“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”– Steve Jobs
The human brain is an incredibly powerful organ. It is the source of revolutionary inventions, such as the airplane, the automobile, and the computer.
We all have our own ways of thinking, which make us unique individuals. Thinking allows us to identify and solve problems effectively.
However, on the other hand, our thinking can prevent us from making quality decisions and solving problems effectively.
And for those of us who are avid overthinkers, we often find ourselves slipping into a state of overanalysis and decision fatigue, which is not only unproductive but it also blocks creativity.
If you are reading this and thinking, “that’s me!” You aren’t alone. You can overcome overthinking. But the first step is to understand why you overthink in the first place.
Whether you are a repeat overthinker or if you are interested in exploring different ways of thinking to approach and solve problems, this article is for you.
In this article, I created a “cheat sheet” that outlines the different ways of thinking, when to use each one, and also a framework for problem-solving.
Why We Overthink
Overthinking… it can ruin lives.
Overthinking is representative of the law of diminishing returns. We overcomplicate things in our minds by rationalizing and obsessing about the perfect solution or decision. We spend too much time and mental energy thinking about the problem rather than solving it. When this happens, and we reach an impasse, overthinking takes over, and solving the problem is no longer productive.
The quality of our thinking, and therefore our decision-making and problem-solving abilities, are directly tied to our habits. Believe it or not, overthinking stems from habits. And if you tend to overcomplicate issues or problems, this can lead to procrastination.
Although it may seem counterintuitive or even counterproductive, sometimes the best way to solve the problem is to stop thinking about it. Take a mental break. Let the information you have acquired incubate. Focus on another activity or project and then revisit the problem later—a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks.
Remember, we only have so much cognitive energy in one day. Save it for real problems and things you can actually control.
Overcoming Cognitive Bias
I wrote and published an article on the different types of cognitive biases that humans often fall victim to. Although I wrote this article in the context of project management, these cognitive biases can affect any area of life.
Let’s look at how the working memory functions as an example. As we observe events or experiences that happen in our lives and in our world, these experiences shape not only our knowledge but also how we perceive these experiences. This is known as top-down processing, the cognitive process of using previously-stored knowledge gained from events and experiences to influence what we perceive from new experiences.
Top-down processing can affect our ability to solve problems. How? Our previous experiences with similar problems may lead us to describe or define the problem incorrectly. We might also assume that a solution may or may not work because of our past events and experiences. Rather than seeing problems for what they really are, we look at them through the “lens” of related experiences, events, and memories.
The moral of the story here? Even though we are highly intelligent creatures, our thinking is often flawed.
So, how do we avoid cognitive bias? This requires becoming familiar with the different types of cognitive biases and recognizing when you are at risk for bias (which requires activating “System 2”), which isn’t easy. However, by familiarizing yourself with the different types of biases and also using a cognitive bias cheat sheet, you can learn to recognize the flaws in your own thinking.
11 Different Ways of Thinking (and When to Use Each One)
Learning about the different ways of thinking can improve your decision-making and problem-solving abilities. Here is a list of some different ways of thinking and when to apply each one:
1. Abstract Thinking
Abstract thinking relates to creativity, innovation, and learning to see things differently. When thinking abstractly, you are making connections between general ideas. This type of thinking can help simplify complex issues and even relieve anxieties and tension.
On the other hand, according to an article published by the University of Texas at Austin, abstract thinking is prone to bias. It may create a false sense of understanding and restrict an individual’s viewpoint.
When to Use Abstract Thinking:
Abstract thinking works best when you need to be creative or when you need to see the bigger picture of a situation or problem you are trying to solve.
2. Specific Thinking
Specific thinking is the opposite of abstract thinking. It involves applying causal knowledge, asking why, and even thinking logistically. It makes your judgments about the quality of your causal knowledge more accurate.
For example, when an object or decision is far away, we often have an abstract mindset when thinking about it. However, when an object or decision is closer, we begin to think more logistically or specifically about it.
When to Use Specific Thinking:
Specific thinking comes in handy for project managers or any type of role or challenge that requires careful in-depth analysis and planning, thinking logistically and in-depth about the details of a particular decision or solution and its impacts.
3. Systems Thinking
Systems thinking expands the range of choices available for solving a problem by broadening our thinking and helping us articulate problems in new and different ways. However, it can also mean different things to different people and industries.
For example, in modern medicine, systems thinking is used as a diagnostic tool and a disciplined approach for examining problems more completely and accurately before making a decision or taking a specific approach.
Using a decision matrix is one example of this. Using analogies is another example. Analogies help us describe something to teach others and identify gaps in our causal knowledge.
In another example, systems thinking involves describing how a particular “system” works, such as an application or a process, identifying all the elements and sub-processes that work together, and behavior patterns over time. It also involves understanding how different parts or elements interact with one another as well as with external systems.
When to Use Systems Thinking:
Systems thinking is about patterns and relationships to describe how things interact. Whether you are a physician or software developer, you can apply systems thinking to help diagnose a problem and understand how organs, symptoms, technologies, applications, or components interact.
Additionally, project managers can benefit from applying systems thinking. According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide, Seventh Edition, by the Project Management Institute (PMI), systems thinking is defined as “recognizing, evaluating, and responding to the dynamic circumstances within and surrounding the project in a holistic way to positively affect project performance.”
More specifically, systems thinking in the context of project management involves understanding how project parts interact with one another and also responding to system interactions to leverage positive project outcomes.
Business analysts also use systems thinking to understand how people, processes, and technology interact within a specific domain or environment as well as the organization holistically.
4. Scientific Thinking
Scientific thinking involves seeking intentional information, which includes asking questions, testing hypotheses, making observations, recognizing patterns, documenting data, making inferences, and communicating thoughts. For example, Toyota practices and teaches a scientific thinking pattern to managers and supervisors.
When to Use Scientific Thinking:
Believe it or not, scientific thinking isn’t just for scientists or students; it can be used in our everyday lives, such as when we experiment with mixing different ingredients when baking a cake or when we try to diagnose why our garden isn’t thriving this season.
5. Strategic and Critical Thinking
Strategic thinking enables you to use critical thinking to solve complex problems and plan for the future. Critical thinking involves actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating the ability to think clearly and rationally and understand the logical connection between ideas.
When we think about strategic and critical thinking, we might think, what is the difference? In short, one is an activity, and the other is a tool.
Strategic thinking is the activity. It involves thinking beyond the specific issue or task at hand or immediate goal. It involves looking at consequences, implications, and interdependencies in the short and long term.
Critical thinking is the tool, methodology, and process used during activities such as problem-solving, decision-making, leading, innovating, negotiating, and influencing.
All in all, strategic thinking is about how to think rather than about what to think.
When to Use Strategic and Critical Thinking:
We might use strategic thinking when deciding on new projects to tackle or planning long-term goals for a business.
6. Pragmatic Thinking
Pragmatic thinking is an approach to strategic thinking. It involves dealing with matters in a sensible, realistic, and practical manner rather than using theory or abstract principles.
Pragmatic thinkers or leaders focus on the practical side of any project, task, initiative, or goal. It involves asking, “how do we get this done?” Sometimes pragmatists are seen as negative; however, they simply view the entire picture, including roadblocks and bottlenecks, to reach an end result. It’s a linear, practical way of thinking and “doing.”
When to Use Pragmatic Thinking:
When you are the only person in the group who can take charge and get the group to think about how to get things done. Pragmatic thinking is great for project managers and business leaders.
7. Divergent Thinking
Divergent thinking involves creativity, free association, and exploratory thinking. It allows you to brainstorm and generate multiple ideas and possible solutions to a problem to arrive at the best solution.
When to Use Divergent Thinking:
Use divergent thinking when you need to answer vague, abstract, or hard questions, such as, “What is 8?” to solve a particular problem. This type of thinking opens many doors to many possible opportunities, thoughts, ideas, and solutions.
8. Convergent Thinking
Convergent thinking is the complete opposite of divergent thinking. Rather than trying to answer vague or abstract questions, convergent thinking involves using logical reasoning when answering very specific and well-defined questions, such as “What is 8+8?”
When to Use Convergent Thinking:
Convergent thinking is best when you need to apply logic to solve a problem rather than creativity and when you need to reach one concrete and well-defined solution to a problem rather than multiple.
9. Design Thinking
Design thinking is another method of thinking with multiple meanings, similar to what we saw above with systems thinking. Design thinking, as the name implies, refers to the set of cognitive, strategic, and practical procedures in the process of designing. However, design thinking addresses cognitive biases and behaviors that can hamper innovation.
When to Use Design Thinking:
When should you use design thinking? As stated in this article by Harvard Business Review, one example is a team overwhelmed with parsing through disorganized qualitative data. Design thinking can help teams make sense of data by organizing it into themes and patterns. This approach allows teams and innovators to gain new insights and possibilities, and identify new opportunities.
10. Lean Thinking
Lean thinking is a philosophy that focuses on speed, velocity, and continuous flow. It’s about assessing existing processes and identifying areas where “waste” can be removed to increase speed and efficiency. “Waste”, in this context, refers to steps in the process that do not provide value to the end user or customer.
At its core, lean thinking is about delivering value to customers and end users, minimizing waste, adapting to change, and implementing and adopting a continuous improvement mindset to achieve the best possible outcomes.
When to Use Lean Thinking:
Lean thinking is often used in business; however, it can be applied to everyday life as well. Lean thinking specifically relates to processes.
For example, if you are trying to minimize the number of steps to walk to your coffee pot in the morning, or if you are dealing with angry or dissatisfied customers or end users, then it’s important to perform a root cause analysis to understand the source. Lean thinking is not only a method of thinking that involves putting the customer first but also a practice.
11. Structured Thinking
Structured thinking involves breaking down problems and solving them in smaller pieces. This approach helps prevent worry and falling victim to the bias of past assumptions.
The word “structure” seems counterintuitive. It might seem like we are removing creativity from the thinking process when, in actuality, the opposite is true. By applying rules and boundaries, creativity can have the power to thrive.
When to Use Structured Thinking:
Using structured thinking can help you solve a big problem you are overthinking and worried about. Ask yourself trivial questions about the problem, such as, “why is THIS THING a problem?” and observe how you answer them. This will not only make you aware of your approach to answering questions, but it will also allow you to recognize where you can improve your thinking, apply different ways of thinking, and become a better problem-solver.
12. Visual Thinking
Visual thinking involves communicating complex ideas through various visual representations, such as graphs, concepts, models, and diagrams.
When to Use Visual Thinking:
One of the biggest mistakes we often make as professionals is assuming our audiences understand what we are talking about. Remember, not everyone is a doctor, scientist, engineer, lawyer, or analyst.
If you are in a position where you need to communicate complex ideas, research, or solutions to your audience, then visual thinking can be an excellent skill. Visual thinking allows audiences to learn difficult or abstract concepts and ideas more quickly, which can be measured through heightened productivity.
13. Conceptual Thinking
Conceptual thinking is understanding the linkage between contexts, solutions, needs, changes, stakeholders, and value. It involves connecting and understanding information and patterns that might not be obviously related both at an abstract level and a holistic level. It also involves leveraging past experiences, knowledge, creativity, intuition, and abstract thinking to generate alternatives, options, and ideas to solve a particular problem.
When to Use Conceptual Thinking:
When we receive large amounts of detailed and possibly disparate information, applying conceptual thinking can help us to understand the linking factors to an underlying problem or opportunity. Applying conceptual thinking can also help teams and organizations with change management.
Practice Makes Perfect: Adopting Smart and Sophisticated Thinking
To sum up, all the different ways of thinking really roll up into one simple category—smart thinking. However, this concept of smart thinking is different than intelligence. Smart thinking is the ability to solve new problems using current knowledge.
Smart thinking is not an innate quality. Like the other methods of thinking we looked at in this article, smart thinking takes practice and requires adopting new habits—smart habits. Learn more about smart habits here.
Develop a Problem-solving Framework
Here are some examples of problem-solving frameworks that apply different ways of thinking:
If you are stuck on how to solve a problem, lack motivation, or feel like you are in a constant state of overthinking, try following this process:
- Observe the situation—Write out the problem statement.
- Separate the facts from your emotions. Flag or highlight the emotions that are present.
- Categorize the problems.
- Come up with some 3-5 ideas or possible solutions.
- Identify your values and principles.
- Input solutions into a decision matrix.
We’ve all heard of the scientific method. Here’s your chance to apply it to a problem you are trying to solve:
- Observe your situation—write out the problem statement.
- Come up with some 3-5 ideas or solutions.
- Test your ideas or solutions.
- Draw conclusions based on facts and evidence collected from your tests.
Here is an example of lean thinking. Try following the A3 Problem-solving Methodology:
- Clarify the goal, purpose, or objective.
- Define the problem or opportunity. (You can ensure you define the problem accurately by following this framework: “Presently______________ that or who supplies______________ to______________ does not______________ which causes______________ and results in______________.”)
- Gather facts and analyze.
- Brainstorm solutions and assess the best.
- Develop an action plan and implement.
Regardless of which problem-solving method you choose, you don’t need a super high-powered and robust business intelligence or analytics platform.
For example, using a “check sheet” can help you keep track of the frequency at which a particular problem occurs. This is a Google Sheet or Excel spreadsheet similar to the “scorecard“. It is designed to collect quantitative data in real time. Yes, it is manual, but effective if you aren’t able to invest in robust and expensive software.
Solving Problems Begins with Your Own Thinking
The biggest takeaway here? The best way to find new ways to solve problems is to change how you think about them. Practice thinking about your thinking. Learn to question your own thoughts and thinking. Develop a framework and process for problem-solving. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them.