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The truth about thinking differently

For decades we’ve been chanting, “Think outside the box!” and in a world where rapid, frequent innovation is essential, it is certainly desirable to think differently.

In a recent conversation with the chief information officer of a universally recognised global brand he said, “I focus a lot on how people think. There is nothing more powerful.” But admonishing people to think differently is an empty wish unless we understand a little more about how our brains function and the steps we can take to actually shift our thought.

The brain is a very efficient system. It turns much of its processing over to ‘autopilot’ in order to maximize your ability to handle things that require more brain power.

For example, when you are learning to drive a car your brain directs a great deal of its resources toward that activity. Once you’ve become comfortable driving your brain turns that function over to your subconscious – autopilot – so you can use your resources for more demanding functions. After you’ve been driving for a few years you’re simply not as conscious as you are when you were first learning to drive.

How much of what you have said and done and thought today is essentially the same as yesterday? Most of our thinking is on autopilot. When we admonish our teams and colleagues to think differently we’re actually going against the way our brain is wired.

While 95 percent of our thinking can be the same from day to day, we can make changes so new thoughts can happen. Here are three ways:

1. Understand what inspires you

Our lives move so quickly. Technology keeps us plugged in 24/7. Much of our time is spent reacting to demands, emails, text messages, and problems, day in and day out. So it is hard to think creatively when we are constantly reacting to life.

To break the limitations of continual reaction, gain an understanding of what you are trying to create personally and professionally. This provides the foundation for thinking creatively, not reactively. So as you face situations throughout the day you base your response on what you’re trying to create, not simply reacting.

2. Become conscious of your story

Your early life experiences shape a “story” that influences the way you navigate life. You may learn the way to be safe and successful is to be an achiever – defining yourself by accomplishments. Maybe you learned that being critical and hiding your feelings keeps you safe. Or perhaps you learn to please others so you get what you need.

Your story becomes internalised and then used to make choices and decisions without really being aware of what you’re doing. Being conscious of the story that shapes your thinking enables you to know when you’re simply sticking with a safe strategy. This awareness enables you to think freely, not because of an unconscious story that has kept you safe for years.

3. Check your assumptions

Become an observer of your own thinking and invite trusted friends and colleagues to challenge you to become aware of the facts upon which you base your thinking.

You are constantly taking information gathered from your senses and comparing it with what you have stored in your brain in order to make decisions. Stored information may be out dated or even untrue but it becomes the unconscious basis for our thinking. By stepping back, and recruiting trusted advisors, you can check your thought process in order to engage in more effective thought.

Admonishing people to think outside the box can be unproductive and frustrating unless we understand how our brains work and know a few techniques we can use to truly think differently.

What do you think?

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Andrew Bennett

Andrew Bennett

Andrew Bennett is the founder and President of Bennett Performance Group and consults to leaders all over the world. He combines research from the fields of leadership, psychology and neuroscience with his business and personal experience to help to shape organisations of all shapes and sizes, public and private, in government, education and health care. He has worked with many well-known brands McDonald’s Corporation, Marriott International and Ford Motor Company.

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