How to Think More Effectively (2020) is a simple guide to improving the way you think. Drawing lessons from sources as diverse as the feeling of envy and the prose of Proust, it lays out the characteristics of practical thoughts – and shows how you can start cultivating them.
About the author
The School of Life is an organization devoted to helping people lead richer, more fulfilling lives. It believes that the humanities can help us develop emotional intelligence, wisdom, empathy, communication skills, and much more. With premises in cities like London, Amsterdam, and Seoul, the School of Life offers educational films and books, classes, and therapy sessions.
Increase the amount of time you spend reviewing your ideas, values, and ambitions:
How adept at prioritizing are you?
Most of us think we’re top-notch. As sensible people, we assume that we prioritize the most critical aspects of our lives first and then move on to less necessary chores. To put it another way, we believe our priorities are in good shape.
Is this true, though? Take a close look. Many people’s priorities are, in fact, jumbled. We spend very little time delving into serious, essential concerns regarding our goals’ value, preferring to focus on achieving them.
Do you ever wonder if more money will genuinely make you happy? Or do you want to make more money without thinking about it? Have you ever considered if you’d be more comfortable as a single person or if you’d rather be in a familiar but unpleasant relationship?
It doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s simple to declare you’ll start more thoroughly assessing your goals, but doing so might be difficult: that’s why you need a plan. The first stage is to recognize how much time you spend following through on your objectives versus how much time you spend assessing and strategizing in a more contemplative manner. If you’re only evaluating and strategizing approximately 5% of the time now, attempt increasing that to 15% or 20%.
The next stage is to try to overcome your apprehension. Fundamental, first-order questions can be difficult to answer; thinking about purpose and worth might make us feel uneasy. There is no quick fix for this; the only way to solve it is to practice.
Try to spend more time genuinely examining a concept that enters your thoughts before jumping to its execution. Ask yourself probing questions about the worth, purpose, and ultimate relevance of what you’re doing and planning to do.
Dare to use phrases like “why,” “to what end,” and “of what importance” to probe your goals. It may sound like a formula for passivity and stagnation. Still, the alternative isn’t much better: a life spent chasing after plaudits you don’t want, the money you don’t need, and sexual and spiritual relationships that leave you cold.
This move from impulsive behavior to a more selective, evaluative disposition, however long it takes, will enrich, subtlety and effectiveness of your reasoning.
Accept the fact that ideas come to you in fits and starts:
When you read a book, listen to a speech, or watch a presentation, it’s easy to visualize the author coming up with their thoughts and putting them into words in a simple, seemingly effortless manner. You could assume the creative process was easy and pleasant because the words seemed to flow together easily.
This is a delusion. The brain is a fickle instrument that doesn’t run at full speed for lengthy periods. It comes on in fits and starts, bursting into life for a brief moment, leaping forward or striking an intriguing new connection, and then slipping back into inactivity for an extended period.
This, however, should not discourage us. Indeed, one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century shared this viewpoint.
Marcel Proust, a French writer, is most known for his multivolume masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, which he wrote in prose that was smoother and more free-flowing than anything his readers had ever read before.
Proust’s literary style garnered him many admirers and accolades, but despite his brilliance, it would be a mistake to think that his seamless prose came naturally to him. It was, in reality, the polar opposite.
Additions, deletions, remarks, and any other sort of alteration can be found in Proust’s manuscripts. He fiddled with his writing for hours on end, edging closer to his aim. This erratic writing style wasn’t a flaw; on the contrary, it was central to Proust’s creative process.
We may learn a lot from him. We should embrace our normal human limits rather than berating ourselves because our ideas come in dribs and drabs. You can’t change them, but you can work with them.
The most crucial thing you can do to aid the process is purchase a notepad and start writing down your ideas. By writing down your thoughts, you’re allowing yourself to come back to them at a later time – and giving otherwise fleeting ideas a chance to grow and mature.
Distracting your mind can aid in the capture of elusive concepts:
It’s tempting to believe that the more valuable a notion is, the more likely it is to stick out vividly and firmly in your mind. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Your most profound thoughts, like rare and difficult-to-capture butterflies, are all too frequently elusive.
You may be familiar with the notion of thoughts as butterflies. Many great thinkers have drawn parallels between insights and flying creatures. The famed Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov linked writing to butterfly hunting: the writer must lure fluttering ideas and sensations into the nets of language and conscious consciousness, just as a butterfly hunter does.
It’s not simple to catch a butterfly, but it is feasible. Putting down your net and thinking about anything else is a surprising technique to capture your most elusive thoughts.
Distractions like combing your hair in the shower or staring out the window of a train, strange as it may sound, can help you catch insightful, flighty thoughts.
Your best ideas generally arrive while your mind is already half-occupied, which may seem paradoxical.
However, you’ve most likely noticed this behavior yourself. How many times have you had brilliant ideas while cleaning your shoulder in the tub? Or while you’re traveling down the interstate on autopilot on your way to work?
Because a half-occupied mind is more likely to receive new and unpleasant thoughts than a sharp mind on full alert, these unexpected discoveries happen while you’re gently distracted. Actual ground-breaking ideas are likely to be surprising; they will upend the existing quo. They may cause you to become estranged from those you care about. They may even cause you to rethink your life.
That is why these essential ideas are so difficult to come by. They frighten you, and you unwittingly scare away a rare and valuable butterfly as a result of your shock. Even the most exotic notion can find a branch to sit on if your mind is just a tiny bit diverted — long enough for you to take a look.
Envy might assist you in determining your actual desires:
Envy is a feeling that we all experience from time to time, but it’s not one we want to talk about. We’re taught that it’s improper to be envious of other people’s accomplishments, talents, or good fortune. After all, good people are pleased to see others succeed.
But what if envy is trying to teach you something? What if, instead of suppressing your envious thoughts, you studied them and teased out their implications?
Envy is valuable since it exposes your simple objectives. When you see something in others that you want but don’t have, you feel envious. You can get a step closer to realizing what you genuinely desire from life by tracing each jealous feeling back to its source.
Envy is like being given a piece of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, and if you could put it all together, you’d discover you’d drawn out the specifics of your ideal existence. Each stab of envy you experience can help you spell out the relationship you want, your career, and even the house you want to live in more clearly.
Instead of avoiding these emotions, it’s critical to explore them and figure out what they teach you. Envy can impair your judgment since it tells you that you’ll never be fulfilled unless you get everything that the person you envy has. That, however, is a falsehood; when you dig further, the total value of envy will emerge.
When you explore envious sentiments rather than suppressing them, you can learn more about what you want. To put it another way, if you’re learning from envy, you must be exact. It’s not enough to remark that Yvonne from work makes you envious; you need to pinpoint precisely what you desire about Yvonne.
Is it because of her wealth? What are her professional accomplishments? Her deep understanding of artisanal coffee? In any case, it’s critical to conduct research. If you don’t, things will remain too hazy and muddled to provide any insights, and you’ll never learn what envy has to tell you about your goals.
When you consider death, you gain a new perspective on life:
What would you put in a home study or library if you were to decorate one? What about some lovely paperweights? Sofas made of dark leather? Alternatively, how about vintage prints in gold frames?
A real human skull, complete with a gaping jaw and substantial eye sockets, was relatively common a few hundred years ago. It’s a little gory, but that’s the purpose.
The skull was meant to serve as a reminder to anyone who came upon it that they, too, were mortal – destined to be reduced to little more than a few dusty bones in time. In other words, the skull’s goal was to make you reconsider your life by meditating on its impending conclusion.
It may seem strange, yet contemplating death has two seemingly opposing effects on people’s perspectives on life. The first is to make everything appear very serious and substantial, while the second makes everything look petty and insignificant. Why is that?
Thinking about death, for starters, makes things seem more severe because it reminds us that our time on this planet is limited. We often act as though our lives will never end, procrastinating, pussyfooting, and enduring awful jobs and suffocating relationships.
However, contemplating death reveals how foolish such behavior is. Because our lives are limited, every second we spend above ground is valuable. Why waste another day in a lousy job or with a spouse we don’t care for? That would be a waste of life.
Death, on the other hand, can make our most pressing issues appear insignificant. What does it matter if you didn’t get the job? You’ll be a pile of bones before you know it. Has your crush rejected you yet again? What’s the big deal? When you’re six feet underground, who cares? When you think about where we’re all going, the small elements of our journey can seem insignificant.
Whether thinking about mortality makes you feel liberated or solemn, determined or lighthearted, chances are it alters your outlook on life. Even if you don’t intend to purchase a human skull, it’s worth reflecting on life from a grim perspective now and then.
Examine your views with skepticism:
Influential thinkers, you might believe, rarely dispute their own beliefs – and, in some ways, that makes sense. After all, it’s what they’re good at thinking. Why should they be wary of the conclusions they arrive at?
For example, you might think that compelling lawyers and convincing performers never doubt their arguments or performances. They do, however, and with good reason. One of the essential parts of good thinking is the ability to experience doubt. In reality, the most critical thinkers are frequently the most skeptics.
If you can’t imagine being wrong, you won’t critically assess your own opinions. And if you can’t question what you believe, then all your brilliance is useless.
We all understand what it is to be skeptical: to question received wisdom, seek solutions, and be suspicious of simple explanations. Being skeptical entails possessing and exercising a restless and curious mind.
You may not know that skepticism originally refers to an ancient Greek school of thinking that stressed how tiny we humans can ever know about the world. As the ancient Skeptics pointed out, our minds are prone to numerous distortions, biases, and errors. Doubting oneself is frequently the most prudent course of action.
Influential thinkers can usually be identified by the care, nuance, and humility with which they communicate their opinions in everyday situations. They’re aware of the mind’s tricks and distortions, think about problems from different viewpoints, weigh contradicting data, and take the time to disconnect from emotional and irrational thinking.
That isn’t to argue that a skeptic should never accept a particular point of view – they should, of course. However, when they express themselves, they do so in a precise, deliberate, and tentative manner. Skeptical thinkers have learned to be wary of broad claims and hasty generalizations.
If you want to become a more critical – and successful – thinker, start with one easy step: contemplate the possibility that everything you believe is incorrect.
Do you have any doubts? Good! That implies you’ve already made it halfway. Developing the ability to question what you’re told is an essential step toward becoming a more effective thinker. So, what do you have to lose?