In Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done, Art Markman draws on psychological and cognitive scientific principles to provide a general audience with techniques for changing mental habits, improving memory formation, and refining decision-making skills. Smart thinking, he argues, is based upon the wise use of the information one possesses to pursue a goal. Smart thinking is not raw intelligence or test taking ability.
Effective habits are key to smart thinking. Repetition, environmental cues, and distinctive actions facilitate habit formation. Eliminating bad habits by relying on willpower is extremely taxing; rather, one should replace bad habits with good behaviors through changes in the environment. A “habit diary” can help a person track her progress toward habit change.
A person cannot process—let alone remember—all the information to which he is exposed, but he can use a few techniques to be strategic about what he will remember. For example, whether preparing oneself to remember written or oral information or preparing others to remember the information one will present, we can aid memory by providing a preview, sticking to three main points, and reviewing key information. Also, being mentally present and resisting the cultural habit of multi-tasking are important for remembering. Markman asserts that we are more likely to remember information if it is meaningful and related to already known concepts. It can be recalled most easily when we are in a state similar to the state we were in when we learned it originally. If upon initially learning new information we experience some “desirable difficulty,” we are more likely to retain that information since we had to work to understand it.
We can bolster our ability to learn, remember, and innovate by asking the question “why” and answering this question when teaching others. It is important to ask oneself “why” questions given that people overestimate the extent to which they understand a concept. In the spirit of learning and with a friendly and non-accusatory disposition, people should ask others “why” when that speaker explains a new concept or uses new, unique terminology.
Effective decision-making is the third key component of smart thinking. Markman suggests his readers familiarize themselves with their decision-making style or their “need for closure” in deciding among options. Swift decision makers may need to take time to fully consider potential creative solutions and cool-off before committing to a course of action; painstakingly deliberate decision makers should learn to commit to a solution and recognize the futility of generating endless options. Decision makers should ensure that they clearly understand the situation about which they need to make a decision, which may require recasting the problem in different terms. People should elicit help from others in identifying issues they may have overlooked. Analogies are a powerful way to structure people’s beliefs and projections about situations. Proverbs (and stories and jokes) are a pithy and effective way of drawing an analogy. Markman even suggests his readers study lists of proverbs to improve their understanding of the key relations in a situation. Diagrams and gestures can be a more effective way of expressing a problem or the steps to a solution than words alone.
Finally, in the interdependent culture in which most people will find themselves (including in the corporate world), an organization’s “smart thinking” is critical. People tend to adopt the goals and actions exhibited by those around them. Accordingly, organizations should help their members reflect on how they think, stretch them to learn, be encouraging of new ideas and questions, probe for deep explanations, discourage multitasking, and encourage an attitude of “we” not “I.”
In addition to improving habits, memory, and decision making, Markman scatters throughout the book “instantly smarter” tips that one can implement immediately to improve thinking. Among his suggestions are: get a good night’s sleep; listen to your emotional reactions when making decisions; if you do not know something important, then identify the people who would possess that information; and if you struggle to remember something, stop thinking about it and the solution may come to you.
With a clear structure and relatable examples, Markman provides easily digestible tips to improve our habits of mind and to execute Smart Thinking.