Building signals for thinking differently

How easy is it to go through a day without realizing it? If you’re not setting explicit cues in your life for getting outside of your current perspective, you’re likely missing opportunities and inspirations.

Think about it: you wake up, go through your routine, clock-in, clock-out, and that’s that. We know this happens often because it’s a recurring phenomenon for many of us.

I can’t tell you how many days I have where I wake up in the morning, get ready for the day, and suddenly am at the office, seven miles away. On those days, everything between when I wake up and when I arrive at the office is what scientific researchers call: “embodied embedded cognition.”

Basically psychologists and neuroscientists have determined that when we are in an environment where the circumstances are reliable and familiar, our brains become “lazy.” In this way we are able to maximize our cognitive (and other) energy. Rather than worrying about every detail of your commute, your mind is free to tackle a problem at work or to make plans for the weekend.

The problem is that we cannot control this behavior in our brains. Encountering a familiar and safe situation repeatedly will undoubtedly result in our becoming mentally “blind” to it.

Why is this conscious blindness a problem?

When we rely on living in a set routine, often without realizing it, we miss the opportunities or inspirations around us. Perhaps there’s a faster or more efficient path for me to get to work, but because my brain has established the path I take as a “reliable” one, I’m prone to take that one; even if there is a faster way around traffic one day, for example, I’m likely to fail and see it because my immediate consciousness is elsewhere why my low-level consciousness is dealing with the stop-and-go of my regular route.

It’s for these reasons that I believe we need explicit reminders in our lives to “think differently.”

After-all: if we’re inclined to follow a physical routine, we’re equally resolved to following a thinking one as well.

Benjamin Franklin realized this early on in his successful career as a scientist and inventor. Franklin created a system of “improvement principles,” – or virtues – small, one-line, tips he could write down when he had time to think.

Once a week he would highlight one of the tips on a scrap of paper that he would keep in his pocket wherever he went. The tips were subtle cues to break his cognitive and physical routines, things like: “Look for similarities,” “Let all your things have their places,” “Challenge assumptions,”, and “avoid extremes.”

On occasion he would find his fingers brush against the paper in his pocket, prompting him to pull it out and reference it. In this way he was constantly reminded to change up his thinking, to be more aware of what he was doing and what was around him, and to identify opportunities or inspirations.

Today, carrying a scrap of paper in your pocket might be exactly what you need to spark a different mode of thinking in your day. But if that’s not your type of thing, there are ample other means of bringing your consciousness back into every moment, rather than elsewhere far away. There are creative apps with built-in reminders, or even timer/reminder apps that serve no other purpose than sounding an alarm at set intervals.

For me personally, I like to do something much more clear: I have framed posters at both home and my office that remind me to think more clearly and boldly. One poster exclaims: Move fast and build things while the other reminds me that everything I needed to know about creativity can be learned by making mistakes.

If artwork isn’t your thing, consider writing a sticky note at the beginning of each week that you can look at daily to remind yourself: unless you have some signal for paying more attention and thinking differently about a situation, you could find yourself missing opportunities and inspirations without ever realizing it.