How Thinking in Patterns Will Make You Think Better

Read time —
11 Minutes
Last updated
April 2, 2024

Unbelievably, right now you’re thinking in patterns. Some you might be aware of, but most of them, you can’t see or even describe them.

Take the lost time of daydreaming. Only a few minutes ago my train of thought was gone from me. Vertical blinds decorate the window in my office; the type that twists to block the glare of the sun or hide the invasion of the night. I’m irked, although the blinds are all lined up, hanging against the cloud drifting behind them, their angle against the glass is wrong. The imperfection grates me, my awareness awakening as I stand and reach for the pole. A slight twist adjusts them as I correct the angle, settling the scene before me.

Just as my mind thinks in patterns, so it sees them too.

You see, I’m lost in a pattern of thought beyond comprehension. Subconsciously, my mind is processing a multitude of different patterns. From the itch in my beard to the thirst in my throat. A quick scratch and a slurp of coffee calm those thoughts – for now.

Each response is a step in the pattern of thinking and doing. Each part, the itch in my beard through to the scratch I administer is a pattern – a process of behaviour. One so subtle we’re not even aware of.

This article covers:

Thinking in Patterns – what does that mean?

We have little appreciation for the complex way our minds work. We wake up, often around the same time every day as our brain – energised from its night’s sleep - starts to engage its subconscious patterns.

Often, our first need is to use the toilet. If we’re not awake, the subconscious action turns into a conscious one as we rise and walk to the bathroom. Our minds are using patterns to make us move, use the loo, and get on with our day. It is a marvel lost on us; such is the complexity of what we do every day.

Our brain holds thousands of patterns and we use them all the time. Each of them helping us as we manage our safety and our survival. Mundane tasks, such as eating and drinking, or driving, or turning on the tv; all they are is patterns.

These, and many more besides are examples of thinking in patterns. A computer scientist would declare them as algorithms. Others, such as Daniel Kahneman would explain them as stemming from one part of our brain. System one thinking, a process Daniel explains in detail in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Our brains have two systems of judgement and thought. The first, system one, runs within our subconscious and manages most of the choices we make. System two is the one we are conscious of, and is often underused, as system one wants to do everything for us. This means we end up applying thinking patterns in the wrong way.

Thinking deliberately – in patterns

We all think; it is the one thing we’re doing all the time. But, as I alluded to at the beginning, thinking (as in overthinking) can take us off on some strange, unproductive tangents. My brain was procrastinating at the start of this article. Daydreaming is easier, as another pattern distracted me from the task at hand.

"We rarely often create deliberate patterns of thought to help us think or make decisions."— Matt Mullenweg

Subsequently, when we need to think critically, we default to our learned behaviours – meaning system one takes control.

Instead, we should be thinking deliberately.

We should be thinking of patterns to help us be more effective. Applying an application of thought which will help us in our moment of ponderance. Whether it is understanding something, solving a problem, or considering a choice.

As Matt Mullenweg said recently, we rarely often create deliberate patterns of thought to help us think or make decisions. Instead, we allow our subconscious patterns to take control. Sadly, they’re not good enough for the big decisions we must take. 

Matt also makes the point that once we have a pattern, we should practice it. Practice improves performance, ask any athlete - and our goal should be to make the pattern stick. The reason: when you’re under pressure the deliberate pattern becomes a default – just like your subconscious patterns are.  

But what patterns should we be thinking in?

This isn’t an exercise in re-inventing the wheel. Although talk of patterns and thinking might lead you to believe it is. We are fortunate. We have our forefathers who have lived through the same experiences. As nature intended, their experiences - and learnings - have transcended generations.

Today, we know these experiences as mental models. Mental models provide us with frameworks for thinking.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

Of course, there are many different models – for we live in a complex and diverse world. And of course, you don’t need to remember them all, but some you do. Some are vital to enable to understand how the world works, just as some will help solve problems, all helping you to make better decisions.

Practical Thinking in Patterns

You will know some mental models already. You may not be able to name them or you might not even think of them as thinking patterns, but they very much are.

Think of leverage, the notion of using a leaver to move another object. The longer the lever, the easier the move will be.

Another model is second-order thinking. Grandmasters in Chess show how to use this thinking pattern by considering the impact of what will happen before moving a piece. By thinking ahead and considering the knock-on effects, they can choose a move that helps them and damages their opponent.

 There are many others, but for now, here are two models I’ve found to be highly effective.

I have a personal love for first principles thinking. It is a mental model found in young children, as they look to understand everything in front of them. Like a sponge in a bath, a child’s brain looks to suck up great quantities of knowledge. 

School eradicates first principles thinking. Instead, we drown children in a sea of information. Not to give them understanding, but to cram their memories full. After fifteen years of education, the mental model of first principles thinking is a forgotten power. But, once remembered and reused, it unlocks an array of learning opportunities.


Despite our urge for simplicity, we live in a complex world and as a result, problems often occur which need solving. Using inversion as a mental approach is a powerful way to gain a new perspective on a problem. We often seek excellence without realising it is easier to do the opposite, which is to don’t be stupid.

Inversion shifts the focus from the normal view to one where you consider the alternative.

Concluding thoughts

Thinking is a task we commit hours to, with little thought about how to think better. This approach limits our ability to think critically, solve problems, and make effective decisions.

Overcoming this means understanding how our subconscious works. The much talked about system one is a foundation of established patterns, all of which work and help us navigate life. We fall when we use a pattern in a different situation. The outcome is one we don’t want.

As Matt Mullenweg explains, we rarely stop to think in patterns deliberately. When we do, we open our minds to the opportunity to think better. We can significantly improve our thinking by using mental models; thinking patterns that qualify predetermined facts.

It makes the complex simple.

We move to new perspectives, ones that enable us to think more rationally, solve complex problems and make better decisions. Thinking in patterns won’t just make you think better, it will improve your outcomes.

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