others to do the work.
But if you don’t act, you cannot know whether your solutions worked. And you will not know whether you’re a thinker or a faker.
Apply your solutions. But don’t stop there.
Each time you get to an outcome, reflect on it. Compare it with the notes you made in the Planning step. Check what worked and what didn’t. Think about what you will do differently the next time around.
The more you follow the Question – Understand – Plan – Dissect – Apply framework, the better you learn. Over time, you’ll turn into a person who doesn’t get influenced by external successes and failures but stays confident enough to back yourself and bide your time.
That’s when your gut will tell you what to do. To others, you’ll appear like a natural. But you’ll know the effort you put into honing the meta-skill of thinking.
Thinking will be the largest differentiating skill in 2019 and beyond. It will impact your decisions, your actions, and quality of life. Focus on the fundamentals. The rest will fall in place by itself.