As unique individuals, we think individually. We have our own experiences that have shaped our belief systems. Our learnings from those experiences also shape how we think. And how we think impacts the quality of our decisions, problem-solving abilities, and even life experiences.
However, we can change how we perceive the world around us. Learning and adopting new ways of thinking not only improves our problem-solving abilities but also leads to greater happiness.
If you want to change your life, then you need to change the way you think. However, changing the way you think means changing how you spend your time. And changing how you spend your time means changing your habits.
You get to decide what you want and need to change and how.
Note that this article is about changing the way you think, not your values or belief system. But to change your thinking, you first need to understand neuroplasticity and the cognitive process behind habit development.
How Our Brains Work
Experts continuously study the cognitive processes in the human brain, specifically how we think about and perceive what we hear and see as well as how we process situations, issues, experiences, and events.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman talks about the two dominant systems in the human mind: System 1 and System 2. Here are the characteristics of each:
Characteristics of “System 1”:
- Acts as the “first responder” to processing events, experiences, and answering questions
- Generates first impressions, feelings, and inclinations
- Operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, energy, or voluntary control
- Creates “coherent” ideas and stories based on face value without looking deeper
- Creates a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant and comfortable feelings
- Focuses on existing evidence and ignores the absent
- Jumps to conclusions
- Overweights low-probability events
Characteristics of “System 2”:
- Allocates attention to high-effort mental activities, such as performing complex computations and solving problems
- Questions conclusions and the validity of those conclusions
- Associates with subjective experiences
Although both “System 1” and “System 2” are active while we are awake, they function at different speeds. “System 1” does all the reacting and responding, and “System 2” sits comfortably in standby mode. “System 2” is slower to activate and question information. Habits are a prime example of “System 1” at work.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Although “System 2” requires more effort to activate, it is possible to “rewire” our brains to change how we think and learn new information and skills. This process is known as Neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity can help you:
- Develop new habits
- Remove unhealthy or toxic habits
- Look at the world in new ways
- Learn new skills
- Improve your emotional intelligence
- Improve your focus
- Obtain clarity of thought
Changing Your Thinking Means Changing Your Habits
Now that we have explored a little bit about how we think and our cognitive processes let’s dive into how habits form.
How Do We Form Habits?
As human beings, we are “creatures of habit”. But what does that mean? In large part, we can blame habit formation on “System 1”. Here are several subconscious processes that occur:
Path Dependence: This is the concept of forming a habit due to a reason, experience, or circumstance that has occurred in the past that is no longer relevant.
Similarities: We form habits based on the similarities or mental connections between new experiences and previous experiences. These connections inform us on what we should do in any given “familiar” situation. We are likely to perform an action, and inevitably develop a new habit, when a new situation to one in which the habit has applied in a previous experience.
Environment: Habits are also driven by your mental and physical environments, where one element of your environment, such as a memory, sight, or smell, pushes you toward performing a specific action, which is “System 1” at work. However, inhibiting that action involves activating “System 2”, which requires significantly more mental energy. This is often why it’s difficult to break habits.
7 Things You Can Do to Change Your Thinking
When we think about habits, we often attribute those to negative things, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, biting fingernails, or eating late at night. These are arguably “bad habits”. However, habits can be positive. Even though a great deal of habit development happens subconsciously, that doesn’t mean we don’t have the power to change them.
Here are some things you can do to change your thinking:
1. Get Enough Sleep
Remember, the state of your body affects your state of mind. (If you have read my blogs, then you know one of my mantras is a healthy body is a healthy mind.)
If you are tired, then you are going to struggle with paying attention, which not only hinders your ability to learn and retain new information but also your motivation.
Learn your body’s rhythms. If an afternoon nap, walk, or cup of coffee helps you recharge, turn those activities into regular habits.
2. Try Something New
If there is a new hobby or activity you’ve always wanted to try—or one you’ve been afraid to try—then use this as an opportunity to change your thinking. Why? Trying new things allows you to engage in new experiences, explore new things, and open your mind, all of which change how you think and, ultimately, how you see the world.
3. Read More
Studies have shown that reading not only boosts emotional intelligence but also the quality of cognitive processes. Reading is exercise for your brain. And the beauty of it? It doesn’t matter what you read. It could be the Book of Proverbs or Plato. Read regularly.
4. Play Computer Games
Yes, playing computer games is similar to doing puzzles. It increases motor skills and reaction times, strengthening the brain.
To test this theory, I played “The Sims” for 30 days, and here’s what I learned from that experience:
- It allowed me to forget the things that have been plaguing my mind and increased my focus.
- It reminded me of the importance of our basic needs—food, water, and shelter, as we learned from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
- It reminded me of the importance of living simplistically.
- I started sleeping better.
5. Use a Method for Acquiring New Information
Everyone learns differently. You may have to experiment with how you learn new information best. Here are some methods you can try:
- Use “The Role of 3” – When learning new topics, what are the three most important takeaways? This will help you retain key information and avoid “cramming” or overwhelming yourself with details.
- Ask Questions – Asking questions is one of the best things you can do when learning new information. Although you might feel like a five-year-old who persistently asks “why?” after every answer you give him, this is an incredibly effective method to close any knowledge gaps and develop a deep understanding of the new topic.
- Rate Yourself – This might sound harsh, but when learning something new, rate yourself when applying it. For example, when I go to pole class, and I’m learning a new trick or skill, at the end of class, I “rate” myself on how well I did during the class. This also tells me what I need to work on in between classes. This method sets the bar high and pushes you to improve.
- Teach Yourself – When learning something new, you can test your knowledge by teaching yourself. Teaching yourself improves the quality of causal knowledge and closes gaps. Develop the habit of teaching new things to yourself, testing theories, and applying them.
6. Fast Intermittently
What does eating have to do with thinking? Believe it or not, what you eat and when you eat impact your focus. Like sleep, this can hinder your motivation and ability to think, make quality decisions, and learn and retain new information. Not only does intermittent fasting provide physical benefits, but also mental benefits.
7. Use a Habit Tracker
As you work on changing and adopting new habits, accountability is key. Use a habit tracker to keep track of how many times you do—or don’t do—the thing.
I use something I developed called a “scorecard”. This allows me to track new ways of thinking and learning and how often I do them daily. You can download a free copy of my scorecard here.
Better Thinking Means Better Habits
All in all, your habits can make or break you. The right habits are the building blocks of success. Remember, a positive environment leads to positive habits. And better thinking means better habits.