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Your Thinking Power May Be Shrinking

5 decision derailers and 15 decision distortions that need a refresh.

Key points

  • People often don't like to think long or hard. Thinking is often outsourced to the Internet.
  • The ability to think deeply can atrophy or decline in effectiveness due to underuse. This can lead to errors or mistakes.
  • Conditions that can derail decisions include distractions, stressors, and the negativity bias.

We don’t like to think long or hard. When a friend gives you a brain teaser, how long do you really think about it until you say, “I don’t know just tell me.” When we do think, our snap judgements can lead to bad decisions or “Stinkin Thinkin.”

Add to that 50% of the time we are missing the present moment, thinking more about the past or future (Jha 2022). This post explores meta cognition, or thinking about your thinking process and patterns of thought. What leads to decision derailers and the types of decisions distortions that shrink your quality thinking and decision making? This will help raise your awareness to examine your thinking process

Outsourced thinking

It is too easy these days to ask Siri, Alexa or Google for the answer. Why tax our brains? We have smart phones, smart cars, and smart homes, so why do we need to be smart?

Artificial intelligence will do even more of our thinking in the future. Our deep-thinking brain can atrophy or decline in effectiveness or vigor due to underuse.

We now have “outsourced our thinking” and it will only get worse with technology hacks. The goal here is to "insource" our thinking again.

When was the last time you just thought deeply for 10 minutes straight without interruption? Most of us are interrupted about every three minutes and over 40% of the time we do it to ourselves. We check our email 74 times a day and switch contexts every 10 minutes, (Gloria Mark in Thorne, 2020)

"The problem isn’t just the time wasted. We’re sacrificing some of our best thinking. I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow.” (Thorne, 2020)

5 decision derailer conditions

These conditions set us up for Stinkin Thinkin and poor decisions.

  1. We don’t like to think hard, deep or long. Shortcuts are the path of least resistance.
  2. When we do think, we are constantly distracted, so our focus and quality of thought are diminished.
  3. When we do think, our default focus is the negativity bias. It captures our attention automatically and can overpower our rational decision making. What is wrong or could go wrong clouds our possibility and creative process.
  4. When we do think, stress, overwhelm, threats and uncertainty tax our cognitive budget and minimize our thinking power.
  5. When we do think, our thinking and decision making are impaired by outdated or unexamined decision distortions.

Unless it is an emergency, you have time to think slow

To reflect is slow thinking in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. He says we only slow think, reflect, analyze, compare about 2% of the time. When asked why we don’t slow think more, he says we are cognitively lazy. It is the equivalent of being a thinking coach potato versus deep thinking. Slow thinking burns up our cognitive budget. At the end of a busy day, have you had decision fatigue where you don’t want to make another decision?

If we stay on autopilot, we stay average

As Winnie the Pooh said, “Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?” It is too easy to stay on autopilot and therefore we stay average.

Great leadership and coaching are a slow thinking process

Our fast thinking is built into us as a survival mechanism. Our fast thinking often is protective to quickly assess “what is wrong, what could be wrong, what will be wrong.” Most of us don’t need more practice fast thinking. It is hard-wired in us.

This negativity bias is ingrained and is two times as strong as the positive, says Tierney and Baumeister (2019) in the book Power of Bad. They state: “We don’t appreciate the power of bad to warp our judgement, we make terrible decisions ... Negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations and generally more efficacious than positive events.”

So, it is too much effort to think slow, and the negative captures our attention automatically and can overpower our rational decision making and lead to Stinkin Thinkin.

A key to great leadership is to know your thinking preferences and be more intentional with your thought process. As Oscar Wilde reportedly said, “A person who does not think for themselves does not think at all.”

And in the book Chatter, Ethan Koss says: “The brain is a predictive machine that is constantly trying to help us navigate the world … we rely on these expectations every second of our lives.”

Thinking is a destination

I like to think that our thinking is a destination. The trouble is, we keep going to the same destinations over and over. Supposedly 95% of the things we think about today are the same we thought about yesterday. It is like driving in circles.

Can we take more time to think, reflect and rethink?

Now in the midst of the pandemic, we often have more emotions and less thinking time to sort things out. The commute to work for many was the main thinking time, walking from the car to the office was thinking time, walking out of a meeting room to an office was thinking time. The pandemic erased these natural gaps for thinking and reflection.

Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there's another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.” —Adam Grant, 2021.

When we do take the time to think given the constraining conditions above, there are beliefs that also impact the quality of our thinking.

In Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Decisive, (2013) they write: “Why do we have such a hard time making good choices? …When it comes to making decisions, it is clear that our brains are flawed instruments.”

Decision Distortions or Thinking Errors

  1. My thoughts are facts
  2. Because I thought it, it must be true
  3. Because others say it, it must be true
  4. Because it’s said many times it must be true
  5. Being very self-critical has brought me my successes
  6. I am not enough
  7. Something is wrong with me
  8. If I am fearful, it means don’t do it
  9. This is just the way I am, I can’t change
  10. I must be liked by all
  11. I must be perfect in all I do
  12. I must follow all my feelings and make emotional decisons
  13. My thinking is too positive, I overuse wishful thinking
  14. I have the illusion that I am taking control of all things
  15. My first gut feeling must be right

Time for a thinking refresh

Software programs have to be updated. Your phone is upgraded every few years. Trees are pruned. Food past its consumption time is thrown away. What about revising your stale beliefs or rules?

Which ones of the distortions above do you need to refresh and update? The next post will look at ways and strategies to renew them.

“Believing is easier than thinking. Hence so many more believers than thinkers.” —Bruce Calvert


Grant, A. (2021) Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. New York: Penguin Random House

Greenberg, C and Nadler R. (2020) Emotional Brilliance: How to Live a Stress Less and Fearless Life. San Diego: Waterside Productions

Heath, D. and Heath, C. (2013) Decisive: How to Make better Choices in Life and Work. New York: Random House

Jha, A. (2021) Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. New York: Harper One

Kahneman, D. (2013) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Kleiner A., Schwartz, J. and Thomson, J. (2019) The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voices of strategic leadership. New York: Columbia Business School

Kross, E. (2021) Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness it. New York: Crown

Nadler, R. (2011) Leading with Emotional Intelligence: Strategies to be a Confident and Collaborative Star Performer. New York: McGraw-Hill

Tierney, J. and Baumeister, R. (2019) Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. New York: Penguin Random House

Thorne, B. (2020) “How Distractions at Work Take Up More Time Than You Think” I Done this Blog. February 13, 2020

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