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Become a More Flexible Thinker

Learn about types of flexible thinking and how you can boost your skills.

Dierk Schaefer on Creative Commons
Source: Dierk Schaefer on Creative Commons

Clinical psychologists often talk about how flexible thinking is an important part of good mental health. It helps people succeed personally and in their relationships.

But, what is flexible thinking? Take a look at the different types below, so you can see how you're doing in this area, and where you may be able to level up.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

If you're a flexible thinker, you consider a range of different possible consequences of your actions rather than only considering an optimistic view or only considering a pessimistic view.

For example, if you're thinking about switching from a salaried job to freelancing, you wouldn't only consider the likely upsides or the likely downsides, you would consider both.

Flexible thinkers also consider optimistic and pessimistic explanations for other people's behavior. For example, maybe not hearing back from someone indicates a problem, but maybe it doesn't. If you consider both of these scenarios you might make a choice to follow up and check if there is a problem but you avoid the emotional pain of automatically assuming something negative.

Flexible thinkers can adjust their general tendency to be positive or negative based on which is more helpful in a given situation. For example, if you're in a situation where you need to give yourself a push to "go for it," you might find it helpful to imagine an optimistic outcome.

If you know you tend to be too optimistic or too pessimistic, you factor this in when you're thinking about things, as a reminder to yourself to consider the other side of the coin.

Darkday on Creative Commons
Source: Darkday on Creative Commons


There's a common couples therapy exercise that involves describing a topic of conflict from your own perspective, your partner's perspective, and a neutral observer's perspective.

It's important that you don't assume that your way of looking at something is the way everyone looks at it. When you can see that other people look at situations in different ways, it helps you not jump to inaccurate conclusions.

For example, recognizing that your view isn't the only view would help prevent you from launching a product feature that you like but other people have no interest in. You wouldn't automatically assume other people would love it as much as you, without testing that assumption.

Understanding rules of thumb don't always apply

You might have the belief "If you want a job done right, you should do it yourself."

Flexible thinkers can recognize this as a belief and that it doesn't apply in every situation.

Considering situational explanations as well as personality explanations

For example, if your partner doesn't take out the trash despite reminders, are they dispositionally inconsiderate or are they absentminded currently due to stress they're experiencing at work?

Flexible thinkers can see how both types of explanations can contribute to behaviors. The same applies when evaluating your own behavior. For example, did you binge because your self-control needs some work or because you got too hungry?

Recognizing your biases

You have a thought that you're "not good enough" but you can recognize this as anxiety rather than automatically assuming it's true.

There may be other situations in which you're overconfident. For example, you think you're probably better at picking stocks than the average investor. However, if you're a flexible thinker, you can recognize that is a pretty common type of overconfidence bias.

Recognizing that thoughts and feelings often don't last

Flexible thinkers don't assume that how they feel now is how they're always going to feel. For example, you feel intimidated in trying to wrap your head around a subject now but you recognize you'll likely feel more confident over time as you gain more experience with the topic.

Balancing long term and short term desires

When you're in a situation, you can think about your long-term goals and your short-term goals.

Not putting too much weight on feeling certainty or uncertainty

Feeling uncertain about something isn't necessarily a bad sign. Feeling certain about something doesn't necessarily mean you're right. Flexible thinkers recognize this.