How to Think

How to Think – Going from Needless Worry to Apt Solutions.

You’ve been there.  
A gnawing problem that’s been on your mind for weeks, even months.  

Something that you’ve been procrastinating on forever.  

Something that you need to think about, but you never seem to have the Time and Space to be able to apply mental cognition so that you can make meaningful progress.

So what do you do?   How do you break from this cyclical rut?  

As Trainers of the GTD methodology, we come across this scenario in every workshop and with every coaching client.  And fortunately, in most cases the solution is pretty simple. All that you need to do is to answer the following two questions:

What’s the Successful Outcome?
To move forward on that, what’s your Next Action?

That is effective thinking.
It is outcome and action-focused, instead of worry and doom inspiring. 

For a big majority of cases that we come across, “thinking” through and answering those two questions jet-propels the participant from “Woe-is-me” Victim state to “Hand-over-those-Controls,-I’m-going-to-fly-this-baby” Control state.

Go ahead. Roll your eyes. Mutter “yeah, right”. If you who haven’t attended our workshop or haven’t had a GTD coaching session, yup this can seem dubious.

You can watch David Allen explains this process eloquently in this 7-min video here. However, you would need a GTD Trainer or Coach to take you through this process to truly experience how empowering it is.

That said, that’s not the subject of this post. In this post, I would like to take it a level deeper.  

As advanced GTD Practitioners would have experienced, there are times that one is stuck answering the second question, i.e. coming up with a Next Action itself.  

I’ve been there, at least a couple of times a week.  I tell myself “Damn it, I don’t know what my Next Action is.  I don’t know who to call or what to do about it. I need to Think!

And Thinking is a Next Action. It takes time, space and energy.
But how do I do that?  Specifically, how do I Think?

What goes round and round in my head is not thinking. It is fretting. It is worrying. And it is catastrophising. 

Truth be told… we spend little time dedicated to actual structured thinking. And it is not our fault.

We go through 12 years of our school’s curriculum learning what to think about. But no one tells us exactly how to think. 

So, What is Successful Thinking?

Successful Thinking is cutting through the clutter, going past the what-ifs and “coming up with options”. That’s successful thinking.

Thanks to GTD, I now pay attention to How I Think.  I pay attention to How do I come up with options that I could not see before. 

And here are the different ways that I generate and explore options:

How to Think: 5 Extremely Effective Ways to Think Right: 

Discussing with Someone or a Team:
Calling a meeting or just externalizing the problem or idea is a surefire way to move forward on something that’s keeping you stuck.  Just like there is magic in writing stuff down, there is magic in explaining your problem to someone else. You will see options and solutions that you didn’t see before.

Re-looking at Existing Data:
Till you have the option of discussing ideas with people, going through data you already have after a pause provides a fresh lens and also assists in seeing solutions that you may have missed in the first pass. 

Searching for previously applied solutions or just Googling:
You don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. Often finding existing solutions by just asking the wizard of our times – Google – is enough to get you unstuck. Typing the problem statement in your favourite search engine and hitting “Enter”  provides at least a direction to explore in order to find better answers. It beats worrying any day. 

Mindmapping through Structured Models:
If the question you are pondering is unique and does require you to reinvent some spokes of that old wheel, you can default your thinking to apply Mental Models. The Natural Planning Model is my favourite. Because you can’t really come up with, ideas, options until you’ve first identified:

What’s the Purpose? (or Why are we even discussing this?)
What would Wild Success Look Like?

There are other thinking and Problem Solving models too.  Second-Order thinking is a nice one that I use too. Farnam Street Blog has a long list of 109 Mental Models here and Ken Watanabe has some in this book.

Sleeping On It: 
Once you’ve done your best and still haven’t hit on a solution that you’re comfortable with, then perhaps it’s time to just sleep over it.  

Your intuition, spirit, higher-calling will now do the thinking for you and drop you an email to let you know what the next best step is for your case.  

If Albert Einstein could use this method to unravel the mysteries of his space-time thesis paper, it is not to be knocked without a try! 

It would help though to put a reminder for yourself in your calendar to check-in with yourself on the possible solutions. Till then take it easy.

So the next time you tell yourself, you need to think about it, go a level deeper and identify which of the above steps you can take to truly do constructive thinking. 

Instead of letting your mind wander through the alleys of worry and fretting.

The choice is yours. 


  1. Thank you for this, but it is very mind focussed. We can’t function unless we
    deal with anxiety and stress by working on our emotional state. Most ill health is caused by this. I have recently learned about Heartmath a most useful technique . We actually have 3 brains – in our head, our heart and our gut. These last two are usually neglected but their health is vital to our well-being. Heartmath teaches breathing exercises which can transform your state.
    check it out.

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