How Thinking Slowly Can Boost Your Cognition and Success

Read time —
5 Minutes
Last updated
March 28, 2024

Josh Kaufman’s book, The Personal MBA begins with this:

“I’ve long believed that a certain system—which almost any intelligent person can learn—works way better than the systems most people use [to understand the world]. What you need is a latticework of mental models in your head. And, with that system, things gradually fit together in a way that enhances cognition. Just as multiple factors shape every system, multiple mental models from a variety of disciplines are necessary to understand that system … You have to realize the truth of biologist Julian Huxley’s idea that “Life is just one damn relatedness after another.” So you must have all the models, and you must see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.”

The quote is from Charlie Munger.

It is a compelling argument for systems thinking. Breathtakingly clear; the lesson it delivers — a certain system of mental models can enhance cognition.

And yet, despite there being reams of information available online, we miss the most important lesson.

It’s a lesson not included in the quote above. But it is one you’ll find in most studies of how Charlie and his business partner, Warren Buffett work together.

They give themselves time to think.

This article covers:

Thinking Slowly

Our best thinking has always occurred slowly.

Bill Gates has a twice yearly ‘think week’, to do just this.

For seven days, he retreats to a secret two-story cabin in the Pacific Northwest. Secluded, he reads, thinks, and takes notes.

It is alone time for Bill.

No family, no friends, or employees.

It gives Bill time to digest what he is reading. But also to take the insights he has learnt and think about how to apply them to his world. He is using his latticework of mental models to identify the relatedness of new and old information. The upside is clear to see, given that Bill was doing this long before the turn of the century.

The freedom to be able to do this is a life-goal for most of us.

Here is the shocking thing; because we can’t make time to have a think week, we don’t make time to do any thinking.

I’m serious.

Show me (screenshots are welcome), where in your calendar, you make — even 30 minutes —time to do nothing but think. I suspect most of you can’t because you don’t.

Of course, it's worse than that. Much of the way we think today is dictated by our environment and the culture we now find ourselves in, which isn’t necessarily conducive.

When notifications fragment our attention, our thinking will be equally disjointed.

Why You Need to Practice Thinking

Our attention is being sucked out through our screens.

Seventy-five years ago, the only screen time you got was at the cinema. Technology has made our world a much smaller place, but it has also significantly lessened our ability to think well.

Thoughts and ideas become disjointed like our attention. Our capacity to think deeply about problems and decisions has never been more threatened.

Today, we excuse our lack of thinking as a time issue.

Let’s be clear, this is a fallacy. It’s not time we fear wasting, it’s our fear of missing out that scares us.

In truth, what we are missing is the power of slow thinking.

Some things can’t be rushed — some things shouldn’t be rushed.

You can’t enjoy the scenery, especially if you never stop and look around.

Thinking is no different.

Good thinking lets us consider a problem. It gives us the means to assess, question, and challenge our thoughts. New perspectives arise, creating new insights not previously seen.

Good thinking is the embodiment of Abraham Lincoln’s quote:

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ”

Sadly, most of us never get to chop with a sharp axe.

In Charlie Munger's world, time spent sharpening is time spent feeding balance sheets and P&Ls through his latticework of mental models. Berkshire Hathaway’s success has come from thinking and seeing the relatedness of one business model to another.

It is the pattern recognition most of us don’t grasp.

It’s the true value of thinking. Of seeing the unique frames and picking them — or avoiding them. As Charlie famously said; “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”

Some Thoughts on How to Think Slowly

I’m not suggesting you throw your phone away.

But you can use it in the right way. If you haven’t applied the following three steps, I recommend you do so as soon as you can.

  1. Turn off your notifications.
  2. Limit your screen time.
  3. Greyscale the screen.

These are obvious and easy, so I’ll let you find the right way to make this work for you.

5 Ways to Think Slowly

Thinking slowly doesn’t have to mean sitting in a dark room for half a day.

Far from it.

It’s the process of slowing down your mind. Here are five practices that can help you think slowly:

  • Write down your thoughts. Writing is a form of slow thinking that forces you to organize your ideas, clarify your assumptions, and evaluate your arguments. It is a great way to make decisions too.
  • Ask yourself questions. Questions can stimulate your curiosity, challenge your assumptions, and expose your blind spots. Asking yourself questions is a pathway to critical thinking. It allows you to explore different angles and scenarios, and generate alternative solutions.
  • Seek feedback from others. Getting feedback from others can improve your thinking. Exposing yourself to different perspectives, opinions, and experiences will expand your thinking.  Feedback can also help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and correct your errors and biases.
  • Meditate. Meditation is a practice that can help you slow down your mind, calm your emotions, and focus your attention. By practicing mindfulness, you gain the ability to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is a good way to avoid distractions, reduce stress, and enhance your creativity.
  • Read. Reading is another form of slow thinking that can enrich your knowledge, expand your vocabulary, and stimulate your imagination. Reading can also expose you to different ideas, cultures, and perspectives. It can also help you develop critical thinking skills.

Concluding Thoughts

Josh Kaufman’s book is a study of mental models.

It’s a book where you can learn about the frameworks you need in a business environment. It is a latticework for a business thinker.

But I know from my battles, being able to think slowly is an important step before you can even consider what mental models to use. Making time to write, question, seek feedback, meditate, and read are important investments.

They turn you from a distracted thinker to a considered thinker.

Then it might be time to start learning about mental models.

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