Thinking strategically is boring—if you don’t know how to do it. Getting stuck feels bad and moving forward feels good.
In this article, you will learn how to never again have to feel that strategic thinking is boring by becoming a pro at it. First, you will learn how to improve the way your brain functions so that it helps instead of hinders you. After that, you will learn how to think strategically to achieve your goals.
Take a second to think about how improving your strategic thinking skills might help you in your life. What problems do you need to solve? What goals do you have? By understanding how to improve how your brain works, you can solve problems and achieve your goals more efficiently.
Thinking strategically is defined as a mental process applied by a person to set themselves up to efficiently achieve a goal in a specific context.
For example, you might engage in the mental process of pondering how to read this article to the end without losing focus. Your pondering of this question is a distraction, so stop daydreaming, keep focused, and read on now!
Nah, just kidding. Seriously though, pondering how to read this article without losing focus is an example of thinking strategically. You are considering what things you can do to achieve your goal of efficiently finishing this article.
I’ll break the process of strategic thinking down more in-depth in steps 3 and 4 of this article. But first, here’s an overview of the 4 simple steps to become a pro at thinking strategically:
- Meditate to get a clear perspective.
- Use cognitive enhancers to sharpen your mind.
- Understand the problem/goal you want to solve/achieve.
- Find the most efficient methods for solving your problem.
The first two steps are about improving your brain function to get you into a state of mind conducive to strategic thinking, and the final two steps outline how to actually apply this mental superpower.
1. Meditate to Get a Clear Perspective
To think strategically, you will need a clear perspective on the problem you are going to try to solve and the methods available to you for solving it.
Meditation is an excellent way to clear any gunk out of your mind. Having a meditation habit can probably improve your strategic thinking skills in the long term, but it is actually in the short term that meditation has the most prominent benefits for thinking strategically.
I suggest that you meditate just before thinking strategically for anywhere between 10 seconds and 2 hours depending on the importance of the goal/problem that you want to think about.
Specifically, mindfulness meditation without any specific object of attention—just resting your mind and observing everything that comes into your consciousness as closely as possible—is the sort of meditation that tends to help me think more strategically as opposed to instinctively.
By deliberately observing your thoughts, you will become more and more aware of your assumptions and preconceptions in regards to the nature of the problem and the solutions to it that you’ve considered so far.
2. Use Cognitive Enhancers to Sharpen Your Mind
Cognitive enhancers—supplements that if used appropriately enhances cognitive performance for the user—can help you think better. These substances are often also called “nootropics” or “smart drugs”.
Many people have misconceptions about these, either believing that they are super-effective and should be banned to prevent people from cheating with them or that they don’t do anything at all. Both of these beliefs are mostly wrong.
Some nootropics certainly can have cognitive-enhancing effects, but these are only extremely good if you are performing poorly, to begin with. Think of Caffeine for example. It doesn’t raise your IQ by 40 points, but it helps you think, especially if you haven’t used it in a while.
To use nootropics to think strategically, it is important to think strategically about using nootropics. What do you want to improve in your mental toolkit? Memory, focus, mood, energy, or stress levels?
I work at Nootralize, which is a company that helps people understand the science of nootropics. In our review of more than 500 placebo-controlled studies that examined the effects of more than 200 nootropics in healthy humans, we found that most nootropics that people use and claim enhance their mental performance are severely underresearched. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these substances are ineffective, just that the scientific data needed to know is not available.
Overall, the 5 most science-backed nootropics are Omega 3’s, Walnuts, Bacopa Monnieri, Caffeine, and Sage. But it’s important that you know why you want to use nootropics. Caffeine wouldn’t help you at all with decreasing stress levels for example, but Bacopa Monnieri might.
There are even some nootropics, such as Cocoa and Lemon Balm, that might help you in your meditation practice. Meditation and nootropics are just two of many science-backed methods for improving your brain function so that it can help you think more strategically.
3. Understand the Problem You Want to Solve
A strategy is not an end in itself but a means to some other end. The trigger for you to start thinking “Aha! It’s time to think strategically!” is when you have just identified a problem.
When you have identified a problem that you want to solve, it’s time to understand the why, when, and where of the problem.
- Why do you want to solve this problem?
- When do you want this problem solved?
- Where (in what context) do you want this problem solved?
For example, you could answer these questions by saying, “I’m trying to lose 10kg in 2021 because I think that will increase my day-to-day energy levels.” It is clear from this statement that you want to increase your energy levels and also want to solve the problem of how to lose 10kg. It is also clear that you want this done before the end of 2021, and that it is you and not your sister or Donald Trump that you want to change the weight of.
Getting clear on the context of the problem will enable you to compare the efficiency of the methods available for solving your problem.
4. Find the Most Efficient Methods for Solving Your Problem
To find the best solution to your problem, you will have to understand the underlying causes of the problem. What factors play a role in the problem at hand? What variables can, if manipulated, help you solve your problem?
What resources are needed for you to manipulate those variables? This can be people, money, time, energy, food, information, etc. Based on the resources you have available, you will have to find a way to economically solve your problem. To understand which method is the most efficient and economical, you need to compare your options.
Imagine you’re trying to learn chemistry. Specifically, you’ve identified that right now you want to learn the chemical formula for water in a short amount of time. You now understand what you want to do, when, and in what context. Now, it’s time to find an efficient method for learning the chemical formula for water.
The resources you have available are a glass of water, your phone which has internet access, and your mother, a biologist, who is sitting next to you ready to help.
How would you go about learning the chemical formula for water? Most people would probably not even try doing anything with the water to understand its chemical formula. But why?
Water on its own doesn’t have any of the information that is necessary for you in your quest to solve your problem. You would need advanced chemistry tools and knowledge as well as quite a bit of time to find out the chemical formula for water with the help of the glass of water.
Would you ask Google or your mom?
For comparison between two options when there’s no clear winner in terms of efficiency in helping you solve your problem, a simple pro/con list can be very useful.
Your mother can answer your question, likely accurately, in a very short amount of time when you’ve asked her what the chemical formula for water is. Google can also answer your question, more likely accurately, but it would probably take longer to open your phone, open the web browser, type Google, hit enter, type “What is the chemical formula for water?” hit enter, select a good source, and read the answer.
This simple pro/con list could be illustrated in a table:
When comparing options for solving your problem in practice, it quickly becomes clear that knowing the context of your problem is crucial. If you know that you’re looking to understand the chemical formula for water because you’re going to have a test on this in school next week, then you might accept the fast and high accuracy response from your mother.
But if you’re going to hold a speech in front of the nation as the president of the United States, you likely will want to invest more time to get an answer that is definitely accurate.
This is an example of why you need to fully understand the context of the problem you’re trying to solve before looking at methods for solving it. Thinking strategically allows you to understand the context of the problem.
Pros/cons, revenues/costs, rewards/risks, benefits/side effects—all of these are terms that describe the positive and negative aspects of solutions or tools that can be used to solve problems.
In some circumstances, the problem is so small that it would take more time to create a pro/con list on paper or to create a clear definition of why you want to solve this problem, which is when a clear and sharp mind comes in extra handy.
When Not to Think Strategically
In the many situations that happen daily where small problems need to be solved, you can cut the time needed to select a solution to the problem down to the time it takes for you to think about the pros and cons of a problem.
You likely do this more or less consciously already, but becoming aware that you are solving problems can help you take a step back—perhaps meditate for 10 seconds—and with a nootropic-fueled mind, see the entire list of pros and cons of the possible solutions to a problem in front of you.
Thinking strategically takes time. People who are really good at strategic thinking know when thinking strategically is overkill.
You don’t need to write a pro/con list for which pair of socks you will use tomorrow morning or even think of the pros and cons of the alternatives you have. Sometimes, it will give you the best results to just act and to do so quickly.
I encourage you to think strategically now about which situations you want to think strategically about in the future. Personally, I find that the more important it is for me that a problem is solved and that the resources needed to solve the problem are used efficiently, the more strategically I want to think.
If I had a test next week for which I needed to know the chemical formula for water, I would not get a pen and paper and create a pro/con list. It would take too much time relative to the importance of the problem. I would just act.
On the other hand, if I wanted to use a nootropic, I would read quite a lot online and in the scientific literature about its risks and potential benefits because nootropics alter your biology and your biology creates your experience. Since my experience is very important to me, I would invest more time and effort in thinking more strategically.
To become a pro at thinking strategically, you need to when to think strategically and when to just act on instinct. To determine this, understand what sort of problem you have in front of you. When you’ve understood your problem in-depth, it is time to understand the solutions available and find the best one for your situation.
To do these things flawlessly and efficiently, meditation and cognitive enhancers can be useful. They can sharpen your mind to the point at which thinking strategically is easy and fun.
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