Let’s face it: We’re just not expected to think very hard anymore. Our smartphones and computers think for us in many capacities. Our social structures are configured so that we need to do little more than press buttons and do what we are told. However, as we’ve fit ourselves into this mold, we’ve lost much of our power to think outside the box.
A recent study shows that our attention spans are about eight seconds on average; less than that of a goldfish even. But this doesn’t mean thinking critically is no longer at the core of human experience — it is. We must think intelligently, otherwise we lose the wit and spark of imagination and creativity. Here are five practical ways for you to think smarter.
1. Tune out distraction
Your conscious mind is like a pie, with different slices allocated to various tasks, worries, and thoughts. You only have so much processing power, and when your conscious pie is divided again and again with constant distractions, you wind up with little space for critical thinking. Many executives in the business world are turning off their notifications and ringers for this very reason; their attention and processing power is precious.
If you want to increase your processing ability, turn off notifications for everything and set aside time to check your phone, email, and social networks. This way your attention will be undivided throughout your day, and your focus can laser in on thinking, working, and learning.
2. Stop multitasking
Imagine you have three carts weighing 150 pounds each. You must move the carts 100 yards up a nine-degree slope. Will you push one cart 33.3 yards, stop, break inertia on the second cart, stop again, do the same with the third cart, and repeat the process three times? So much momentum is lost in the constant stopping and starting that it makes more sense to keep up momentum for one cart until its destination is reached.
Your mind works the same way, and when you have creativity and focus flowing for one task, constantly stopping and starting interrupts the momentum of your thoughts; it divides your conscious pie. Research conducted by Stanford University reveals that constant streams of information and multitasking do a number on our recall and ability to think. So focus on single tasking.
3. Organize your day to a T
The more you plan your day, the more undistracted energy you will have to think critically. Planning is the opposite of dividing your attention, and the more structured your day is, the more energy you’ll be able to devote to the task at hand. Scheduling is kind of like making a fire with a magnifying glass. Each block of time that you set for a particular task will pinpoint your focus in one area, setting your work and intelligence on fire.
Since stress is one of the greatest distractions of the day, having concrete blocks of time to take care of specific tasks will ease your worry and increase your focus and intelligence. If you know precisely what you need to be doing, your conscious pie will be undivided and your thinking power will bloom, so schedule everything that you can the day before.
4. Start your day with internal directives
Your own brain is responsible for thinking, so the more you rely on it, the better you’ll be able to think. This sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how many people roll out of bed and check their email, social media, and texts first thing in the morning. That externally directed behavior tells your prefrontal cortex, “Ahh, you don’t really have to show up today. Email and Facebook have taken your job.”
The more you rely on your own self for direction throughout the day, the more work your brain has to do. It’s like weight lifting; work, repetition and rest is what grows the muscle of the mind. So aim to start your day with 10-20 minutes of reflective meditation, deep breathing, and goal setting. Imagine what your day would be like if you couldn’t check email, texts, or Facebook, and then live that day. Try to set a goal to spend your first two waking hours away from your smartphone. You’ll be amazed at how focused and powerful your thoughts become.
5. Make curiosity a habit
There is no such thing as a dumb question, so the saying goes, because there is no answer found without questioning. The more knowledge you gain, the more connections you’ll be able to make from the knowledge you already have — and the smarter decisions you’ll make. So question everything and make curiosity a habit if you want high-performance wetware. The more questions you ask, the more truth you’ll discover and the sharper your mind will be.
If you aren’t a naturally curious person, don’t worry — curiosity is a habit. If you make constant learning a goal and commit to it, you’ll naturally come into the habit of curiosity again. Try reading two books a week, one nonfiction, one fiction. Subscribe to an informative magazine. Take a class on a topic that interests you.
Practice acting on the feeling of curiosity. So many of us are bogged down in a routine that doesn’t factor in curiosity or learning, so you’ll have to ingrain the habit. If you hear or read something that arouses curiosity, don’t let it die. If you are busy, make a note of that curious thing and explore it when you have the time. This will train your brain to be receptive of new information and to actively search and make new connections, which is what intelligence is all about.