Messed Up Mind? Here’s Three Thought Hacks to Improve Your Thinking

Mind Hacks for a Messed Up Life. Photo by Helga Weber

Many books have been written about the effect our thought patterns have, on our relationships, our finances, how we perceive the world and on our own identity. Dysfunctional thinking leads to undesirable outcomes. Effective thinking leads to success.

I think this is a basic truth few would argue. It’s also tragically overlooked.

I’d like to share three of my favorite mind hacks. Using these should help you think through problems better and ultimately lead you to more desirable outcomes. You can call these three hacks The Good Question, The Bad Version and The Top Idea.

The Good Question

The Good Question technique is based on the article The Dangerous Art of the Right Question by Venkat Rao. Venkat explores ways of asking more effective questions, and avoiding easy, useless questions we often settle on.

Good questions, Venkat suggests, are “motivated by the specific situation at hand”. Good questions contain insider information. If your question seems too broad and general, peel away the few layers of generality –  just as you would ripened jackfruit. With some drilling down you’ll get the sweet core of the issue.

I also suggest good questions are forward thinking and solution-based (a minor deviation from Venkat’s method).

An example of an (arguably) unproductive question, and one I myself am guilty of asking would be “why do I find most meetings so painful to sit through?“. Another example of a bad question would be “what is the cause of my social anxiety disorder.

Both questions look backwards and focus on the problem, not the solution. They’re also too general.

Better versions of these questions would be “Is patience a virtue I’m lacking, and would attending these meetings help me be more patient?” and “Is the 30 Day Rejection Therapy Challenge something I should attempt to combat my social anxiety disorder?

In both amended questions, there is a proposed solution embedded within the question. To do this, you’ll need to create a pool of understanding, or in other words, gather up whatever existing knowledge you have on the subject first.

Formulating the right question takes longer, but it will get you to your answer, faster.

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The Bad Version

The second thought hack we’ll discuss is The Bad Version, but it’s not bad like it sounds. It’s actually a fun mental exercise used by television writers to fix broken storylines. I learned of this thought hack from an article by ‘Dilbert’ creator Scott Adams.

Here’s how it works: Instead of trying to create a perfect plot fix, script writers will conjure up ridiculous and implausible ideas and work from there.

From the article:

If your character is stuck on an island, the bad version of his escape might involve monkeys crafting a helicopter out of palm fronds and coconuts. That story idea is obviously bad, but it might stimulate you to think in terms of other engineering solutions, or other monkey-related solutions. The first step in thinking of an idea that will work is to stop fixating on ideas that won’t. The bad version of an idea moves your mind to a new vantage point.

A variation on The Bad Version is to imagine the worst case scenario for a given situation. To borrow the social anxiety  theme from The Good Question, you might ask: “What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to me if I ask Bonnie to the dance on Friday?

When you answer that question, envision the absolute most devastating situation that could occur as result of your asking. Now go beyond that. You may find that psyching yourself up for such a traumatic [fictional] outcome makes the actual event of asking seem almost non-eventful. Boring even.

It’s like being mentally and physically ready to bench press 500 lbs, but you only lift 135 lbs. The weight will seem lighter than ever.

Maybe my spin on The Bad Version should be called The Power of Overestimation. Whatever you want to call it, it can smash mental plateaus like few other techniques I’ve tried.

The Top Idea

The third thought hack was conceived by programmer, venture capitalist and author Paul Graham. One of his most profound essays is The Top Idea in Your Mind.

Paul Graham explains:

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

The top idea in your mind is the one your subconscious will spend CPU cycles on when you sleep at night. That’s why “never go to bed angry” is such good advice, and why it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

If your top idea is bad, resolve the issue. If that’s not possible, do whatever you can to de-prioritize it in your mind. A bold act of love or service to another might be a way to dethrone a negative top idea and exalt a positive one.

Graham suggests forgiveness as a potent strategy for clearing the mind of negative debris so you can make room for a a new top idea.

Not know for sure what the top idea in your mind is? Graham has an easy way to find out: Take a shower. Whatever topic your thoughts keep returning to, that is your top idea.

It’s the idea that will lead you to success or something else.



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