How often does your thinking get stuck?
I’m not talking so much about the day-to-day thinking we’re doing all day long. But the big topics, issues, decisions and dilemmas. The matters that matter most to us; that are perhaps not clear-cut; and that require deeper thinking.
We frequently get stuck with such thinking: we hit a mental impasse. And when that happens, not only can we not move forward on that issue; other thoughts for other things get backed-up too.
So how do we move our thinking on? Let’s start with a little science.
A mental impasse: the science
What’s happening when we hit a mental impasse?
Every thought we have is not a single static entity stored in a single region of the brain; but a vast, complex and ever-changing map of connections (and maps of maps – or meta-maps) between many regions of the brain.
From a neuroscience perspective, a dilemma is when two or more of these mental maps are in conflict. Each map has values and resource demands of its own; and they compete within our thinking.
To resolve this conflict, the brain needs to create a new meta-map: a reconfiguration of these and other existing maps that reconciles our thinking.
In day-to-day life, our natural reaction to this issue is to think harder! We try (and fail) to think our way out of the problem. And that’s how our thinking stays stuck.
What we actually need to do is shift our brain into “idle”. And that takes a different approach.
Making room for non-conscious thinking
Have you noticed how clear your thinking is when you’re out for a walk? Or how many great ideas you have when you come back from your daily run or weekend ride?
What’s happening at these times is we’re providing gentle distraction that occupies our conscious mind. And that makes room for some “non-conscious thinking”. We tap into more processing power than our limited working memory has available. And importantly, we stop thinking in the directions of our previously-stuck thinking, allowing new trains of thought to emerge.
All this generates new connections. New meta-maps that reconcile the dilemma. And our thinking moves on. So one answer to stuck thinking is: go for a walk!
But when we’re at our desks and not able to go for a run: how else might we move our thinking on, then and there?
A great way to do that is to encourage more reflection, and less thinking (for want of a better word!).
Thinking about the thinking
Reflection allows for deeper and different thinking to occur; and for the mind to connect with the subtle signals pointing to new ideas.
To induce this new thinking, we need to think about the thinking.
This is easier done with a second person: like a manager, mentor or coach. (You might like to try this when helping your own team think through its challenges.) But by asking ourselves a few choice questions, it’s something we can do for ourselves.
To encourage reflection, ask yourself questions like these:
- How long have I been thinking about this?
- How frequently am I thinking about this?
- How pleased am I with my thinking on this issue, up to now?
- How does my thinking about this compare to my thinking about other topics?
- What is the ratio of thinking I do about the problem, as compared to the solution?
- What’s the single most important thought I have when I’m focused on this?
- What ideas have crossed my mind that I may have ignored or dismissed?
- What insights have I had so far that I want to run with?
As you reflect not on the dilemma but on the qualities of your thinking about the dilemma, you’ll find that new thinking will gradually emerge. Watch for the signals; and when you have the next great idea: write it down, in that moment.
A new thinking skill
The trick to getting beyond a mental impasse is not to think harder, but to switch-off the intense problem-solving thinking and allow the non-conscious thinking to come through.
The best way to do that, for ourselves and for others, is to encourage reflection by thinking about the thinking.