Stop Outsourcing Your Thinking (Start From First Principles)

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A few years back I was thinking about where I wanted to live. Specifically, whether I wanted to move to the city, stay in the suburbs, or buy some land further out in the country.

Now, when I say I was thinking about where to live—I wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking at all.

In fact, the first thing I did when “thinking” about this was go straight to Google and type in “city vs country living reddit”

And it was at that moment that I realized something. I have a bad habit of outsourcing my thinking. Let’s call it “lazy thinking.”

There’s nothing wrong with leveraging the internet to make better decisions.

Travelling, and want to visit some lesser-known attractions? Ask Google.

Not sure what TV to buy? Internet can help you.

But then there are decisions that aren’t as easily answered, or benefit greatly from some first principles thinking done on your part.

Decisions such as:

  • How should I solve this problem I have with an employee or boss?
  • Should I have kids?
  • Where should I live?
  • How should I structure my daily routine?

And so on.

Seeking the advice and opinion of others can aid you in making these decisions and answering these questions, but the problem arises when we default to seeking advice as the first step—and often relying on it entirely and completely, only to end up disappointed later on.

And there are two reasons why this is a problem.

First, it encourages lazy thinking. Which is a bad habit. If you never truly sit down and think through problems and decisions, you never develop the skill of thinking and decision making. Lazy thinking will likely lead to poor decision making over time which leads to worse outcomes for you.

Second, it gets you average results and answers. If you’re seeking the collective opinion and insights of others, you will get the average. And that average might be correct. It might even be ideal. But many decisions—such as business problems that need to be solved, or how you should structure your daily routine—are unique. And an above average answer or solution that comes from engaging in deep thinking can lead to much better outcomes.

Most of the time, we already know what to do (or we know enough to figure it out)

Unless you’re an infant watching this—in which case you won’t be able to understand a word I’m saying anyway—you have a wealth of knowledge and experience that you’ve built up over the years.

When you habitually and instinctively outsource your decision making, you fail to leverage this experience and knowledge.

But when you start by engaging in intentional thinking, you do.

Because the truth is, with most decisions—especially smaller ones—you already know what to do.

And if you don’t know what to do, you likely have enough experience and knowledge to think through the problem or decision that’s in front of you.

For example, when it came to the moving decision, I was confused and paralyzed for so long. All I’d done was outsource my thinking and read other people’s opinions.

It wasn’t until I sat down and actually thought through the decision that I came to some degree of clarity.

  • I’d lived in both the city and out in the country in the past, and there were aspects of both that I liked and disliked which I could think about.
  • I looked ahead at the next 3-5 years and thought about what was important to me and my family.
  • I took business and network effects into account (being closer to a major city has its benefits).

And so on and so on.

This “original” thinking, drawing from my own experiences and insights, was far more useful to me than going straight to Google and seeking other people’s opinions.

Sure, there will be times where you neither know what to do nor have the knowledge or experience to even think through it properly.

But most of the time, you do. The reason you choose not to engage in the thinking is because it’s hard and requires lots of self-awareness and introspection, which can often be uncomfortable.

The High Impact Decisions Almost Always Require Real Thinking

There are questions, problems and decisions that can easily be solved by Google or ChatGPT.

“What recipes can I cook with these ingredients?”

“Which model of car is more reliable?”

“Which career options offer reasonable pay without insane work hours?”

But many high impact decisions require you to actually think.

“How do I best balance the goals I have?”

“Which goals should I even set?”

“Should I spend more time on my business this year, or more time with my family?”

“What should I study?”

You get the idea. These are decisions that can only truly be answered by you, ideally with much of your original thought and some helpful advice and opinions from others to help shape your thinking.

What to do instead

The answer is not to avoid using Google, ChatGPT or asking the advice of others. It’s amazing that we have access to these tools and other people to help us. Ignoring these is also stupid.

The answer is to engage in intentional thinking first. Particularly when the problem or decision you’re facing calls for it.

Here’s how you can do just that…

Use pen and paper

I know. Your note-taking app probably has a cool canvas mode or whiteboard and it helps you think better and so on and so on.

But it’s too easy to get distracted. It’s too easy to see what Reddit thinks.

Get away from your laptop. Get away from your phone. Use pen and paper. You are trying to work with just your mind, what you know.

Read: In Defense of Pen & Paper

Work from first principles (or at least get as close as needed)

The alternative title for this tip is to ask yourself probing questions.

When engaging in this type of thinking, you want to get as close as possible to the fundamental truths of the problem or decision you’re faced with.

Let’s say I have an employee that’s causing tension in the business and I’m not sure how to address it. Sometimes I get angry and think he should just be let go. Other times I think I should give him a second chance.

Well, I want to start by thinking about the first principles:

  • Is he actually causing tension? Or do I just think he is?
  • What is actually causing that tension?
  • What’s causing the tension behind the tension?
  • Is there other information that might explain the behaviour that I haven’t considered?

Now I can’t get to exact fundamental first principles. But by asking these probing questions I can get a lot closer to the truth than if I didn’t. At the very least, it helps me understand the situation better and see it from different perspectives.

Be ruthlessly objective

When we think reactively, and outsource our thinking, our mind is clouded with confirmation bias, incorrect judgments, and often emotional influence.

When thinking actively and intentionally, we want to remove as much of that as possible and see things for how they are.

The first principles thinking helps with this, but you also want to make sure that you’re not getting in your own way.

A good question to ask is: “Is this true, or do I just want it to be?”

And also: “What’s the WHOLE truth here? What am I neglecting to consider?”

The second question is crucial. When I was thinking about city vs country living, I kept convincing myself that living in the country would be so much better because of various reasons such as more relaxed environment, natural surroundings, more land to do stuff on, cleaner air… you get the idea.

But in these periods where I reactively thought about this and tried convincing myself, I often failed to look at the whole picture—to look at the negatives. The downsides of country living like:

  • Further away from all the action. Harder to build relationships with people our age.
  • Slower pace – doesn’t fit my style that well
  • Time-consuming having to fix stuff etc.

And a bunch of other downsides.

So you want to make sure you’re being ruthlessly objective and looking at the entire decision or problem that you’re faced with, including the downsides.

Think through second & third order consequences

One powerful principle is to not just think about the immediate consequences of a decision you make or a problem you solve, but the flow on effects and consequences from that.

For example, let’s go back to the employee who’s causing tension.

Maybe I hate conflict. I want to resolve that conflict. My emotions are speaking louder than my intellect.

So I make the decision to keep the employee on, but tell him to play nice.

The first-order of consequence is that I’ve resolved the conflict I’m facing. I no longer have to make the hard decision. And likely for a few days or weeks, everything’s good.

But it’s highly likely that the second-order consequence of this decision is that I’m faced with the same problem soon after. The employee is causing tension again because that’s just who he is. Out of ignorance or simply because I didn’t want to, I didn’t think through this second-order consequence, and now I have to make the decision again about whether to fire him or keep him on.

It’s worth mentioning that while this is a powerful principle and you should do it, there’s not much use in going down the rabbithole of consequences—which is infinite and impossible to predict.

But at least think through what could likely happen as a result of what you do.

Stick with it for some time

If it’s a big problem, decision, or idea that you need to think through—then stick with it for some time.

Sometimes you only need 30 minutes.

Other times you need days.

And occasionally you need weeks.

Take breaks. Let your thinking work in the background. Go for walks.

Come back to it.

But when I say stick with it for some time, I really mean STICK with it. Don’t have one thinking session and then abandon it for weeks on end.

Let it penetrate your mind on a daily basis so that insights and solutions come to you.

Once you’ve hit diminishing returns, start outsourcing

You’ll often find that you don’t need to consult Google or seek the opinions of others.

But sometimes you’ll be dealing with a situation, a problem, an idea, and you’re completely stuck and need some fresh insight.

When you’re at that point, it’s then that you should look for other answers and leverage the thinking that others have already done.

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