How to think like Sherlock Holmes

Most of us want to be smarter. The idea of being able to analyse situations more accurately, spot things others have missed, is appealing – like being a star detective.

Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, has been exploring how our minds make deductions and come to conclusions, and how we can tune our minds to make more accurate observations and better decisions.

The key, it seems, is to pay attention. Many of us find ourselves constantly multitasking, which affects our ability to focus in an engaged and productive way. This can interfere with our working memory and make it harder for us to notice the relevant factors in a decision. We miss information, and because of that, we make bad decisions.

Konnikova suggests four key strategies to help us optimise our attention:

Be selective

The details and observations we select to include in our ‘mind attic’ shape and filter our perception of reality and are likely to impact future decision making. Learn to pay attention better and allocate attention mindfully, rather than thoughtlessly paying attention to everything.

Be objective

We believe what we want to see and what our ‘mind attic’ decides to see and often forget to separate the factual situation from our subjective interpretation of it. Setting goals beforehand can help us direct precious attentional resources properly, but shouldn’t be an excuse to reinterpret objective facts to mesh with what we want or expect to see.

Be inclusive

To be truly attentive we need to take in as much as possible using all our senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch), making sure we don’t leave anything out that could be relevant to the goals we have set ourselves.

Be engaged

When we are engaged in what we are doing we persist longer at difficult problems and become more likely to solve them. We experience what psychologist Tory Higgins refers to as flow, a presence of mind that allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing and also makes us feel better and happier. This style of engaged, mindful attention helps us remember things better, and recall them when we need them, meaning we take more informed and considered decisions.

Mental distance can also help us make smarter decisions. As Konnikova explains, “Psychologist Yaacov Trope argues that psychological distance may be one of the single most important steps you can take to improve thinking and decision-making. It can come in many forms… [b]ut whatever the form, all of these distances have something in common: they all require you to transcend the immediate moment in your mind. They all require you to take a step back.”

So the next time you’re faced with a big decision, make sure you’re paying attention, because the more information you have, the more perspective you can get, the smarter you will be.

Read more about this fascinating area on Maria Popova’s excellent Brain Pickings blog.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


How to stay motivated

Next time you’re struggling to stay motivated and focused it might be worth taking a fresh look at why. Research suggests that it is likely to be because you feel forced, can’t see the point of the activity or doubt your own capabilities

Studies show that we are more motivated when we feel in control. If we choose a course of action consistent with our own opinions we tend to persist for longer, suggesting that pursuing a task we endorse is energising, whereas acting under duress is taxing.

When we’re true to our own beliefs and values our motivation increases, for example studies show a clear correlation between students valuing a subject and being willing to independently investigate a question. If you’re struggling with motivation, reflecting on why an activity is meaningful can make you feel more invested in it.

Our perception of our own capabilities also plays a key role in motivation. Research indicates that the more competent we are at something the more likely it is that we will want to pursue it. A study of student athletes showed that practice made the students more likely to consider themselves competent, and a sense of competence meant that they were more likely to engage in athletic activity. Similar studies in music and academics suggest the same thing.

Believing that effort pays off can also inspire us to stay motivated and keep learning. Carol S Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University found that people who credit their success to innate talent rather than hard work give up more easily when facing a new challenge because they assume it exceeds their ability.

Read more about sustaining motivation in Scientific American Mind.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


How to hack your to-do list

Bottomless inboxes and endless to-do lists have become the bane of our lives. Trying to keep track of outstanding tasks can be stressful – our attention has a limited capacity and we can only fit so much in our mind at any one time. But help is at hand. Research suggests that rather than removing tasks by actually doing them we just need to have a good plan of when and how to do them. The act of planning how to finish something enables us to let go of uncompleted tasks that are cluttering our memory.

David Allen’s international bestseller ‘Getting Things Done’ provides a practical guide to how to do this. The GTD archive and reminder system acts as a plan for how to release the part of your attention that is struggling to hold each item on your to-do list in your mind. It is based on writing down everything you need to remember and filing it effectively in three main areas:

  1. Archive to store stuff you might need one day (and can forget about until then)
  2. Current task list where everything is stored as an action
  3. A “ticker file” of 43 folders in which you organise reminders of things to do (43 folders because that’s one for the next thirty-one days plus the next 12 months).

Breaking down your to do list into individual actions allows you to convert your work into things you can either physically do, or forget about, happy in the knowledge that these tasks are in the system. Each day you pick up the folder for that day and either action the item, or defer it to another folder for a future day or month.

With the remembering and monitoring taken care of your mind is freed from its tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those that have been completed – known by psychologists as the Zerigarnik Effect.

Read more about hacking your to-do list on the Mindhacks blog.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


Setting the record straight about introverts and extroverts

Of all the psychological concepts that have made it into modern culture, one of the most popular is that of ‘introverts and extroverts’. Yet there are also few that have been more misunderstood, and many myths still persist about this tricky personality trait.

Popularised by psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the early Twentieth Century, the concept of being ‘introverted’ often conveys shyness or withdrawal from people, and can even carry a stigma of appearing to imply less confidence or skill with people. In her influential book Quiet, Susan Cain has set the record straight on the strengths of introverts in a world sometimes overly dominated by extroverts. Our view of introversion and extroversion is changing all the time.

In a recent review of personality literature, Professor Adam Grant summarises a few of the myths about introverts and extroverts that are being dispelled by modern research:

  1. Introverts are good in social situations, they are just more sensitive to other people and need more time to process all the things they notice and experience. Extroverts tend to be less sensitive to stimulation, and hence crave more of it, but both camps are good with people.
  2. Introverts can make good public speakers, just like extroverts. Whether we are good performers, and whether we worry about speaking in public, seem to correlate to other factors more than introversion and extroversion. Many performers are actually quite introverted.
  3. Extroverts don’t make better leaders. Despite a general prejudice that introversion is a handicap for leadership and management roles, in fact both ends of the spectrum appear to be equally successful at leadership. Introverted leaders tend to lead proactive, engaged staff better, whilst extroverted leaders are better at leading passive teams that look for direction from above.
  4. Extroverts aren’t better networkers either. They might enjoy the experience of networking more, but this doesn’t mean other people enjoy being with them too. Extroverts can be more overbearing and studies suggest they can cause more negative reactions in other people, whilst introverts tend to be slightly easier to be around in calmer social environments.
  5. ‘Ambiverts’ make the best sales people. Rather than the classic view of extrovert sales people charming clients and dominating discussions, people in the middle of the spectrum – ambiverts as they are sometimes known – seem to be more commercially successful. Dan Pink writes about this in his book To Sell Is Human: listening is an important component of modern selling, not just talking.

It may take a while for these factors to filter through to business practices, recruitment strategies and popular culture, but it’s clear that our old views of introverts and extroverts need to change. It’s time to start recognising the strengths and weaknesses of both ends of the spectrum, and designing our organisations, and our society, to get the best from everyone.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT.


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