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Weekly 3: Tools for thinking

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Summary: Find a problem you can solve. Write to think more clearly. Don’t overthink things. (~6 min r
 

Idea Journal Weekly 3

July 22 · Issue #44 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Find a problem you can solve. Write to think more clearly. Don’t overthink things. (~6 min read)

#1. When you face a difficult challenge, do something else.
Math professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird write in their book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking that great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers don’t try to solve hard problems head on.
Instead, they immediately admit defeat and create a simpler problem they can solve.
It doesn’t make sense to “waste energy vainly grappling with complexity” when they can use that energy more productively by tackling simpler cases, which will give them the insights they need to solve the original problem.
Burger and Starbird recommend that you take a similar approach in your work, whenever possible, by following the below 3 steps:
1. When you face a difficult challenge, instead of addressing it in its entirety, find a subproblem – one small element that you can focus on.
2. Solve the subproblem completely: look at the subproblem and its solution from different points of view, and consider all the connections and implications.
3. Once you’re confident that you thoroughly understand the subproblem and its solution, review your efforts and reflect on how they might relate to the original, larger problem.
This is the same approach NASA used to put the first people on the Moon.
In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the country to put a person on the Moon and return them safely to Earth.
But NASA didn’t immediately suit up an astronaut and send them flying off into space — instead, their first step was to try and literally hit the Moon with a space probe. Three years later, in 1964, the Ranger 7 successfully impacted the lunar surface.
From there, it took another 5 years and 15 ever-evolving iterations before NASA solved Kennedy’s challenge with the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
NASA Apollo 11 Mission
#2. Let your writing clarify your thinking.
A lot of what we do in business involves selling our ideas.
Entrepreneur and former consultant Ameet Ranadive points out that writing is a forcing function that helps you structure the ideas you want to sell. 
And yet, writing is one of the most underrated activities in business. 
For Ranadive, “writing clarifies thinking” and he outlines 3 ways in which becoming a better writer will help you become a better thinker:
1. Framing your arguments and ideas
When you’re grappling with a complex or important idea, the first thing you should do is frame it. This gives your audience the necessary context, and may even predispose them to your recommendation.
Writing about your idea forces you to think about how to frame it; here are some questions that can help:
  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • What is in the scope of the problem? What is not in the scope?
  • Why is this an urgent problem that you need to solve? What happens if you don’t solve it?
  • What are the goals of your solution?
2. Prioritizing the most important issues
Complex decisions and ideas often involve many underlying issues, and it can be hard figuring out which ones to focus on.
Writing helps you identify those issues, and it encourages you to act as an editor and choose which ideas deserve the most attention.
3. Encouraging synthesis
For Ranadive, synthesis means summary plus insight. 
The process of framing your ideas and prioritizing underlying issues by writing them down puts you in a better position to answer the question: What is the impact of your argument or recommendation?
Note: We wrote about another one of Ranadive’s ideas, how to make better arguments, in a previous issue.
#3. More thinking doesn't always lead to a better solution.
In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli tells the story of an “intelligent centipede” to illustrate the hazards overthinking: 
Sitting on the edge of a table, the clever centipede saw a tasty grain of sugar across the room. He then started to come up with options for his approach: Should he crawl down the left or right table leg? Which foot should take the first step, and which ones should follow? Because he was good at math, he could analyze all the variants and select the optimal path.
Finally, he took the first step. But with his head still clouded by calculations, he got tangled up and stopped to review his plan.
In the end, he went no further and starved.
Overthinking may not be as consequential for you, but it’s probably still worth avoiding: “if you think too much, you cut off your mind from the wisdom of your feelings.”
When should you go with your gut feeling, and when should you listen to your rational thought?
Dobelli recommends the below rules of thumb:
When to use your intuition
You can safely rely on your intuition in the following scenarios: when you’re facing situations that involve “practiced activities” such as motor skills (like the centipede); questions you’ve answered a thousand times; or decisions that our Stone Age ancestors dealt with, such as what is edible and who is trustworthy and would make a good friend.
In these cases, dwelling on every detail blunts your intuitive ability to solve problems.
When to use your rational thought
With complex matters, such as investment decisions, “sober reflection is indispensable” because evolution hasn’t equipped us for such considerations. Here, logic trumps intuition.
Note: We wrote about a related idea, how to use your unconscious to solve problems, in a previous issue.
Quote of the Week
“To be useful, your beliefs should be constrained by the logic of probability.”
- Professor of Psychology Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow
Idea Journal
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