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Published on December 29, 2020

Become a Pro at Thinking Strategically in 4 Simple Steps

Become a Pro at Thinking Strategically in 4 Simple Steps

Thinking strategically is boring—if you don’t know how to do it. Getting stuck feels bad and moving forward feels good.

In this article, you will learn how to never again have to feel that strategic thinking is boring by becoming a pro at it. First, you will learn how to improve the way your brain functions so that it helps instead of hinders you. After that, you will learn how to think strategically to achieve your goals.

Take a second to think about how improving your strategic thinking skills might help you in your life. What problems do you need to solve? What goals do you have? By understanding how to improve how your brain works, you can solve problems and achieve your goals more efficiently.

Thinking strategically is defined as a mental process applied by a person to set themselves up to efficiently achieve a goal in a specific context.[1]

For example, you might engage in the mental process of pondering how to read this article to the end without losing focus. Your pondering of this question is a distraction, so stop daydreaming, keep focused, and read on now!

Nah, just kidding. Seriously though, pondering how to read this article without losing focus is an example of thinking strategically. You are considering what things you can do to achieve your goal of efficiently finishing this article.

I’ll break the process of strategic thinking down more in-depth in steps 3 and 4 of this article. But first, here’s an overview of the 4 simple steps to become a pro at thinking strategically:

  1. Meditate to get a clear perspective.
  2. Use cognitive enhancers to sharpen your mind.
  3. Understand the problem/goal you want to solve/achieve.
  4. Find the most efficient methods for solving your problem.

The first two steps are about improving your brain function to get you into a state of mind conducive to strategic thinking, and the final two steps outline how to actually apply this mental superpower.

1. Meditate to Get a Clear Perspective

To think strategically, you will need a clear perspective on the problem you are going to try to solve and the methods available to you for solving it.

Meditation is an excellent way to clear any gunk out of your mind. Having a meditation habit can probably improve your strategic thinking skills in the long term, but it is actually in the short term that meditation has the most prominent benefits for thinking strategically.[2][3]

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I suggest that you meditate just before thinking strategically for anywhere between 10 seconds and 2 hours depending on the importance of the goal/problem that you want to think about.

Specifically, mindfulness meditation without any specific object of attention—just resting your mind and observing everything that comes into your consciousness as closely as possible—is the sort of meditation that tends to help me think more strategically as opposed to instinctively.

By deliberately observing your thoughts, you will become more and more aware of your assumptions and preconceptions in regards to the nature of the problem and the solutions to it that you’ve considered so far.

2. Use Cognitive Enhancers to Sharpen Your Mind

Cognitive enhancers—supplements that if used appropriately enhances cognitive performance for the user—can help you think better. These substances are often also called “nootropics” or “smart drugs”.

Many people have misconceptions about these, either believing that they are super-effective and should be banned to prevent people from cheating with them or that they don’t do anything at all.[4] Both of these beliefs are mostly wrong.

Some nootropics certainly can have cognitive-enhancing effects, but these are only extremely good if you are performing poorly, to begin with. Think of Caffeine for example. It doesn’t raise your IQ by 40 points, but it helps you think, especially if you haven’t used it in a while.

To use nootropics to think strategically, it is important to think strategically about using nootropics. What do you want to improve in your mental toolkit? Memory, focus, mood, energy, or stress levels?

I work at Nootralize, which is a company that helps people understand the science of nootropics. In our review of more than 500 placebo-controlled studies that examined the effects of more than 200 nootropics in healthy humans, we found that most nootropics that people use and claim enhance their mental performance are severely underresearched. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these substances are ineffective, just that the scientific data needed to know is not available.

Overall, the 5 most science-backed nootropics are Omega 3’s, Walnuts, Bacopa Monnieri, Caffeine, and Sage. But it’s important that you know why you want to use nootropics. Caffeine wouldn’t help you at all with decreasing stress levels for example, but Bacopa Monnieri might.[5]

There are even some nootropics, such as Cocoa and Lemon Balm, that might help you in your meditation practice.[6] Meditation and nootropics are just two of many science-backed methods for improving your brain function so that it can help you think more strategically.

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3. Understand the Problem You Want to Solve

A strategy is not an end in itself but a means to some other end. The trigger for you to start thinking “Aha! It’s time to think strategically!” is when you have just identified a problem.

When you have identified a problem that you want to solve, it’s time to understand the why, when, and where of the problem.

Ask yourself:

  • Why do you want to solve this problem?
  • When do you want this problem solved?
  • Where (in what context) do you want this problem solved?

For example, you could answer these questions by saying, “I’m trying to lose 10kg in 2021 because I think that will increase my day-to-day energy levels.” It is clear from this statement that you want to increase your energy levels and also want to solve the problem of how to lose 10kg. It is also clear that you want this done before the end of 2021, and that it is you and not your sister or Donald Trump that you want to change the weight of.

Getting clear on the context of the problem will enable you to compare the efficiency of the methods available for solving your problem.

4. Find the Most Efficient Methods for Solving Your Problem

To find the best solution to your problem, you will have to understand the underlying causes of the problem. What factors play a role in the problem at hand? What variables can, if manipulated, help you solve your problem?

What resources are needed for you to manipulate those variables? This can be people, money, time, energy, food, information, etc. Based on the resources you have available, you will have to find a way to economically solve your problem. To understand which method is the most efficient and economical, you need to compare your options.

Imagine you’re trying to learn chemistry. Specifically, you’ve identified that right now you want to learn the chemical formula for water in a short amount of time. You now understand what you want to do, when, and in what context. Now, it’s time to find an efficient method for learning the chemical formula for water.

The resources you have available are a glass of water, your phone which has internet access, and your mother, a biologist, who is sitting next to you ready to help.

How would you go about learning the chemical formula for water? Most people would probably not even try doing anything with the water to understand its chemical formula. But why?

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Water on its own doesn’t have any of the information that is necessary for you in your quest to solve your problem. You would need advanced chemistry tools and knowledge as well as quite a bit of time to find out the chemical formula for water with the help of the glass of water.

Would you ask Google or your mom?

For comparison between two options when there’s no clear winner in terms of efficiency in helping you solve your problem, a simple pro/con list can be very useful.

Your mother can answer your question, likely accurately, in a very short amount of time when you’ve asked her what the chemical formula for water is. Google can also answer your question, more likely accurately, but it would probably take longer to open your phone, open the web browser, type Google, hit enter, type “What is the chemical formula for water?” hit enter, select a good source, and read the answer.

This simple pro/con list could be illustrated in a table:

    When comparing options for solving your problem in practice, it quickly becomes clear that knowing the context of your problem is crucial. If you know that you’re looking to understand the chemical formula for water because you’re going to have a test on this in school next week, then you might accept the fast and high accuracy response from your mother.

    But if you’re going to hold a speech in front of the nation as the president of the United States, you likely will want to invest more time to get an answer that is definitely accurate.

    This is an example of why you need to fully understand the context of the problem you’re trying to solve before looking at methods for solving it. Thinking strategically allows you to understand the context of the problem.

    Pros/cons, revenues/costs, rewards/risks, benefits/side effects—all of these are terms that describe the positive and negative aspects of solutions or tools that can be used to solve problems.

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    In some circumstances, the problem is so small that it would take more time to create a pro/con list on paper or to create a clear definition of why you want to solve this problem, which is when a clear and sharp mind comes in extra handy.

    When Not to Think Strategically

    In the many situations that happen daily where small problems need to be solved, you can cut the time needed to select a solution to the problem down to the time it takes for you to think about the pros and cons of a problem.

    You likely do this more or less consciously already, but becoming aware that you are solving problems can help you take a step back—perhaps meditate for 10 seconds—and with a nootropic-fueled mind, see the entire list of pros and cons of the possible solutions to a problem in front of you.

    Thinking strategically takes time. People who are really good at strategic thinking know when thinking strategically is overkill.

    You don’t need to write a pro/con list for which pair of socks you will use tomorrow morning or even think of the pros and cons of the alternatives you have. Sometimes, it will give you the best results to just act and to do so quickly.

    I encourage you to think strategically now about which situations you want to think strategically about in the future. Personally, I find that the more important it is for me that a problem is solved and that the resources needed to solve the problem are used efficiently, the more strategically I want to think.

    If I had a test next week for which I needed to know the chemical formula for water, I would not get a pen and paper and create a pro/con list. It would take too much time relative to the importance of the problem. I would just act.

    On the other hand, if I wanted to use a nootropic, I would read quite a lot online and in the scientific literature about its risks and potential benefits because nootropics alter your biology and your biology creates your experience. Since my experience is very important to me, I would invest more time and effort in thinking more strategically.

    Conclusion

    To become a pro at thinking strategically, you need to when to think strategically and when to just act on instinct. To determine this, understand what sort of problem you have in front of you. When you’ve understood your problem in-depth, it is time to understand the solutions available and find the best one for your situation.

    To do these things flawlessly and efficiently, meditation and cognitive enhancers can be useful. They can sharpen your mind to the point at which thinking strategically is easy and fun.

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    Featured photo credit: airfocus via unsplash.com

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    David Rönnlid

    David is the lead content creator at Nootralize, a company with a mission to help people feel and perform better.

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    Last Updated on June 1, 2021

    Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

    Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

    Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

    Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

    The Skinny on Mental Workouts

    Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

    Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

    1. Improved Memory

    After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

    2. Reduced Stress Levels

    Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

    3. Improved Work Performance

    Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

    4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

    As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

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    Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

    Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

    The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

    1. Brainstorming

    One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

    If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

    2. Dancing

    Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

    Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

    3. Learning a New Language

    Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

    With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

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    4. Developing a Hobby

    Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

    If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

    For example:

    • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
    • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
    • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
    • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

    Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

    5. Board Games

    Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

    Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

    6. Card Games

    Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

    A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

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    7. Puzzles

    Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

    Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

    8. Playing Music

    Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

    Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

    What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

    9. Meditating

    Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

    Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

    • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
    • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
    • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
    • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
    • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
    • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

    10. Deep Conversation

    There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

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    Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

    11. Cooking

    When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

    If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

    12. Mentorship

    Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

    Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

    Final Thoughts

    Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

    To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

    More Tips for Training Your Brain

    Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

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