How To Think Better (Evidence-Based Ways to Think Better)

No matter what you are doing. If you are not thinking about it beforehand. Like, really considering every aspect of the situation. Chances are, you’ll do a poor job when executing your tasks – i.e., you’ll do stupid mistakes, miserably fail, and others will make fun of you. Therefore, your actions will never lead to satisfactory outcomes.

The subject of thinking is heavily neglected.

It’s presumed that since we have a brain. We possess this magical ability to think. But hey, rats have brains, too. Does that mean they can build a skyscraper and drive a car?

Hmm, I’m not sure.

I’ve never seen a rat driving a car. Not even riding a bike.

But let’s get back to the main point: thinking better. And even more so, how to think better?

It’s one thing your brain to create sparks so you can successfully navigate the spoon towards your mouth without spilling the soup. It’s quite another to effectively tackle the challenges life throws at you without ending in jail or homeless – i.e., going bankrupt.

Sadly, no one teaches the ability to think. Schools are focused on showing you what to think, not how to think. That’s why we grow up unable to successfully solve situations that weren’t present in the textbook.

Besides, rarely do people think about thinking.

But, undoubtedly, it’s needed.

The patterns that emerge in our brains that we call thoughts. And the way they influence our decisions is the premise for living a somehow pleasant life.

Not that we are living a bad life. Since you have a smartphone and you can afford to read. Chances are, you are doing pretty OK in life.

But who is ever satisfied with OK. We want more. We want better.

And precisely that’s what we’ll get if we train our brain to avoid the shortcuts he is used to and invite new and better-thinking concepts.

For this piece, besides relying on what I’ve learned from all the books I’ve read. Besides relying on scientific papers. I rely also on my own experiences.

My aim is to help you become better at how to think, not what to think. This way, the next time someone asks you about, say, “What are your thoughts about our species becoming intergalactic?” Or, “Does sound travel faster in the air or in water, and why?”

You won’t simply shrug your shoulders and produce an animal-like sound – “Ugh?!” You’ll construct a well-defined answer based on your ability to exercise your ability to think.

Why Is Thinking So Difficult?

For a moment, let’s consider that thinking is challenging. I’m absolutely sure that you can think. But say that today, your brain is on vacation. OK, not the whole brain. But the part that is responsible for creating original thoughts. The part that allows you to imagine and draw goofy characters on a piece of paper.

“So long, sucker,” the brain says while he puts his bags in the truck and waves from inside the taxi driving him to the airport.

Now your head is partly empty.

Does that mean that you’ll collapse and starve to death?

Not at all.

See, the first reason thinking is so difficult is that there is a certain set of hierarchy when it comes down to constructing a thought.

Our brain evolved. Building brick by brick. The brain is what it is today. Meaning that it was way simpler in the beginning.

These are the main parts of the brain now:

  • The Reptilian brain: This part of the brain is in control of our innate and automatic self-preserving behavior patterns. The Reptilian brain is in charge of what is called the four Fs: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and, you know…1
  • The Limbic brain: This part of the brain manages the body’s movement. Also, it can record memories and behaviors that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences. Kind of responsible for what are called “emotions” in human beings.2
  • The Neocortex: This is the newest part of the brain. And, there are many functions. Amongst the large portfolio of actions, in the Neocortex, we have things like: the ability to reason, plan, solve complex problems, self-regulate and make decisions.3

But initially, the brain was mainly focused on two things: surviving and replicating – the Neocortex still wasn’t invented.

So, if we are to remove the part of the brain that allows you to imagine a pink elephant with a colorful umbrella walking on a tiny rope. The only two things you’ll ever think about will be how to get something to eat and how to mate. Just like animals.

Every situation you encounter. It’s first considered through the lens of surviving and mating. If something is not helping you achieve these two. The brain, most commonly, simply doesn’t allow this thought to proceed to the creative part of the brain. The part that can read – and use – the books standing on your shelf. Not just use them to decorate your shelves.

“Uh, a book? No, want food…”

The other aspect that makes thinking difficult is that we simply don’t think at all. Or more accurately, don’t think enough about thinking – nor what to think about.

When we don’t think about thinking. We operate with the patterns that currently exist in our heads. Patterns, that are surely not enough to cope with the variety of problems we experience or will experience.

I mean, we constantly face new challenges. And when something we haven’t experienced before occurs, it’s like you are suddenly teleported into a middle of a big forest. Everything around you is new and unknown.

With every new step, you uncover more of the foreign ground but this type of unraveling is not good enough. After all, it’s no use to find out about a trap by entering the trap. It’s more useful to see the trap beforehand and avoid it.

That’s what teaching yourself to think better can do for you.

It will allow you to spot destructive situations ahead of time and tailor your decision to reach a better outcome.

How Do I Become Better At Thinking?

There are a couple of prerequisites to becoming a better thinker. And you don’t just need one of the things. You need all of them to successfully deal with the ever-evolving world.

Behold, the core principles for better thinking:

The 5 Tenets to Become a Better Thinker

1. Metacognition

Metacognition-thinking-about-thinking
Thinking about thinking doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It means that you’re searching for ways to upgrade your thinking.

Metacognition is the first principle. Or the so-called thinking about thinking.

While sounding a bit out there, metacognition is simply your ability to understand your own thought processes.

You need to realize that you have a problem with thinking. Otherwise, you won’t take steps to improve. You’ll be blissfully unaware of your flaws and continue moving forward in life, hoping, praying, that luck will strike.

Being good at thinking about thinking requires two things. Self-analysis and something a bit harder: Admitting you’re not perfect. Don’t worry, no one is. The better you become at spotting your flaws. Especially in the way you think, the more you’ll improve your life.

A simple example of metacognition is the following: By examining your thought processes, you can realize that you’re really bad at remembering facts. But instead of posting about this on social media and waiting for others to cheer you about your lack of memory. You do something about it. You find learning strategies that can help you with this and improve your memory.

2. Cognitive Biases

Cognitive-Biases-distort-our-thinking
Cognitive biases heavily distort our thinking. We think our thinking is good but we’re blind, unaware of the errors.

Remember earlier when I said that your brain is going on vacation?

Well, the brain does that more often than we think.

Since there are so many things that happen all the time. The brain creates something like thinking shortcuts. Imagine them like a shortcut icon on your computer. Instead of going through all the folders to find the game you installed a couple of weeks ago and said you’ll play only on Sunday while your kid is snoozing. You create a shortcut on your desktop, and you play more often than you should.

Similarly, instead of thinking about whether or not to check a message you just received, you impatiently unlock your phone. I mean, even if you’re swarmed with work. In 99% of the cases, when you receive a notification you check it instantaneously.

After all, checking notifications feels good. And good, is how we want to feel all the time.

The cognitive biases are ready-made patterns the brain uses to handle the cognitive load. And while serving the brain, these rarely serve you.

Cognitive biases can be considered the bad habits of the brain.4

It’s extremely hard to avoid them. But it’s important to start noticing them.

For instance, a famous, and dangerous, cognitive bias is the confirmation bias.

In short, confirmation bias is our tendency to look for sources, people, and ideas, that confirm our own beliefs.

Someone may say to you that spending 5 hours a day on social media is the reason you are not making progress in your life. However, instead of observing how you do indeed spend your time. To this, you’ll respond with: Banning this person from your life and then finding a group of people who think that social media is the best thing that ever happened to humanity.

3. Mental Models

When we use mental models, we understand the world faster and better. Therefore, we think faster and we go further. (Check the tires!)

While the above can discourage you. This step is going to encourage you.

Even if you possess a full library of bad thinking habits. The truth is, that you can improve your thinking patterns regardless of your age.

Our brains are highly adaptable. We can shape them the way we like. We simply need to want to change.

That’s where the concept of mental models enters.

Mental models are thinking tools that help us see how the world works. How other people think. Then, construct healthy thinking patterns – or simply re-use existing ones – that allow us to perform better, not constantly fail.

For instance, there are learning mental models, problem-solving mental models, etc.

These are again shortcuts. But unlike cognitive biases, they inspire thinking and then acting, not acting without thinking.

For instance, if we consider the cognitive bias above again. Instead of feeling offended by what the person said about social media. You can apply second-order thinking. By doing so, you can see that while social media usage feels good now, it leads only to future degeneration. You don’t get any long-term rewards for browsing through pictures. Only short-term emotional gains that quickly evaporate and make you want more. By performing this self-analysis with the help of a mental model, you can take steps towards doing something more healthy with your time.

4. Unlearning

what-got-you-here-won't-get-you-there
What got you here won’t get you there. You need to unlearn certain principles and tactics so you can make room for better ones.

A common reason people stagnate is because they don’t update their mental models.

As mentioned above, we are prone to seeking things that confirm our existing beliefs. We relentlessly search for facts that support everything we think. But this leads us to nowhere. We simply stay in the same position. Never advancing.

A big part of thinking better is unlearning old mental models and replacing them with better ones.

You need to regularly practice losing faith in impractical thinking panthers and completely detaching from them. This, makes room for new and better thinking.

Something that often happens in our daily life and as well in big organizations is that they hold to things they did for years. Never updating their views. That’s why the following is considered the most dangerous phrase in business: “We’ve always done it this way!”

But as smart folks say, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Or if I can slightly change a quote from the great book Accelerated Expertise, your “learning thinking advances when flawed mental models are replaced, and is stable when a model is refined and gets harder to disconfirm.”

All of this requires abandoning/unlearning outdated concepts that you currently hold and replacing them with better ones.

5. Emotional Resilience

understanding-Emotional-Resilience-will-improve-your-thinking
We first feel and we then think. Understanding that we’re guided by emotions can help you in so many different areas in your life. Not only better understand yourself, but others, too.

If you still haven’t, please do check the book Emotional Intelligence.

In it, the author explains in a delicate manner why our thinking is often flawed.

In short, because we are designed to feel first, and then think.

If you are feeling depressed. If you doubt yourself. If you lack confidence. You will act quite differently than if you feel cheerful, encouraged, and confident.

Even something simple as feeling tired will alter your thinking in a destructive way.

For instance, there is a concept called emotional hijacking – also known as an amygdala hijack. It’s an immediate emotional response that neglects the rational part of the brain. Plainly, if you are threatened with a gun, your brain will drop all other thoughts and enter fight or flight mode.

Or something else that happens most commonly is when we are tired. At the end of the hard working day, there is a greater chance to fight with our spouse. Not because we have the energy to fight. Rather, we are so tired that we don’t involve any thinking in what we say. Thus, we can hurt others without realizing this and then shout, instead of apologize.


Understanding that thinking is heavily influenced by our emotions is the last component of the 5 main principles toward better thinking.

Now, let us see what thinking strategies we can start using that will help us to think better.

Strategies for Thinking Better

Rarely one thing will help you become a better thinker. There are many requirements. And the above are just a starting point.

What do smart people do?

Smart people don’t just think about their own thinking patterns. They spend a lot of time thinking about what they are not thinking about.

Sounds like a total mind-fuck, but hear me out.

When you consider what you are probably missing, this can help you invite new ideas that were previously unavailable and make a better decision.

After all, if you rely solely on what’s currently in your head to move forward in life, you are surely missing something. That’s where spending more time to make a decision is an important component. That’s the first thinking strategy…

Strategy 1: Spend More Time With Problems

Thinking-strategy-Spend-More-Time-With-Problems
When we spend more time with a problem, two amazing things happen. First, you start finding a bunch of solutions. Second, the problem no longer seems scary. The creation of options allows you to see that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Prepare a list. But not a to-do list or a grocery list. An unusual list.

Write down your main problems. Your current biggest obstacles in life.

Then, every time you hear or read something interesting, test it against each of your problems to see whether it helps.

A quote that can reinforce this claim is from Albert Einstein.

He famously said:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Albert Einstein

Yes, some situations require making a decision now. But others, we can afford to postpone.

Strategy 2: Go Deep But Also Go Wide

going-deep-vs-going-wide
Going deep helps you become an expert. Going wide simply fills your mind with random facts.

If we want to master a specific field, we usually go deep. Meaning that we read all of the books on one specific subject.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. Exposing yourself to a large portfolio of cases related to a particular subject can prepare you. You will know what to expect and even have strategies to act when unexpected things happen in this domain.

The downside of this approach is that you become good at one thing only.

Sure, it’s good to be recognized as an expert. But you accidentally lock yourself in your self-created bubble. You know a lot about doing X, but you are clueless about W, Y, and Z.

going-deep-and-going-wide
In our current world, we need to both go deep and go wide.

And in our world, you need to know a lot of things about a lot of different subjects. Not only to think better but to thrive in life.

Or if I can rephrase this, going deep will allow you to become the best accountant in an accountant firm. Going deep and going wide will help you own the best accounting firm in your area.

Strategy 3: Reduce Cognitive Load

Reduce-Cognitive-Load
There is a huge difference between thinking about a lot of things and thinking about the right things.

According to Wikipedia, “cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory resources used.”

Throughout our days, the things inside our working memory gradually increase.

We might wake up with the basic needs in our heads, but go to bed with a crowded brain.

The reason is simple, we acquire new information during the day through various sources: news, TV, other people sharing ideas or demanding from us to do things, etc.

Having that in mind, one way to think better is to simply think about fewer stuff.

Let me explain, when you are overwhelmed with choices and decisions, conversely to what the logic solution will be – structure them and tackle them one by one. We do exactly the opposite. Namely, we shrink in our cushy corner and watch YouTube videos – i.e., we procrastinate.

And while there are things you can’t afford to not think about – e.g., your health, your family, your job. There are areas you can proactively neglect. For instance, quit social media, quit the news, quit trying to be perfect.

Money is a big obstacle. And money can interfere with our thinking.

When we don’t have enough, the only thing we think about is money. And while money won’t solve all of your problems, it will surely solve your money problems. Besides reading personal finance books, I don’t have another solution for you about this. Nonetheless, realizing that thinking about money can interfere with your overall thinking is something to have in mind.

Strategy 4: Switch Between Focused and Diffuse Mode

Switch-Between-Focused-and-Diffuse-Mode
Switching between focused and diffuse mode allows you to see the bigger picture and make unusual connections between domains.

When you focus on one thing. You get the job done. But you dismiss everything else. That’s why you also need to let your mind wander. By doing so, you’ll see the big idea. The bigger scope.

That’s what switching between focused and diffuse mode means.

In the book Learning How to Learn, the authors share interesting insights about these two thinking types.

When you are in focused mode, you are paying attention to the current problem. Specific parts of the brain are activated and you work in a narrow space. However, this blocks new ideas to enter that can potentially freshen up the solution you are thinking about.

Diffuse mode is basically daydreaming or doodling on your notebook. You don’t think about anything particular. Your mind bounces between different thoughts. And while it might seem unproductive, exactly this careless approach can help you find new unique angles to solve a hard task.

Or in other words, when you are presented with a problem. Do pay attention, but give yourself room to take a step back. A step away from the problem so you can explore how the current issue relates to other things.

Strategy 5: Employ Empathy

Employ-Empathy
When you think about others. About what others are thinking, you become less violent. Less frustrated and more understanding. With this, the opportunities around you start to get bigger.

I believe that most of the nonsense that happens in the world is based on a lack of empathy. People don’t care about others. They only care about what others can do for them. Sadly, this zero-sum thinking doesn’t lead to any lasting outcomes. Yes, you can probably win this battle, but you won’t win the war.

Take chess for example.

If you focus only on your game, you won’t get far. You also need to figure out what game the other person is playing. That’s how you win.

This always involves a large degree of empathy.

And what’s empathy exactly?

The dictionary describes this as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, combined with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

I see a lack of empathy all the time.

When I engaged in conversation, I often just wait to see how others will turn the conversation back to them.

“Oh, I understand what you mean about your problem. Let me tell you about my problems now…”

Using empathy to think better is heavily neglected because it doesn’t seem like a solution for better thinking. It seems more like a solution for marketers. But I do think that it helps you think better.

Thinking without thinking about others can solve your problems. But you don’t live in a vacuum. You live around others and with others. Therefore, you need to consider how your decision will influence the other side when you engage in the hard task of using your brain.

Some Closing Thoughts

So, can you learn to be a better thinker?

At its core, good thinking is about moving to a better place and further away from a dystopian place. And this happens through engaging with your thoughts so you can find the right solution – not neglecting them or picking the first idea that comes to mind.

Missing insightful information flows is one of the most common causes of corrupt thinking – or not thinking.

To think better, you need to water your brain with valuable insights. Such that provoke more thoughts, not such that aim to reduce thinking.

Sadly, when I look around, especially online. Most of what I find is an abundance of mass-produced, nutritionally-void food-substance that isn’t designed to help me think better. Quite the opposite, it’s aimed to force me to either spend more time online (by scrolling) or tell me how my life is not perfect until I don’t own this new luxury item.

In short: how to think better is about slowing down. Giving yourself time to see your limitations and finding ways to overcome them.

By far, reading books is proven to be the best cure for all of this.

To move forward, I recommend the following:

“Some men think more than they read. Others read more than they think. Those who practice both, grow wise. Those who follow neither, remain ignorant.” John Leland

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Footnotes:

  1. Based on the studies in this article: Our Three Brains – The Emotional Brain, www.interaction-design.org
  2. Based on this article: The limbic system, The University of Queensland.
  3. Based on this article: Evolutionary development of the brain, rewardfoundation.org.
  4. Two great books that will introduce you to a variety of cognitive biases and ways to overcome them are: Super Thinking and The Art of Thinking Clearly.
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