Open to Think: How We Can Unleash Pure Thinking Power

When we think we are using our mind to actively form or connect an idea. But there is more to the word “think.” Thinking is also an approach, a possibility, a deliberation, an opinion, or an attitude; it can be a belief or a conclusion. And it can be a spark that helps unleash pure thinking power.

Let’s contemplate the act of thinking…

Thinking can happen in parallel. That is, you can think about one thing while doing something completely different. When you take a shower, for example, you go through a routine that you have likely performed thousands of times. Your brain thinks through the routine and action ensues. Soak. Soap. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. It’s been like that for years, so why change?

But maybe while lathering or rinsing you have a chance to simultaneously unleash thinking that may be more creative or critical than simply lathering soap over your body. I shave my head and face every morning in the shower; a routine of mine for more than 20 years. But during the shave I often float into a state of endless possibility and wonderment. The medical community calls it “automaticity,” when a cell spontaneously generates action without an external stimulus. My morning ritual has become a daily five-minute instance of ideation and decision-making while I continue completing the task of shaving without cutting myself. In the end, I am getting things done – safely – in more ways than one.

A State of Effortless Concentration

Richard Martin, co-author of The Neo-Generalist, confirmed my point during a discussion we once had. “There are times when my mind is freed up to concentrate on other things. For example, when I ride a bike, my body is doing one thing that is very mechanical, while my mind is freed up to sift through bits and pieces of information, sorting them into ideas for action, writing, and so on. I’ve experienced blog posts and articles coming to me fully formed in this way.”

Both of us are paying homage to what Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1 and System 2” thinking. Kahneman writes: “People who experience flow describe it as ‘a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems,” and their descriptions of the joy of that state are so compelling that [colleague] Csikszentmihalyi has called it an ‘optional experience.’ ” Some of my showers have lasted extra-long because I ended up in a daydreaming trance as my brain tried to put disparate pieces of data or knowledge together. Even then I failed to cut myself, to the relief of my wife Denise.

Thinking Power: Good Habits and Bad

Thinking—like eating—is something we all do. In fact, we are all constantly thinking. But as with eating, there are both healthy and unhealthy habits we must become more aware of.

Thinking is both conscious and unconscious. It is voluntary and involuntary. It is equal parts contemplative, interrogative, and active. And it is automatic and manual. We can control thought, but there are times when our thinking becomes instinctive. It is the quality and healthiness of thinking, however, that we must reconsider. While a chocolate donut or greasy fries are fine in moderation, when unhealthy food choices become the norm, our physique suffers. We become obese, subjecting our bodies to more complicated maladies such as diabetes or heart disease. Similarly, if you constantly employ poor thinking habits, don’t be surprised if your life becomes detrimentally affected over time.

Establishing Good Thinking Habits

Let’s consider a scenario at work in which your boss presents a series of customer service issues to solve. Ideally, you enter a state of reflection that should transition into a decision and finally, action. You should consider the possibilities, deduce what will work, make the decision and then act to fix the customer problem in a mutually acceptable timeframe. If you spend too much time white-boarding the possibilities and/or overanalyzing your options—or you immediately dive into action without devoting thinking time to being creative or critical—that is akin to eating a 12-pack of donuts for lunch every day of the week. Inevitably, the result is unhealthy. At some point your habit becomes set. In this case, the customer remains dissatisfied. Poor thinking has won.

A different example: Your team wishes to improve how its members share information with one another. In a perfect world, everyone gets together to first think of some new ideas, critique them, decide what will be used, and then move to implementing the ideas. Hopefully, the process is iterative and weaves in any new feedback or thoughts. But, for many teams, either the leader mandates changes in a top-down fashion, or the team itself doesn’t spend enough time on the various options. Inescapably, any so-called improvements that were applied miss the mark because a version of closed thinking is applied. It is not open. It is not engaging. Time is not invested. Consequently, the result is unsatisfactory. Everyone loses.

The Impact of Thinking on Leadership and Decision-Making

In my home, when I share my opinion about my young son Cole’s latest “Jack and John” short story, I am thinking critically, providing thoughtful, patient feedback so he can become a better writer. If I am too flippant or quick, Cole loses out on additional learning and opportunities for improvement. If I interrupt the moment by attending to my mobile phone simply because it vibrated or lit up, how will he feel about my commitment to his learning? What type of example am I setting for him?

Conversely, in my place of work, if am not regularly asking team members for feedback on an idea, what does that say about my own personal level of thinking? Closed or open? In fact, thinking is tied to your attitude or behavior. If you are close-minded and fixated on dominating at all costs, what does that say about your ability to think openly let alone being viewed as a respected leader?

But thinking is also intuitive and instinctual. When an erratic driver is about to collide head-on with my car, I am forced to think and then react quickly to take evasive action. The process is seamless and fast and quite different than the examples mentioned above. Similarly, when an emergency-room doctor is presented with a life-or-death case, she must make critical decisions right away based on her experience, then act to save the patient.

Thinking is Multifaceted

The type of thinking we want to focus on in Open to Think does not pertain to avoiding car crashes or saving a patient’s life. Open to Think is not a book about the psychology or neuroscience of thinking, nor is it intended to rehash Design or Integrative Thinking. Furthermore, the book is not aimed at those who actually enjoy repetition in their role at work.

The kind of thinking we analyze is more conscious than unconscious, more interrogative and contemplative than innate or automatic.

Ultimately, Open to Think looks at the type of thinking you have control of in your daily lives—including your role at work—and the kind you, hopefully, want to improve.

To do so, I urge you to consider doing something throughout the book: continuously assess how you think. In doing so, you are not simply reading the book, you are potentially developing better thinking habits along the way. Along the way, try asking yourself these three simple questions as you journey through the pages:

  • Do I spend enough time reflecting and dreaming?
  • Do I make thorough decisions based on facts and evidence?
  • Finally, do I rush to complete an action?

In other words, as a leader, mentor, or manager… how do you currently unleash your thinking power?


Excerpted from Open to Think by Dan Pontefract. Copyright 2018 by Dan Pontefract. Excerpted with permission from Figure 1 Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.