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In normal times, being an entrepreneur can feel like constantly swimming upstream. Each day involves a continual onslaught of decisions, big and small, to be made by you and you alone. But in times of uncertainty, while businesses scramble to adjust to evolving markets and work conditions, entrepreneurs are facing more daily decisions than ever. It’s no wonder that according to the World Economic Forum, an average of 45% of adults globally said their mental and physical health has become worse in the past year.
As CEO of my company JotForm, it would be easy to slip into cruise control just to get through another jam-packed day; to keep swimming along and forget to think about how I’m thinking and making decisions.
But unaware decision-making can lead to a less innovative, less productive and less inclusive workplace and ultimately hurt your business. That’s why it’s critical to recognize your current thinking patterns and how to do it better. Here, a few expert-backed strategies to improve the quality of your thoughts.
1. Think about thinking
If you’re reading this article, then you’re already knocking out strategy number one. According to Ness Labs, metacognition — the practice of thinking about your thinking — helps you to analyze your thought processes and, in doing so, improves the quality of your thinking. And though it may sound complicated, metacognition simply requires carving out some space for self-reflection, which can be done through daily journaling, regularly checking in with your thought processes and practicing some of the techniques below.
As long as you’re conscientious about how you think, you’re off to a good start.
2. Be aware of loops
Many of us are familiar with behavioral loops — the way we automatically look both ways before crossing the street; or how your mouth waters when you walk into your favorite restaurant. Similar to these learned physical reactions, our minds develop certain “loops” as well.
Mental loops are not inherently bad — in fact, sometimes we need them to process the barrage of new information throughout the day. As Zat Rana writes, “Our brain is a pattern-seeking survival machine, and habits are how it ensures that we don’t have to think too hard about what to do when familiar situations arise, letting us conserve energy.”
But they can also lead to blind spots. Writes Rana, “Our brains have learned something in one context, so they mistakenly apply it to others, mixing up the triggers that lead to routine thoughts.” For example, you assume that a new business issue requires the same old solution, rather than searching for a better answer.
The way to counteract loops is to train our minds to think critically — reading books, hearing out conflicting opinions, educating yourself about divergent ways of perceiving the world. Also, you can practice different mental models, as explained below.
3. Add to your mental model toolbox
As entrepreneur Charles Munger once said, “You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models.”
In other words, we arrange new information based on the existing infrastructure in our brains. The good thing is, we can diversify the kinds of models available and that way, achieve a deeper and more nuanced understanding of that new information. One way to increase your available mental models is simply to study and practice them. Take, for example, the first principles mental model, which entails breaking down complicated problems into individual elements, then rebuilding them from the ground up. Or the inversion technique: Think about what you want, then, think of the opposite of what you want — a surefire way to achieve a new perspective.
Entrepreneurs can also try organizing employees in a way that ensures cross-fertilization of mental models. A few years ago at JotForm, our employees began working in small, cross-functional teams. Whereas a designer would see a challenge from one perspective, an engineer would come at it from a completely different angle. The results were undeniable — not only were employees happier and more motivated, but our products improved.
On a personal level, expanding your mental model toolbox will help you make better decisions.
4. Make diversity the rule not the exception
Of all the reasons to embrace diversity, here’s one: It will boost your thinking and your company’s innovation. Harvard Business Review authors analyzed more than 150 companies and found that after women join C-suites, they don’t just bring new perspectives, but they actually shift how the C-suite thinks about innovation, leading them to consider a wider variety of strategies for creating value. Importantly, the shift happened in particular where teams already had at least one woman.
Having more diverse perspectives can make groups more open to change. And as any entrepreneur can tell you, change is integral to innovation.
5. Remember emotional agility
As much as we’d all like to see ourselves as completely objective decision-makers, especially when it comes to our businesses, it’s undeniable that emotions play into our daily choices. While we might expect anger could lead to brash or impulsive decisions, it turns out that positive moods can affect our better judgment too.
The key to overcoming this tendency is to develop awareness and practicing emotional agility. As Ness Labs explains, “Emotional agility encourages you to observe your inner world and to build resilience. Such a compassionate and honest relationship with your emotions will help in limiting their clouding effect on your judgement.” Not only that, emotional agility can relieve stress, reduce errors and improve job performance.
So, how can you become more emotionally agile? According to HBR, the key is to recognize your patterns; label your thoughts and emotions; accept them; and act on your values.
Our brains may be wired to work a certain way, but there are easy ways to rewire them to benefit ourselves and our businesses.