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.