How to think slowly

Do you intentionally think slowly? Take your time and think about it.

We tend to judge the rightness of something by how quickly we can think about it. Decisiveness, in our “just do it” culture, is more valued than deliberation. Even our own confidence in what we know is directly proportional to how long it takes us to retrieve that information from memory. Cognitive researchers have shown that the longer it takes us to remember a fact, the less confidence we have that it’s right. Perhaps we’ve placed too great a premium on the advice to “trust your first instinct.”

For most of the thousands of decisions that you’ll make today, that works pretty well. But for the more weighty ones, the best advice is to think slowly.

How to think slowly

The prominent intelligence researcher Robert J. Sternberg once wrote, “the essence of intelligence would seem to be in knowing when to think and act quickly, and knowing when to think and act slowly.” Thinking slowly is about shifting where your brain is processing information; from the quick and reactive amygdala to the slow and more reflective frontal lobe. As Kerry Patterson puts it, “Once you change where you think, you change how you think, which in turn changes what you think. You’re now able to carefully contemplate, ruminate, and take a longer-term view.”

But how can we think more slowly? Here are four simple ways:

  1. Write long hand. Writing forces us to slow down and get the ideas we might otherwise quickly dismiss (or not be aware we have) onto paper. The discipline of writing a thought down requires us to give it definition. We’re now changing where we think. Writing long hand, I’m convinced, is even a better way to slow down. Writing on a computer, with its clean fonts, spell checkers, grammar flags and word counts draws attention to style over substance. In this instance, those of us with messier handwriting have an even greater advantage for it may slow us down even more.
  2. Use metaphors. Metaphors, according to the neurologist Alice Flaherty, “activate not only the cerebral cortex’s cognitive and sensory networks, but also the limbic system’s affective and motivational networks.” Whew! What that means is that a metaphor is like the ignition in your car. It not only activates your car so that it can go exhilaratingly fast; it also activates the dashboard so you can know just how fast you’re moving. There are metaphors for nearly every situation you may face and metaphorical thinking is a great way to think more slowly. If you’re metaphorically challenged, start with a car or sports metaphor, like I just did. Someone once pointed out to me that nearly all of life can be explained by metaphors from those two themes.
  3. Draw a picture. How many words is a picture worth? You instantly (and confidently) knew the answer to that question, right? But when it comes to literally illustrating a principle, your answer may be a gross underestimation. How many 50,000 word business books are conveniently summarized by a simple graphic, for instance? Concepts are best understood when they have a three-legged stool, an iceberg, hockey stick or Venn diagram to support them. Crayons anyone?
  4. Sleep on it. Literally. Or at least distract yourself with another enjoyable activity that doesn’t take a lot of mental energy. Your brain will continue to ruminate on something when you give it some time to incubate an idea. Another good reason for a nap or a jog.

Every day you have important decisions to make. Don’t let today’s dose of adrenaline keep your engine running at top speed when you need to navigate a corner.

These are just a few ideas. What are other ways you’ve found to think slowly?

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4 thoughts on “How to think slowly

  1. Thanks for the tips. I’m 31 & my mind runs very fast. I’m looking for ways to slow it down. Even though much of mind processing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. are more physical, rather than psychological, i think these tips can be helpful.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this more recently in life. The value of slowing thinking at times. Great article Larry.

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