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How to Train Your Brain to Think Fast and Think Smart

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How to Train Your Brain to Think Fast and Think Smart

In a TEDx Talk in 2015, Matt Abrahams got up in front of a crowd and said:[1]

“People hate me. People fear me… I have a tool and that tool is what makes people fear me and despise me. As a professor, I have an ability that’s called cold calling. That’s where I look at a student and ask ‘what do you think?’ ‘what do you feel about what we just discussed?’ ‘how does this impact you?'”

In that paragraph alone, there is a lot to unpack, but what’s important to note for now is this ability of his: Cold calling.

Why do people fear it so much?

Likely because it’s estimated that 75% of people have a fear of public speaking.[2] But digging further, it might also be due to people being unable to think fast in those situations.

Looking further than that, there are likely all kinds of other social situations where you wish you could think fast. From coming up with witty remarks to finishing a task faster, thinking fast has various perks and requires training to achieve it.

The Importance of Thinking Fast

Before we learn how it’s important, we need to learn why it’s important. If there is no reason to practice, then we will ultimately stop after a while.

Being able to think fast provides a wide variety of benefits. Outside of the few social situations I mentioned above, some other ones include:

  • People will think you are smarter.
  • When people are asked to think fast, they are happier, more creative, energetic, and self-confident.
[3]
  • Faster thinking also ties into planning, problem-solving, goal setting, and being able to focus.[4]
  • Faster thinking will also keep your brain mentally sharp.
  • You also will experience faster reaction times.

The list is extensive but the idea is: the stronger your brain is, the more you can leverage it in many aspects of life.

How Do You Think Faster?

The next question is how does one increase speed? That answer is through a variety of ways that I’ve listed below.

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1. Make Faster Minor Decisions

We are faced with many decisions over the course of the day but, some of them aren’t as important as others. Eating is important, but the decision between a salad, chicken, or beef is inconsequential. Being able to quickly decide what to eat can help you with thinking faster.

After all, even if your decision wasn’t the best, the consequences are small. This training works since this is literally the act of thinking fast.

But one thing I’ll stress is the keyword with this advice — minor decisions. Do not use this tactic in more pressing life-altering decisions which will have larger consequences.

2. Practice Speed

There are things that we do all the time and we’ve gotten really good at — playing music, learning songs, writing, or doing specific stretches. Whatever the case, I encourage you to add another layer of challenge to those skills by speeding up. Similar to the tactic above, this also demands you think fast to perform a task.

What will help you in practicing speed would be a timer. Time yourself on completing puzzles or running a lap. You can give yourself an allotted time to complete a task.

That second strategy is surprisingly effective as most people will instinctively prioritize the most important aspects of that task. It’s called Parkinsons Law.

3. Stop Trying To Multitask

As much as we like to think we can do tasks at once, we really can’t. Our brain – as powerful as it is – is unable to focus on two tasks at once.

But why can people rub their tummy and pat their head?

Well, that’s because our brain rapidly toggles between tasks. In those situations, people’s brains are jumping between those tasks faster. Outside of those situations though, the research found that multitasking reduces attention span, our ability to learn and our mental performance.[5]

Therefore, it’s smarter for us to prioritize a single task and give it our undivided attention until completion.

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4. Get Sufficient Sleep

Adequate sleep is necessary not only for body function but for brain function as well. One study found that not sleeping well will impact our thinking speed and accuracy.[6] By that logic, it makes sense that sleep will help in keeping our brain healthier and functional.

5. Meditate

Regular meditation is another way for us to stimulate our brain. There have been all kinds of studies showing how meditation helps with the creation of new brain cells and neural connections. That’s because meditation strengthens the communication between cells in the first place.[7]

6. Do Aerobic Exercises

All exercise is great for us and our brain to some degree. That being said, aerobic exercises specifically have shown to improve the processing speed of our brain.[8] Aerobic exercises are exercises like jogging, walking, biking, and swimming.

All of these strategies can help you with thinking fast. However, there’s one other strategy worth looking over. It’s the research that was conducted by Daniel Kahneman on thinking slow and fast.

Thinking Slow And Fast

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman uncovers various concepts revolving around decision-making and behavioural psychology. It’s well worth a read as the book explains various concepts and makes you think a lot about how we go about decisions.

For example, one big takeaway from the book revolves around two systems. These two systems are how we think. System 1 is about thinking fast, while System 2 is about thinking slow. This forms the premise of the book.

But there is a twist to this.

While a lot of us believe we are analytical thinkers who think slow, we actually spend most of the time in the System 1 – fast thinking. So we’re technically already able to think fast. But maybe not in the way you’d think.

You see, System 1 is all about intuition. It’s what our gut tells us and we use that to make decisions. It’s the very same system we use to judge people and put together the first impressions of people.

It’s until we make a conscious effort do we actually move to System 2 and think slow. Kahneman expands on this:

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“Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine — usually.

When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment. System 2 is mobilized when a question arises for which System 1 does not offer an answer… System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.”

Because of this, System 1 is constantly making judgements, intuitions and impressions based on what is being sensed. In most situations, we instinctively gravitate towards that idea presented.

This often leads us to jump to conclusions despite us thinking fast. We even create a story to further solidify that conclusion even if it’s unfounded. Kahneman explains:

“The measure of success for System 1 is the coherence of the story it manages to create. The amount and quality of the data on which the story is based are largely irrelevant. When information is scarce, which is a common occurrence, System 1 operates as a machine for jumping to conclusions.”

While training ourselves to think fast is helpful, it’s important to be wary of that power. As Kahneman outlined, people can jump to conclusions too quickly and that can cause issues.

Learning to think slow and fast stems from an understanding of when it’s appropriate to think slow or fast. Indeed, improve your thinking speed, but keep the information presented in mind as we delve into what thinking slow really means.

Understand Type 2 Thinking

Type 2 thinking is another way to say System 2 thinking. And the best way to fully represent this form of thinking is to solve the following problem:

18 x 26

In this example, you can immediately identify that this is a multiplication problem. A math problem you are confident you can solve with the help of a pen and paper or a calculator. All of this information alone represents System 1 thinking.

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System 2 thinking is the act of you going through the steps to solve the problem. If you were to solve the problem by hand or mentally, you’d retrieve the math skills you were taught in school and implement them in your solution.

Overall the mental work was deliberate, orderly, and took effort and some strain. Most likely had a shift in facial expression as you worked to solve the answer -which is 468 – or when you gave up.

What this exercise reveals is that both forms of thinking feed off of one another. In order for us to go slow, we must learn to go fast.

System 1 presents the overall ideas and goals and views (i.e. this is a math problem and your goal is to solve it). System 2, on the other hand, breaks those down into steps and constructs thoughts in an orderly fashion (i.e. here are the steps to take so solve the math problem).

By understanding this relationship, we not only understand our thinking process but we can learn to be okay with it. We can accept that some things will take more time to process. The point of that is to not get frustrated or jump the gun.

When to use type 2 thinking is to understand when a situation requires our attention. Examples of this are not only that math problem but also:

  • When looking for someone.
  • Remembering a particular quote from a book.
  • Filling out a tax form or other government documents.
  • Even maintaining a faster walking or running speed than what we are used to.

System 2 thinking demands that we process those things and that we think slow in those situations.

Final Thoughts

While there are all kinds of tactics to exercise our brain to think fast, speed isn’t always everything. Sometimes situations call for us to carefully consider and gather our thoughts. It’s important to find balance in thinking fast and slow.

By understanding the connection between both systems, we can better determine when to be thinking fast or slow. No matter what though, there is nothing wrong with either of the thinking processes. After all, each situation we have in our lives demands different forms of thinking from all of us.

More to Enhance Your Brain Power

Featured photo credit: Allef Vinicius via unsplash.com

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Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

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How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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