I Think, Therefore My Brain Hurts

The last time you chose a health plan for yourself and your family, how much effort did you expend learning about and comparing the options before choosing a plan?  The last time you implemented a new strategy for your organization, how much effort did you expend coming up with and considering the alternatives before implementing the strategy?  The last time you updated your investment portfolio, how much effort did you expend researching and evaluating your opportunities before updating your portfolio?

Thinking Is Hard, So I’m Going to Stop Now

I’d be willing to bet that a common, honest response to these and similarly important questions is, “Not as much effort as I could or should have spent”.  There are lots of reasons why we might not spend enough time and energy thinking before making major decisions – we might not know what we want to achieve, we might not be able to collect or interpret much of the relevant information, we might not know how to deal with uncertainties, or we might be pressed for time.  In these situations, the costs of additional thought may loom larger in our minds than the potential benefits, so we halt our thinking process and simply make a decision.

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As an example, in the context of group decision making, think about the last time you were in a group meeting, the group had one important item left to discuss and vote on (e.g. whether to fund a $200,000 project), and the meeting was already running over the time allocated for the meeting.  How much time and energy did the group spend discussing the important item before voting?  Probably not as much as they could or should have spent.

Thinking Hard about the Benefits of Thinking Hard

One reason why we might not value the potential benefits of additional thinking as highly in our “think more/stop thinking” calculus, and so cut short our thinking process in order to make a decision, is that we might not know or have an appreciation for the many benefits of thinking.  However, the benefits of thinking (that is, spending the time and energy necessary to think hard about issues) are abundant and consequential.  Even just four benefits are enough to give you a feel for the significance of further thinking:

1. Thinking helps you clarify your goals and preferences

2. Thinking helps you reframe your problem and identify alternatives

3. Thinking helps you discover what additional information you need and, possibly, where to get it

4. Thinking helps you have control over your actions

A noteworthy fifth benefit of in-depth thinking is that it helps you develop a habit of thinking methodically and thoroughly.  The more time you spend thinking hard about issues, even simple ones, the more likely you are to become comfortable with effective techniques for thinking about and dealing with complicated issues.  In this way, the costs of thinking hard in the short-term are dwarfed and overshadowed by the significant long-term benefits.

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Think of Thinking Hard as a Healthy Habit

That (at times) we don’t expend enough effort thinking before making major decisions is understandable – thinking is time consuming, it’s costly, it’s hard work.  One reason why we might not think enough, even when we know additional thinking could be helpful, is that we don’t fully appreciate the long-term benefits of putting in the effort to think hard in the short-term.

By keeping in mind the wide-ranging benefits of thinking deeply, you’ll be able to properly evaluate whether, in a specific case, additional thinking would be worthwhile.  You’ll be able to learn and practice using techniques for analyzing and solving problems.  And, ultimately, you’ll be able to use the tools and strategies you’ve learned to make better decisions.

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One thought on “I Think, Therefore My Brain Hurts

  1. Hello. I’m currently at University studying Mathematics and revising for a Games module which is what lead me to your articles. Thank you so much for posting them, I’ve found them all very interesting, especially this one. I can relate to it as I genuinely feel as though I barely think about any problems or situations unless I’m put under extreme pressure (in interviews or exams), and if I did think more I reckon I could reach my full potential. I was just wondering what I can do to encourage myself to think more regularly. I understand the benefits yet I still struggle to implement the skill. I believe there must be a game, book or any technique that trains the brain to think regularly, do you know of any? Thank you very much. J.

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