6 Habits on the path to becoming an independent thinker

I love the premise behind the movie Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s character has to do the same thing over and over until he gets it right. Halfway through the movie he catches on and starts to make a little game of it by manipulating the situation.

Through my working life I have watched many people fall into the “same old, same old” trap in their work lives where every day is just a mirror of the other and everyone can't wait until the weekend because the work week is so dull.

You could blame the brain for some of this because we are somewhat hard wired to do the same thing over and over because it's easier for it. Your brain is wired to make short cuts and simplify things but this isn’t necessarily a reason to stop trying to think differently. Recent studies and insights into Neuroplasticity indicate you can change over time.

It's not just an issue for individuals but organisations as well.

The independent thinker

Don't think that being an innovator or thinking outside the square is only about that great idea that will end up with you selling your company to Google or Facebook for $3 billion. That would be nice and I am still searching for that idea, but it’s also about those incremental things we can change or do differently on a daily basis. It’s about not just putting up with the same old way of doing things, it’s about looking at what you do from many different perspectives, and not just sitting in all those meetings you attend nodding at what is being said or proposed.

I watched a great TED talk where an architect explained how they were asked to make a proposal to renovate the corridors of an old established school in London because the hallways were becoming congested in between classes. Not wanting to start knocking down the historical walls they carried out a short study and realised the issue may not be the size of the halls but the volume of students. They suggested that the school stagger class start and finish times so not all students were in the corridors at one time. There are some things you can do right now to start the process of thinking differently.

Vary your routine. Don't always take the same route to the same place all the time. I try to encourage people to take a different route to work every now and then, or alternate driving, riding your bike or walking to the supermarket. Even have a go at public transport on a regular basis. You will be amazed at the different view of the world you'll get with that simple change. You will see and hear so much more.

Drop the technology every now and then. Grab a pencil and paper and draw a picture of what you are trying to achieve, make a collage and cut out some pictures that represent your goals or build a model. Using the brain in creative ways can trigger different ideas and emotions and force you to think of doing things differently.

Take a macro view. Step outside of your project, business or situation to try and see it from a thousand foot view. We can be so entrenched in the details sometimes that the big picture gets lost. Look at the success and progress of what you are doing from your boss, board or customer point of view. Take some advice. Ask someone who knows nothing about the right way to do 'your thing' how they would go about it or what is wrong or right with what you are doing. Sometimes the people looking from the outside have a clearer and simpler picture of how things could be. They're not restrained by the past or wedded to current thinking.

Listen to those voices within. All of us underestimate the power of our intuitive mind and often ignore those feelings of doubt or questioning. It's sometimes easier to just go along with the crowd if you are not sure. Ask lots of questions like what are the alternatives, why was this method chosen, what else is out there and keep asking until you are satisfied. Questioning is a great way to synthesise ideas and foster broader thinking in others too.

Hit the pavement and think about things for a while. I find walking a great 180° change from my normal routine. Walking gives me another perspective looking at different surroundings, buildings, trees, clouds or anything that will conjure up alternative ideas or methods. Some people can also achieve this through other pursuits like running, jogging or swimming which create a great place to be immersed in your own mind and solve the problems of the world.

By trying to think a little differently you too can start to make a difference, start to be noticed, become a better contributor and avoid your own personal ground hog day.


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