Learning How To Think Better

The more I work, the more I realize that strategic thinking and problem-solving abilities are more useful than creating a few lines of Java/Kotlin/Groovy/Javascript/Python code. Ironically, many software engineers (including myself) devote so much effort to developing coding abilities while devoting little, if any, time to learning how to think more effectively. True, our cognitive processes alter through time and experience, but this is usually a byproduct of professional development.

Reading “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning” inspired me to make a concerted effort to understand how to use my brain more effectively. I tried many recommendations from the book, and the following ones have proven to be effective for me:

  • Motivating the brain to produce more ideas
  • Learning to engage the creative part of the brain

Motivating The Brain To Produce More Ideas

Most of you are probably aware of the “brainstorming” practice, in which individuals sit down and try to come up with some ideas. However, our brains do not require a routine to generate ideas; it occurs organically, at odd intervals throughout the day. I feel that when our brains become increasingly preoccupied with numerous situations, our brain’s idea-generating channel essentially becomes muffled. I now attempt to write down all of the ideas and random thoughts that come to me (typically on paper – here’s why). I picture it as training a dog – anytime the puppy does well, it gets a treat. In this scenario, a puppy represents my brain, good behavior is having an idea (any thought), and a treat is recognizing and writing it down. This stimulates the brain to generate more and more thoughts.

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I recommend creating a long-term storage location for your ideas (document, spreadsheet, mind map, board, etc.). For years, a Trello board has served me well:

Once a week, I comb through the collection of ideas I’ve gathered. Some (maybe the majority!) go straight to the trash, while others I enhance and keep in the ‘ideas’ part for another week, and still others are excellent enough to be moved to the ‘to do’ section. It’s like spending a week gathering Lego pieces and then looking through them to see if any of them may aid in the construction of my future.

By doing so, I felt like I was telling my subconscious thinking process that I recognize and respect all of its efforts. With this positive reinforcement, I discovered that I got more and more ideas each week. Finally, who doesn’t want to be recognized?

Engaging The Creative Part Of The Brain

Involve the senses

Here I discuss various brain modes — one is our conscious mode of operation (L mode), and the other is a free-spirited unconscious wellspring of creativity (R mode). The best outcomes occur when the two have a steady relationship; the key is how to build, maintain, and strengthen this connection. Here, our senses are our best companions. Have you ever noticed how some people fumble with a pen or anything similar when they are thinking? It’s entertaining, but it also serves a more significant purpose: an increase in sensory input increases our R-mode (creativity). I’ve noticed that many chess players fumble with their pawns and pieces while playing – for example, have a look at this game between World Champion Magnus Carlson and one of the world’s greatest players, Daniil Dubov:

Using cross-sensory input drives the creative component even more. You can write down an idea/design, make a visual representation of your thoughts, try to convey the problem out loud, or discuss the subject from several perspectives (maybe even involve your colleagues). You may even act out the roles involved, which makes the thought process more lighthearted and pleasurable for me.

Letting the mind flow

I have a propensity of being entirely immersed in my work. It helps me a lot in my profession, but it also has a major impact on other parts of my life because I can’t stop thinking about work concerns. Be it a technological issue, determining how to increase our engineering department, or reducing our turnover rate — all of these difficulties are enthralling and enjoyable to tackle; nonetheless, I noticed that I was gradually abandoning an unconstrained, free-flowing frame of mind. I feel it is vital to allow our minds to be in that condition so that they may de-clutter, re-organize, and just rest from all of the conscious thinking that is imposed on them. But how are we going to get there?

I was apprehensive at first, but little 30-minute walks have become an inseparable part of my daily routine. The important criterion is that these walks have no agenda, therefore going grocery shopping does not qualify! With no agenda, I simply take in the surrounding environment (sights, noises, weather, etc.), which allows my thoughts to flow. Then I feel like a youngster who has tuned in to a random radio station and is inquisitive about what the broadcast is about.

I typically feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle the remainder of my day after the stroll. My stress level has decreased, I’m glad I did something beneficial for my health, and my mind feels (even if only somewhat) renewed.

I hope my story raises some questions in your mind and, perhaps, even helps you. If it does, I’d be delighted if you reached it and shared your experience with me!

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