Learning How To Think Better


The more I work, the more I realize that strategic thinking and problem-solving skills are more valuable than writing several lines of code in Java/Kotlin/Groovy/Javascript/Python. Ironically, many software developers (myself included) put so much time into improving coding skills without dedicating enough, if any, time to learning how to think more efficiently. Sure, our thought processes naturally evolve with time and experience, but this generally comes only as a by-product of professional growth.

Reading ‘Pragmatic thinking and learning’ motivated me to put conscious effort into learning how to make better use of my brain. I’ve tried different suggestions from the book, and these particular ones have worked well 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 would be familiar with an exercise called “brainstorming” when people sit down and try to crunch out some ideas. But our brains do not really need a ritual to produce ideas — it happens naturally, at random times throughout the day. I believe that with time as our minds get more and more occupied with various issues, our brain’s idea-generating channel effectively gets muted. I now try to capture all the ideas and random thoughts that pop into my head. I imagine it as training a puppy — whenever a puppy behaves well, it gets a treat. In this case, a puppy is my brain, good behavior is producing an idea (any idea) and a treat is a fact that I acknowledge and write it down. This motivates the brain to produce more and more ideas.

I advise having a place document, spreadsheet, mind map, board, etc where you can store your ideas long-term. For me a Trello board has been working great for years:

Roughly once a week I go through the pile of ideas that I’ve gathered. Some of them (maybe even most of them!) go straight to trash, some I refine and keep in the ‘ideas’ section for another week, and some are good enough to be moved to ‘to do’. It feels like gathering lego blocks for the whole week and then looking through the pieces to see if any of them can contribute towards building my future.

By doing this I felt like I was letting my subconscious thought process know that I acknowledge and appreciate all of its hard work. With this positive reinforcement, I noticed that every week I had more and more ideas. In the end, who does not like to be acknowledged?

Engaging the creative part of the brain

Involve the senses

 The best results happen when there is a stable connection between the two, the question is how to create, maintain and make this connection stronger.

Our senses are our friends here. Did you notice that some people fiddle with a pen or something of that sort when they are thinking? It is fun to do, but it serves a more important process — an increase in sensory input stimulates our R-mode (in other words — creativity). 
Using cross-sensory feedback stimulates the creative part even more. You can write an idea/design down, draw a visual representation of your thoughts, try to describe the problem out loud, or try to argue the point from different angles (maybe even involve your colleagues). You could go as far as acting out the roles involved, which for me makes the thinking process simply more playful and enjoyable.

Letting the mind flow

I have a habit of getting completely submerged in my job. It helps me to a great extent with my career but also has a big impact on other areas of my life since I barely stop thinking about work problems. Be it a technical challenge or figuring out how to grow our engineering department or how to reduce our turnover rate — all of these problems are captivating and fun to solve; however, I realized that I started to slowly abandon an unrestricted, free-flowing state of mind. I believe it is absolutely critical to give our minds opportunities to be in that state so they can de-clutter, re-organize and simply rest from all the conscious thinking that is enforced on them. But how do we get there?

I was extremely skeptical about it at first, but simple 30–60 minute walks have become an inseparable part of my daily routine. The main rule is to not have any agenda for these walks, so going to get groceries does not count! By having no agenda, I simply focus on soaking in the surrounding environment (sights, sounds, weather, etc) and this frees up my mind to flow. Then I feel like a kid who tuned in to some random radio station and is curiously trying to figure out what the broadcast is about.

After the walk, I generally feel refreshed and ready to take on the rest of my day. My stress level is reduced, I’m happy that I did something that is good for my health and my mind feels (even if a tiny bit) rejuvenated.

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