How to Think Better

Last Updated Jun 18, 2008 2:16 PM EDT

Do we think better when we set aside time for it?

Ellis Booker, a friend and former colleague, blogged in the affirmative, saying Take the time to let big ideas grow.

In his post, he described an unexpected five-hour layover at LaGuardia Airport, which he spent disconnected. "...[U]ninterrupted blocks of time... are the gardens where big ideas, imaginative, even playful what-ifs grow and then flower into innovative new products, services, organizations and business models."

He used his time to make a list of ideas, though the one he shared was to book a scuba diving trip.

His post sent me off to my pile of business books. I pulled out Think Better,, a book published earlier this year by the consultant Tim Hurson.

Alas, Hurson does not explicitly address how much time one should set aside for just thinking (it's probably unknowable but unlikely that five hours at LaGuardia works as well as Bill Gates' fabled Think Weeks), but he does walk through his system for thinking more effectively, which does demand some time. In my friend's favor is list-making. In the book, Hurson calls list-making an important tool in coming up with ideas, and in particular if you use a "Wind Tunnel" process, a period of time dedicated to just making lists of ideas (Hurson suggests coming up with 50 ideas or spend five minutes). The first third will be conventional, he says, but by the last third, there may well be gems that go in a new direction.

The book gives an overview of what's known about how we think, and what challenges we need to overcome, which are more biological than you might, um, think.

"It probably seems as though you're thinking all the time, but like the rest of your body, your brain uses a variety of strategies and tricks to minimize the energy it requires. And its most effective strategy for conversing brain energy is actually not to think at all. In fact, most of the time your brain is involved in just one of three activities: distraction, reaction or following well-worn patterns." [italics mine]

Hurson has devised a model to actually help you think. It takes him 250 pages to explain it and show how it can be applied, so I'm not going to condense it here, other than to say that I liked his structuring of ideas into reproductive (similar to current things) and productive (going in new directions), and shows examples of both types of thinking and how they apply to businesses. If your business needs new ideas, and is struggling to come up with them, his Productive Thinking model rates a look.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.