How to Think (2023)

When I applied for my faculty job at the MIT Media Lab, I had to write a teaching statement. One of the things I proposed was to teach a class called “How to Think,” which would focus on how to be creative, thoughtful, and powerful in a world where problems are extremely complex, targets are continuously moving, and our brains often seem like nodes of enormous networks that constantly reconfigure. In the process of thinking about this, I composed 10 rules, which I sometimes share with students. I’ve listed them here, followed by some practical advice on implementation.

1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read, even when you’re reading what you conceive to be introductory stuff. That way, you will always aim towards understanding things at a resolution fine enough for you to be creative.

2. Learn how to learn (rapidly). One of the most important talents for the 21st century is the ability to learn almost anything instantly, so cultivate this talent. Be able to rapidly prototype ideas. Know how your brain works. (I often need a 20-minute power nap after loading a lot into my brain, followed by half a cup of coffee. Knowing how my brain operates enables me to use it well.)

3. Work backward from your goal. Or else you may never get there. If you work forward, you may invent something profound–or you might not. If you work backward, then you have at least directed your efforts at something important to you.

4. Always have a long-term plan. Even if you change it every day. The act of making the plan alone is worth it. And even if you revise it often, you’re guaranteed to be learning something.

(Video) How To Think? Episode 1

5. Make contingency maps. Draw all the things you need to do on a big piece of paper, and find out which things depend on other things. Then, find the things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.

6. Collaborate.

7. Make your mistakes quickly. You may mess things up on the first try, but do it fast, and then move on. Document what led to the error so that you learn what to recognize, and then move on. Get the mistakes out of the way. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

8. As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols. That way, when you return to something you’ve done, you can make it routine. Instinctualize conscious control.

(Video) How To Master The Art Of Thinking | How Successful People Think | Brian Tracy, Jim Rohn

9. Document everything obsessively. If you don’t record it, it may never have an impact on the world. Much of creativity is learning how to see things properly. Most profound scientific discoveries are surprises. But if you don’t document and digest every observation and learn to trust your eyes, then you will not know when you have seen a surprise.

(Video) How to Think Clearly | The Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

10. Keep it simple. If it looks like something hard to engineer, it probably is. If you can spend two days thinking of ways to make it 10 times simpler, do it. It will work better, be more reliable, and have a bigger impact on the world. And learn, if only to know what has failed before. Remember the old saying, “Six months in the lab can save an afternoon in the library.”

(Video) How to think, not what to think | Jesse Richardson | TEDxBrisbane

Two practical notes. The first is in the arena of time management. I really like what I call logarithmic time planning, in which events that are close at hand are scheduled with finer resolution than events that are far off. For example, things that happen tomorrow should be scheduled down to the minute, things that happen next week should be scheduled down to the hour, and things that happen next year should be scheduled down to the day. Why do all calendar programs force you to pick the exact minute something happens when you are trying to schedule it a year out? I just use a word processor to schedule all my events, tasks, and commitments, with resolution fading away the farther I look into the future. (It would be nice, though, to have a software tool that would gently help you make the schedule higher-resolution as time passes…)

The second practical note: I find it really useful to write and draw while talking with someone, composing conversation summaries on pieces of paper or pages of notepads. I often use plenty of color annotation to highlight salient points. At the end of the conversation, I digitally photograph the piece of paper so that I capture the entire flow of the conversation and the thoughts that emerged. The person I’ve conversed with usually gets to keep the original piece of paper, and the digital photograph is uploaded to my computer for keyword tagging and archiving. This way I can call up all the images, sketches, ideas, references, and action items from a brief note that I took during a five-minute meeting at a coffee shop years ago–at a touch, on my laptop. With 10-megapixel cameras costing just over $100, you can easily capture a dozen full pages in a single shot, in just a second.

Cite as: Boyden, E. S. “How to Think.” Ed Boyden’s Blog. Technology Review. 11/13/07. (


How to Think? ›

Stay mentally active.

There are many things that you can do to keep your brain in shape, such as doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, reading, playing cards or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Consider it cross-training your brain. Incorporate different types of activities to increase the effectiveness.

How can I train myself to think? ›

To get you started, here are nine ways to train your mind.
  1. 1 | Meditate. Meditation is one of the best ways to train your mind. ...
  2. 2 | Connect with the present moment. ...
  3. 3 | Rest your mind. ...
  4. 4 | Minimize digital distractions. ...
  5. 5 | Prioritize sleep. ...
  6. 6 | Leverage your routines. ...
  7. 7 | Practice letting go. ...
  8. 8 | Tune into your intuition.
Aug 2, 2021

How to think correctly? ›

5 steps to thinking clearly and achieving your goals
  1. Check Your Attitude. ...
  2. Have a Clear Purpose. ...
  3. Use Your Passion to control your Emotions. ...
  4. Use your Negative Thinking to produce Positive Action. ...
  5. Use Cool Logic in Hot Situations to reach your Goal.
Sep 14, 2015

How do I think more critically? ›

Although the critical thinking process will differ between individuals, there are some useful steps:
  1. Identify the issue. When faced with a situation or problem, determine what has caused it.
  2. Analyse the arguments. ...
  3. Discover the facts. ...
  4. Challenge your biases. ...
  5. Decide on significance. ...
  6. Draw conclusions.
Jul 9, 2021

How can I activate my brain to think? ›

Stay mentally active.

There are many things that you can do to keep your brain in shape, such as doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, reading, playing cards or putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Consider it cross-training your brain. Incorporate different types of activities to increase the effectiveness.

Why am I not able to think? ›

This can be caused by overworking, lack of sleep, stress, and spending too much time on the computer. On a cellular level, brain fog is believed to be caused by high levels inflammation and changes to hormones that determine your mood, energy and focus.

Can I control what I think? ›

We are aware of a tiny fraction of the thinking that goes on in our minds, and we can control only a tiny part of our conscious thoughts. The vast majority of our thinking efforts goes on subconsciously. Only one or two of these thoughts are likely to breach into consciousness at a time.

How to think smartly? ›

10 habits that can help you become smarter
  1. Read more. ...
  2. Surround yourself with like-minded people. ...
  3. Start exercising daily. ...
  4. Learn a new language. ...
  5. Look for learning opportunities. ...
  6. Lower your screen time. ...
  7. Practice meditation. ...
  8. Explore video games.
Jul 6, 2022

What do deep thinkers talk about? ›

You enjoy thinking about complex topics.

Deep thinkers often like to challenge themselves by thinking about things that are complicated. They want to understand the underlying meaning behind things, and they enjoy solving problems.

What abilities do good thinkers possess? ›

Strong critical thinkers demonstrate the following characteristics:
  • inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of issues.
  • concern to become and remain well-informed.
  • attentive to opportunities to use critical thinking.
  • self-confidence in one's own abilities to reason.
  • open-mindedness regarding divergent world views.

Why do I feel like I can't think critically? ›

Personal biases can prohibit critical thinking because they prevent the thinker from being fair, inquisitive and open-minded. This kind of thinking can also prevent an individual from using experience, reasoning and common sense to make informed decisions.

What happens if you don't think critically? ›

Weakness in critical thinking skill results in loss of opportunities, of financial resources, of relationships, and even loss of life. There is probably no other attribute more worthy of measure than critical thinking skills.

Why won t my brain let me think? ›

Brain fog can be a symptom of a nutrient deficiency, sleep disorder, bacterial overgrowth from overconsumption of sugar, depression, or even a thyroid condition. Other common brain fog causes include eating too much and too often, inactivity, not getting enough sleep, chronic stress, and a poor diet.

How do you stay sharp mentally? ›

8 Ways To Keep Your Mind Sharp
  1. Learn a foreign language. ...
  2. Try a new activity. ...
  3. Eat brain-boosting foods. ...
  4. Exercise. ...
  5. Get some sleep. ...
  6. Stay on top of your health conditions. ...
  7. Meditate. ...
  8. Connect.
Jun 13, 2016

Can I train my brain to think differently? ›

You can train your brain to think differently. In fact, training your brain to think differently physically changes your brain. That's why so many therapists use cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help people create long-lasting change. CBT is a well-studied mental health treatment.

Why is my mind empty? ›

The feeling of your mind going blank under stress happens when hormones, such as cortisol, flood our systems. These hormones “invade the brain's pre-frontal cortex and the hippocampus, disrupting neuronal activity and our normal brain patterns”, explain

Why does my mind feel empty? ›

Feeling empty is a common symptom of anxiety and stress. There are many causes such as chronic stress, overly anxious behavior, depressive behavior, fatigue, and sleep deprivation. There can be nutritional causes, as well.

What is blank mind syndrome? ›

Mind-blanking—when our minds are seemingly “nowhere”—is defined by a lack of conscious awareness. During periods of blankness, the individual is not focally aware of any stimuli, either internal or external.

How do I reset my brain from anxiety? ›

Your Brain Fog May Be an Anxiety Symptom — Here's How to Deal with It
  1. Find the source.
  2. Prioritize sleep.
  3. Make time to relax.
  4. Meditate.
  5. Feed yourself.
  6. Move your body.
  7. Take a break.
  8. Make a plan.
Mar 27, 2020

How do you refresh your mind from depression? ›

Here are nine brain-boosting tips to help you conquer depression:
  1. Get a checkup. This may seem like a no-brainer, especially if you've already been to your doctor for your diagnosis and treatment of depression. ...
  2. Check your medications. ...
  3. Sleep. ...
  4. Get moving. ...
  5. Get connected. ...
  6. Eat well and take DHA. ...
  7. De-stress. ...
  8. Be mindful.
Sep 13, 2013

How do you refresh your brain? ›

5 Tactics to Refresh Your Mind and Increase Productivity
  1. Schedule Purposeful Breaks. Give yourself permission to take a purposeful break. ...
  2. Practice Quieting Your Mind. One example of quieting your mind is to focus on your breathing. ...
  3. Listen to Calming Music. ...
  4. Take a Walk. ...
  5. Take a Break from Social Media.

How do you let your thoughts flow? ›

Stay in touch with the sensations of breathing while letting all experiences flow through awareness. Get a sense of your body as a whole as you breathe. If your attention focuses on just one part of it, keep widening your awareness to include the whole body. Relax and abide as a whole body breathing.

Does overthinking control you? ›

Worrying and overthinking are part of the human experience, but when left unchecked, they can take a toll on your well-being. Dwelling on the same thoughts may even increase your risk of certain mental health conditions, according to 2021 research .

How do you let your thoughts come and go? ›

Here are 4 steps that could help you start letting go of those negative thoughts:
  1. Take a step back. First and foremost, it can be helpful to remember that you are not your thoughts, you're simply holding onto them right now. ...
  2. Acknowledge them. ...
  3. Feel into them. ...
  4. Thank them and make room.
Jun 7, 2021

What to do if I am not smart? ›

How to Think Smart (If You Think You're Not Smart Enough)
  1. Be Open to Different Perspectives. ...
  2. Seriously Consider the Counterargument. ...
  3. Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers. ...
  4. Read. ...
  5. Know What You Don't Know. ...
  6. Put Your Smartphone Down. ...
  7. Go for Depth. ...
  8. Challenge Your Mind—Learn Another Language.
Jul 21, 2021

What is the fastest way to think? ›

15 Simple Tips for Learning How to Think Faster
  1. Practice With MentalUP. Mental and physical exercises are essential to improving both overall mental performance and fast thinking skills. ...
  2. Exercise Regularly. ...
  3. Eat Healthy. ...
  4. Get Enough Sleep. ...
  5. Solve Puzzles. ...
  6. Meditate. ...
  7. Play Word Games. ...
  8. Read.
Dec 29, 2022

Why deep thinkers are rare? ›

10) Smart people aren't having enough kids

One of the top reasons deep thinkers are rare in modern society is that many people who are intellectual or involved in specialized professions don't have as many children as people who are less intellectual.

What is a deep person like? ›

Deep people communicate confidence and maturity because they can handle problems. They don't pout or rationalize or give up when things don't go their way. Deep people are able to share in other people's burdens.

How do thinkers feel? ›

Namely, thinkers tend to take interest in activities requiring the application of impersonal logic, while feelers take up pursuits that draw on their tastes, feelings, and people-related concerns. As with the other preferences, it's not that thinkers never have feelings or that feelers never use logic.

What are the three types of thinkers? ›

The Three Modes Of Thinking
  • Convergent thinking (using logic). This type of thinking is also called critical, vertical, analytical, or linear thinking. ...
  • Divergent thinking (using imagination). This type of thinking is also called creative or horizontal thinking. ...
  • Lateral thinking (using both logic and imagination).
Jan 24, 2019

What are the traits of big thinkers? ›

Big Thinkers are usually curious, logical and energetic. This chatty group enjoys a good debate and asserting their opinions. Sometimes others may find the way they express their ideas too abrupt or challenging.

What are the four types of thinkers? ›

There are four types of “thinking skills”: convergent or analytical thinking, divergent thinking, critical thinking and creative thinking.

What destroys critical thinking? ›

Having no time to evaluate the different angles and collect the necessary evidence, and data, destroys all chances of cultivating proper critical thinking. Critical thinking requires from us to dedicate time for reflection and consideration from different angles.

What are the 5 barriers to critical thinking? ›

Here are five of the most common barriers to critical thinking.
  • Egocentric Thinking. ...
  • Groupthink and Social Conditioning. ...
  • Drone Mentality and Cognitive Fatigue. ...
  • Personal Biases and Preferences. ...
  • Allostatic Overload.
Aug 15, 2022

What triggers critical thinking? ›

One way that critical thinking is triggered is when we recognize a contradiction, and then, most importantly, seek to resolve it.

Is it too late to learn critical thinking? ›

However, with appropriate training in CT, we see ability significantly improve over time. Thus, if you really care about your decisions and wish to improve how you solve problems and draw conclusions, it is never too late for critical thinking training.

What are the characteristics of weak critical thinking? ›

(100 words) A weak sense critical thinker is not able to recognize the flaws in his/her own thinking. Weak sense critical thinkers notice mistakes in the thinking of others. They can use emotional trickery to win arguments. It is common in some lawyers and politicians who trick people to win.

Are people born with critical thinking skills? ›

Children are not born with the power to think critically, nor do they develop this ability naturally beyond survival-level thinking. Critical thinking is a learned ability that must be taught. Most individuals never learn it. Critical thinking cannot be taught reliably to students by peers or by most parents.

What are the 7 principles of critical thinking? ›

Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity.

What do the five C's have to do with critical thinking? ›

The Five C's include critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, collaboration, and citizenship skills. Through application of these concepts across academic disciplines, students will be equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed post-graduation.

What is it called when you can't think at all? ›

Apathy Causes

Up to 70% of people with dementia have this loss of interest. Apathy can also be a symptom of other brain disorders, such as: Brain injury from a strong hit to the head. Depression. Stroke.

What is it called when you can't think? ›

disorientated. adjective. unable to think clearly or make sensible decisions.

What causes brain fog ADHD? ›

In some cases, ADHD brain fog is caused by an underlying condition such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia. If this is the case, these conditions can be helped with supplements that give your body the vitamins and minerals needed to restore optimum cognitive function.

What do you call when you can't think? ›

Confusion is a symptom that makes you feel as if you can't think clearly. You might feel disoriented and have a hard time focusing or making decisions. Confusion is also referred to as disorientation.


1. Become a great strategic thinker | Ian Bremmer
(Big Think)
2. Marcus Aurelius - How To Think Clearly (Stoicism)
(Philosophies for Life)
3. 5 tips to improve your critical thinking - Samantha Agoos
4. How to Think Fast Before You Speak: Framework Thinking
(Vicky Zhao [BEEAMP])
5. Improve your thinking (a practical exercise)
(Jordan B Peterson)
6. The Most Powerful Way to Think | First Principles
(Freedom in Thought)
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