"Thinking Fast and Slow" Changed How I Think about Thinking

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” was a breakthrough for me in coming up with strategies for solving problems better and more effectively and reducing the mental load of carrying around a huge todo list.

In a nutshell, the book outlines two ways the brain attacks a problem.

System 1 is fast – automatic. Language is no problem for most people. You don’t have to “think” how to speak, you just do. You don’t have to plan out how you brush your teeth, you just brush your teeth.

System 2 is slow and requires effort. Every try to work a crossword puzzle? How about coming up with 275 times 17 divided by 13. You can do it – I know. But it’s going to take you some time and you’re going to need a pencil and some paper. No cell phones!

The big idea in the book for me is that System 2 can become System 1. I’ve played guitar for almost 30 years now. I distinctly remember forcing my brain and fingers to try to make a proper F chord. But now, years later, it’s not even something I think about. The more you work a System 2 problem over and over again, the more it becomes a System 1 solved problem.

Armed with this knowledge, you can look at the problems you have to solve in every day life with a different kind of strategy.

If you only have a few minutes to work on your to do list, your only hope is to pick a bunch of System 1 problems: call the doctor and make an appointment, put the laundry in the washer, get more wiper fluid at the gas station.

But organize the basement? No way. Why? The basement poses a bunch of unique, difficult problems you’ll need to solve all at the same time. What to do with the kids’ baby clothes? Donate or give to the nieces and nephews? If you donate, which place do you want to take it to? Do you need a receipt for taxes? Is it deductible? Mostly likely, you’ll push it to the bottom of the list.

The point is, you don’t have a tried-and-true process for organizing the basement.

If in some (nightmarish) scenario you started organizing your friends’ basements, the chances are that after a dozen or so, you might come up with a process. In fact a friend of mine founded a company that does just that! Organizing is such a complicated, System 2 process, that I have to think they will have clients forever.

One of the reasons that most households and businesses develop a routine or a process is that it lessens the mental load of just getting through the day. With a process or checklist, it makes at least part of the day straightforward and remove obstacles. Obama was (somewhat) famously known for only having a few choices for suits in the morning. It made getting started for the day that much easier.

If your kids just follow a list in the morning, they don’t have to think about what you need to do to be ready for school. Just get dressed, eat breakfast, pack a snack, brush your teeth, and get on the bus.

If there’s one great takeaway from the book, look at your life and see if there are opportunities to train yourself to turn a System 2 stresser into a System 1 walk in the park.

Filed under: Life Hacks

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