Hard skills — the technical training or knowledge to do a job, things like knowing a certain programming language or how to draw blood — are important. However, sometimes we spend so much time focusing on hard skills that we forget how powerful soft skills are. Soft skills are the interpersonal, emotional, cognitive and regulatory skills that often dictate how a person moves through the world. One such skill, quick thinking, can come in handy hundreds of times a day, no matter the industry, but many of us don’t realize there are things we can be doing to strengthen our quick-thinking muscles every day.
There are different types of "quick thinking" and innumerable situations in which quick thinking can play a part. One type of quick thinking is quick decision making. Certain jobs will benefit from quick decision making more than others, but the ability to weigh pros, cons, risks, rewards and significance quickly, and make decisions based on the information, can be helpful in and out of work. Some of us, for example, take a long time to make somewhat inconsequential decisions (like an ice cream flavor or the color of a flyer), and this can affect relationships, productivity and the ability to meet deadlines.
Another type of quick thinking is quick problem-solving. This comes in handy when your job involves a lot of moving parts and setbacks. The ability to identify problems, causes and solutions quickly (or even identify inputs and outputs quickly) can go a long way in making you an irreplaceable employee. Quick divergent thinking is another type and is invaluable in creative disciplines but also if your job involves a lot of troubleshooting. Being able to quickly think of lots of out of the box possibilities is a soft skill that most of us have as children but unfortunately, lose as we get older. These are far from the only types, and it is possible to be a quick thinker in some ways but not others. However, intentionally exercising your quick-thinking skills, like through the steps below, is a great start to developing the types most relevant to your life.
Something that many types of quick thinkers have in common is the need to take in information quickly. Whether this information is in the form of pros/cons, words, numbers, themes, placements, etc., the first step to quick thinking is often quick information acquisition. Build your awareness or “ability to take in information quickly” skills by setting up exercises for yourself. Cater your exercises to your work or personal life: if you need to make decisions about applicants on a daily basis, consider finding an old batch of resumes and practicing looking at a resume for one minute, before seeing what important pieces of information you took away from the resume in that period of time. To work on quick textual information acquisition, think about reading short stories then quizzing yourself on details/themes. Even looking at a drawing or photograph for a short period of time and then trying to recreate it can help you quicken your information intake skills.
Again, catering your practice to your own life and your desired skills is going to produce the best results, but the backbone of quick thinking is often the ability to assess and categorize information quickly. Build on your awareness exercises by thinking of categories that information could be put into. Then, when you are “looking” and taking in the information, try to assess it at the same time and put it into the categories that you have decided on. Or, even better, determine relevant categories as you go as part of the looking-assessing process. Depending on the type of quick thinking you are interested in you can even practice the assessing stage by doing multiplication tables or smartphone games where you identify “the odd one out." These types of exercises get us used to being in a ready mindset.
Look, assess, decide, look, assess, decide, look, assess, decide. Repeating these words to yourself probably won’t do much to speed up your thinking. But taking them to heart will! Finish off your exercises by adding a step at the end where you make some decisions. If you are looking at resumes, shortlist them. Give yourself five minutes to do then, before giving yourself 10, then 30. See if your shortlisted candidates change. If they do, identify why, and work that into your exercise model for the next batch. If you are reading short stories and assessing themes consider where the story should go next, again giving yourself varying amounts of times, and see how that changes your imagination.
If you have a hard time making small decisions throughout the day this may be the step to pay special attention to. Consider setting alarms on your phone, and whenever one goes off, you have to choose the ice cream flavor you would get if you could right then, the outfit you are going to wear the next day or the first sentence of your novel, within a minute or 30 seconds.
You’re probably not going to think of the perfect exercise the first time. Ask around, try different things, and when you have found a few things that seem to correlate to the skills you want to develop practice them. Don’t start too hard and burn out. As with strengthening any muscle, you need to start slow (“building a base” one of my cross-country coaches used to call it) before you should really start pushing yourself. Spending 10 minutes every day on a few concentrated exercises will go much farther than spending three hours one weekend, then an hour a week later and then 10 minutes on a random Wednesday.
Once you have started stretching your quick-thinking muscles, you may gain motivation to read a book, take an online course or attend a speaker series on the subject. Just make sure the material is going to be relevant to you. Quick thinking can be practiced and improved, but it can also be bolstered by simply taking care of yourself. “Studies have shown” is a phrase common to click-bait articles, and the results aren’t always statistically significant. But some things — such as exercise, sleep, vitamins, reading for fun and a growth mindset — intuitively do make a difference to quick thinking and are good things to incorporate into our lives regardless!
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