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Thinking About Thinking, a Superpower I Often Forget to Use

Thinking about how we think can help us make better decisions and look at what life brings us from a more empowering perspective

I’ve spent most of my life mindlessly reacting to events and situations.

A friend disagrees with me, and I automatically think he’s an idiot. Someone criticises me, and I instinctively go into self-defence mode. Some unexpected bad thing happens, and I blindly get upset.

How useful is it to live my life reacting to events like a robot? Wouldn’t it be wiser to pause and consider alternative ways to look at what life brings me?

Thinking about thinking, what science calls metacognition, can help me do this.

“‘Thinking about thinking’ (also known as metacognition) is the practice of consciously watching, analyzing, evaluating, and reflecting upon one’s thought processes. It often involves stepping back from our habitual patterns of thought and taking a bird’s-eye view of our mental landscapes. Or maybe a butterfly’s-eye view of our Self.” —David Loewen

Thinking about thinking is a superpower we all have and can use to become better people, make better decisions, and overcome life challenges.

But how can we think about how we think?

Using Dead Times

I consider dead times those idle moments when I’m not learning or creating anything.

For example, I have dead times when I am:

  • doing the dishes (what a torture this is for me);
  • standing in a queue;
  • driving;
  • cleaning the house;
  • running;
  • waiting for someone or something (for a train, for a waiter to serve me, for a friend at the airport, and so on).

For years, dead times made me feel uncomfortable. I considered them a waste of life. I saw them as nasty unproductive moments I needed to fill with some self-development tasks such as listening to podcasts or reading articles online.

But I changed my mind about them.

Dead times and I became friends after I read The Secret Life of You: How a Bit of Alone Time Can Change Your Life, Relationships, and Maybe the World by Kerry Sackville.

 

The message of the book is simple: Every now and then, shut out external inputs and spend time exploring the unknown world of your own mind. Engage with it. You don’t have to sit cross-legged in a dark room for this; you can simply turn off the radio while driving and have a conversation with yourself. Embrace boredom, too. Use that to think.

“What we don’t do very often is nothing at all, or even one thing at a time. ‘To do one thing at a time makes me anxious,’ said Ariela. ‘If I’m driving, I need news, a podcast or an audiobook. If I’m cooking or doing laundry or housework, I need the same thing. I get anxious that I’m not using my time in the best possible way if I don’t pair tasks with news and culture input.’.” — Kerry Sackville, The Secret Life of You, p.30, (Kindle Edition).

I had a lot in common with this woman called Ariela.

But, after reading Sackville’s book, I don’t listen to that many podcasts anymore. I like using dead times to engage with thinking about thinkingI ask myself questions, reflect on events, and try to challenge some of my beliefs. “Is this a useful idea? Is the opposite of this equally valid?” Things like that.

Avoiding input and tuning in with your mind is the simplest way to engage with thinking about thinking. But David Loewen’s work on Medium made me realise I could take the process a step forward.

Transcribing Internal Dialogue

David Loewen (see my interview with him here) is a Doctor of Education. He’s researched Learning Journals and has written extensively on the topic of journaling.
 
 
Again, the idea is simple: transcribing your thoughts helps you bring your internal dialogue into the physical world so you can engage with it. You can use journals to reflect, plan, create, keep track of your learning, and do many, many other things. You can, of course, use them to engage with thinking about thinking, too.
 

I’m new to journaling, but I’ve already reaped some of its benefits.

Here’s an example.

How Journaling Helped Me Recently

Weeks ago I had an argument with Aloha, my partner. I was upset by how she behaved. A few days later, I found myself reading a page from The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday where he talks about the three most important pillars of Stoicism:

  • Control your perceptions.
  • Direct your actions properly.
  • Willingly accept what’s out of your control.

 

So I decided to open my journal (a notepad) and ask myself this question: Do I accept what’s out of my control?

I was only five words in when I found myself writing about my argument with Aloha. As I was writing, I realised I was upset about something I had no control over and understood I could not direct my partner’s behaviour, feelings, or opinions. Observing, transcribing, and thinking about my thoughts gave me a new, more useful perspective on the event. It gave me clarity.

I then talked to Aloha about my realisations — and we made peace.

THIS is the power of thinking about thinking.

Is Journaling for Self-Help Junkies?

But wait a second. I don’t want to add one extra self-development activity to my busy day! I already have so many things I want, have, or force myself to do: working, running, reading, writing, seeing my friends, learning. Journaling sounds a lot like another thing for self-help or productivity junkies.

It’s not.

The beautiful thing about it is that you don’t have to:

  • feel bad if you don’t do it every day;
  • join a Facebook group or a “journaling challenge” to become a pro journaler;
  • learn journaling skills so you can “do it right”;
  • spend at least X hours a day doing it;
  • “journal consistently otherwise your audience will forget about you.” (I purposely used quotation marks for this last one).

“Learning Journals are a tool as simple as they are powerful. They don’t require any special equipment or training, just a willingness to pause and think about what you’re taking in.” — David Loewen (full article here)

I see my journal like I see my friends.

I don’t force myself to see my friends. I’m naturally drawn to them when I realise I haven’t seen them in a while. I call them when I (or they) need help. Sometimes I meet them by chance, other times I unexpectedly get a text that says, “Beer tonight?”.

I wouldn’t like to “build the habit of seeing my friends every Monday”, not least because I don’t know whether or not I feel like going out next Monday. My approach to friendship is flexible and unstructured.

And so is the one I’ve adopted to journaling.

I wish the same for you.

One Last Thought

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli is an international bestseller where you’ll find 100 ways in which humans think and behave irrationally. 

The book is based on psychological science and shows what we can do to recognize and minimize thinking errors so we can make better decisions and live a better life.

Chapter 67 is titled Be Your Own Heretic and describes the Introspection Illusion

Dobelli writes:

“Nothing is more convincing than our own beliefs. […] Trust your internal observations too much and too long, and you might be in for a very rude awakening. […] Remedy: be all the more critical with youyrself. Regard your internal observations with the same scepticism as claims from a random person. Become your own toughest critic.” — Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Pp. 205–207

I hope this thing I’ve written today will inspire you to engage more with thinking about thinking. Maybe you’ll start journaling, maybe not.

Whatever you decide to do, I hope you’ll become, in Dobelli’s words, “your own heretic” so you can a) adopt useful beliefs that empower you and b) stop reacting mindlessly to what life throws at you.

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.