When it comes to using our brains, most people are on autopilot. Rather than be creative, engaging, and empathetic, most people tend to be lazy thinkers, hobbled by their egos, biases, and emotions.
This laziness is part of our DNA, according to professor Ed Hess, author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. "Although the brain comprises only about 2.5 percent of our body weight, it generally uses 20 percent of the body's energy," he explains. "As a result, the human learning machine prefers to operate in a low gear--on autopilot--as much as possible to conserve energy."
Fortunately, there are steps that you can take, today and in the coming year, to increase your mental strength--to think smarter. Here's my take on Hess's ideas:
1. Question your assumptions.
Lazy thinkers instinctively seek information that validates their view of the world and filter out information that contradicts what they already "know" to be true. That takes much less mental energy than thinking things through.
When you question your assumptions, however, you develop the mental muscle to look more closely for mistakes in your thinking. Questioning your assumptions also makes you more open to new ideas.
2. Stop being so judgmental.
Another form of lazy thinking is making quick judgments about other people and situations. We do it in work and in life all the time: "That's a terrible idea." "He's an idiot." "She doesn't try hard enough." And so on.
These automatic judgments tend to create division, resentment, and roadblocks. By contrast, suspending judgment until you know more or (better yet) accepting people as they are creates collaboration, dialogue, and progress.
3. Defy your rigid rules.
Rigid rules are the classic product of lazy thinking. After all, if all you need to do to get what you want is to follow a simple recipe, why spend precious brain energy figuring out new ways to get that same result?
In the past, that laziness made evolutionary sense, because following the "tried and true" meant comfort, shelter, and sustenance. However, today's insanely fast business environment demands constant risk-taking and the breaking of new ground.
Defying rigidity forces you to devise multiple pathways to achieve your goals. It's taking the training wheels off your mental bicycle; now you've got to think fast to continue moving forward.
4. Get calm before making decisions.
Arguably the greatest form of lazy thinking is the fight or flight reaction. You're confronted with a situation or person who seems threatening? Boom! Either hit hard or run and hide. No deep thoughts required, thank you very much.
In the business world, however, this kind of reaction almost always leads to dumb decisions. Either you react aggressively, which alienates people, or you play it safe and miss real opportunities.
When you wait until you're calm to make decisions, you bring your intellect to bear upon the situation. Rather than just reacting, you can analyze, plan, and then execute a real strategy.
5. Get over yourself.
Seeing things only from your perspective is definitely lazy thinking. It's instinctive to evaluate events and people on the basis of how they might affect you and how you can use them to your advantage.
It takes far more mental effort to exercise empathy and imagination to consider how a situation affects others, and how everyone might be able to work together to make truly amazing things happen.
6. Listen more carefully.
Most people speak at a rate of 100 to 150 words per minute, but your brain can cognitively process speech at up to 600 words per minute. In other words, your brain naturally wants to move about four times faster than the other person is speaking.
In this case, the mental laziness is allowing your brain to chatter to itself, thinking about what to say next, where you'll be in an hour, what's for dinner tonight, and so forth.
To think smarter, slow your brain down so that it's moving at the same speed as the other person is talking. Make no mistake: This kind of active listening takes more mental effort. It's like the difference between swinging a dumbbell up and down (easy) and taking 10 seconds to do each curl (difficult).
The benefits, however, are spectacular, because you hear more, learn more, and remember more. Just as important, your customers, colleagues, and co-workers will know that you cared enough to hear them out and are truly interested in what they have to say.