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2 powerful ways to improve how you think

Yes, you can choose to think better. Here’s why it matters.

2 powerful ways to improve how you think
[Photo: Flickr user Felix Montino/Unsplash]

When it comes to startups, one person’s problem is another’s opportunity. Sometimes, all it takes is a shift in perspective to find an innovative solution to a daily frustration.

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Back when I was working as an engineer at a media company, I found myself regularly coding online forms—a time-consuming and pretty monotonous task. I knew there had to be a better way. I could have easily resigned myself to a lifetime of tedious coding, but instead—I came up with the idea for an online form builder, JotForm.

Just like that, a problem became a new business opportunity. But you can’t get from A to B without altering how you think. When you make a conscious effort to do that, you’re more likely to foster innovation, lead teams effectively, and accommodate the perspective of your customers. Those are all crucial aspects of a company’s success.

So, you might wonder, how can you enhance the quality of your thinking?

To improve my thought process, I’ve found two strategies that can make a considerable impact: mental habit loops and mental models.

What is a mental habit loop?

If you ever stop to look around during your morning commute, you’ll quickly realize that as humans, we are creatures of habits. As soon as we step on the platform to wait for the next train—out comes the smartphone, and we start scanning emails, news, and our social media feeds.

Just as we form habits of action related to our environment, we also form habits of thinking. Our thought patterns in certain situations are called mental habit loops, and we form them based on our subjective experiences in life. Now, mental habit loops help us to move through life without analyzing every situation extensively, but it’s important to recognize when they lead to problematic thinking.

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For example, let’s say feedback makes you anxious. Anytime a user submits a complaint, alarm bells sound in your head, and you want to extinguish the fire ASAP. But rather than jumping to the quickest possible solution, sometimes it might be better to dig a little deeper.

We found ourselves in that situation when we introduced JotForm cards, a snappy new format for online forms. After testing, we found that a sizable number of users preferred the traditional forms.

I had to fight my initial reaction—that we must have done something wrong, and perhaps our cards were doomed to the land of failed products. Rather than abandoning JotForm cards, we kept digging and found that even more users preferred having an option between the two formats—so that’s what we now offer. And customers seem to appreciate it.

When it comes to correcting your own thought loops, the first step is acknowledging them—whether that’s a negative reaction to feedback or a tendency to jump to conclusions about others. The next step is to gather more information and experiences, and in doing so, broaden your perspective. This can help get us back on track when mental habits lead us astray.

How to expand your mental models

Mental models are the frameworks we use to interpret the world and understand the relationships between things. Like a mental toolbox, each person has a variety of mental models that they use to confront different situations.

For example, let’s say a person wants to lose weight. He visits three specialists: a nutritionist, a plastic surgeon, and a psychologist. Each specialist would view the issue according to his or her mental models. The nutritionist would offer a diet-based solution, the surgeon a surgical remedy, and the psychologist a course of therapy to tackle the patient’s desire for physical change.

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Of course, mental models can be highly useful. If you want to lose weight, altering your diet will likely lead to results. Mental models also help us to organize the world’s endless details and to make more intelligent decisions.

But they can also be limiting and lead to blind spots in our perspective. As the saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s why our thinking and decisions will improve with each mental model we add to our repertoire.

Michael Karnjanaprakorn, the founder of Skillshare, wrote that mental models have been crucial for him to “make important decisions, lead [his] team, and strategize how to win in the market.” The mental models that he uses include:

  • 10/10/10 Rule: Before making any decision, consider how you’ll feel in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. This exercise forces you to contemplate short- and long-term consequences and removes the emotional component from decision-making.
  • Competitive moat: Think of your business as a castle and your competitive advantage as the moat, protecting the castle—the wider the moat, the more secure your castle. When building your business, consider how you’ll develop your moat over time, with factors like efficient scaling, network effect, and cost advantage.
  • Listen, decide, communicate: When you’re making a decision as a leader, first listen, then decide and communicate—in that sequence, every time.

As JotForm CEO, one model I use is the circle of competence. Your circle of competence includes all of the areas in which you’ve gained advanced knowledge, through experience or study. Naturally, everyone has different circles of competence. Some, like coding, require more specialization than others, like customer service . Anytime I’m presented with a task, I decide whether it’s within my circle of competence, and if it’s not, I delegate to someone who can more proficiently complete it.

When we recognize our mental habit loops and apply a variety of mental models, we have a more holistic view of the world. We can improve the quality of our thinking and make smarter decisions. Remember, your bad habits don’t define you. Your choices do.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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