Mindfulness

Simple method to declutter your thinking

It would surprise few to say that our attitude or position towards a particular subject is at least partially formed by certain interested parties in the society. This perspective building is often called framing. In essence, instead of seeing the world through the lens we choose ourselves, we oftentimes get trapped in targeted (dis-)information campaigns. Creation of a loyal army by a sovereign state would be a typical example: fight bravely for your country, and you’ll get a star (or four) if you manage to stay alive, or they may build you a monument if you die. In order to play their geopolitical game, politicians for centuries have been dependent on their soldiers firmly believing that putting their life at stake to defend a piece of land from what is portrayed to be a deadly enemy is an honorable and even desirable act. Otherwise why would one voluntarily risk spilling one’s blood? Marketing campaigns aim to create loyal armies of consumers by convincing us that we need this or that piece of merchandise/service/etc to remain adequate, loveable, admirable. Much of what we believe may also be based on some authority figure telling us that something is true. 

Dismantling framing helps remove our blinders.
Dismantling framing helps remove our blinders.

Choose a better frame

Is framing by definition a negative thing? Not necessarily. If you are aware of how your perspective has been shaped to make you think a certain way and you accept it – well, no damage done. After all, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. In other words – everything we believe in has been framed for us one way or the other. According to behavioral economics, however, you should choose a frame that leads to a better decision and better outcome. When we are no longer able to cut through the fog of what’s being told us, we loose focus, which cripples pursue of our goals and dreams. Dismantling framing – or at least knowing its source – helps remove our blinders. As Ray Dalio put it, “If you can think for yourself while being open-minded in a clearheaded way to find out what is best for you to do, and if you can summon up the courage to do it, you will make the most out of life”1.

Everything we believe in has been framed for us one way or the other

How thinking from first principles can help you

Applying mental models in general and reasoning from first principles in particular can be especially helpful to declutter your thinking. With the help of first principles you need to get to the very bottom of a thinking process, evaluate the fundamental parts, and then put them back together – preferably, in a more effective way. The goal is to peel off any subjective layers of information and get to the core of facts that are self-evident. Ancient philosopher Aristotle proposed a system over two thousand years ago to  get to the “the first basis from which a thing is known”2. What it boils down to is asking yourself why you think what you think and if you can test your assumptions as well as consider alternative views. You don’t need to decompose your thought process into its nano-parts to benefit from reasoning from first principles however: by thinking one or two levels deeper, you’ll be doing more than most people. 

Choose a frame that leads to a better decision and better outcome

SAM HARRIS

Let’s take a simple example. During the design phase of their now world famous restaurant Alinea, Nick Kokonas and Grant Aschatz started questioning why a fancy restaurant necessarily needs to have white tablecloths. They concluded that, the key reason is not that a white tablecloth feels good or that it absorbs a spill but that it’s a cost-efficient way to hide a cheap plywood table under it. Since Nick and Grant wanted to create a truly exclusive environment they decided to have beautiful bare wooden tables instead of fooling their customers with a fake sense of fanciness by having white tablecloths like any other restaurant. 

By thinking one or two levels deeper, you’ll be doing more than most people. 

Instead of letting thinking just happen, you may want to start thinking about your thinking: what, why and how you are thinking. Sure, it’s a more energy-intensive process than simply outsourcing your thinking. But, as Elon Musk has pointed out, reasoning by analogy, leads to imitation rather than innovation. Restructuring the dismantled pieces of information back together requires some creativity, but this is when beautiful things happen! This is when children figure out how world works. This is when, instead of looking for faster horses, Ford built his first automobile. This is when you can escape the rat race. 

Reasoning from first principles is at the core of this site.

Sources

  1. Ray Dalio “Principles” (2017), p. xi
  2. Aristotle “The Metaphysics” (1013a14–15)

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