Ilustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Thinking Mindset vs. The Doing Mindset: Pick One (And Only One)

You’ll find that some days, the ideas come fast and furious. The days when you just want to sit at your desk, stare up at the sky and just let your mind wander.

Other days, though, you really want to get moving. You’re antsy and you can’t really focus on any one thought. Instead, you are most efficient if you are getting things done.

It is no coincidence that the motivation to think and the motivation to act seem to strike us at different times. Research by psychologists Arie Kruglanski, Tory Higgins, and their colleagues suggests that we have two complementary motivational systems: the “thinking” system and the “doing” system – and we’re generally only capable of using one at a time.

Think about how you best generate new ideas. Often, you “brainstorm” or try to come up with as many ideas as possible. That is called diverging and requires our thinking system. At other times, you need to evaluate those ideas and figure out which ones are best. That is called converging, and it requires the activation of the doing system.

We have a ‘thinking’ system and a ‘doing’ system – and we’re generally only capable of using one at a time.

Managing your mindset can help you optimize your thinking when you are trying to be creative. Here are a few suggestions for influencing your motivational state. These suggestions can be effective either for you as an individual or when you are working in a group.

Get some distance.

Physical and mental distance influence the way you think about things. When you are near to something, you think about it specifically, and you focus on the ways that you can interact with it. Being close to your work engages the doing system. When you are far from it, you think about it more conceptually. Distance engages the thinking system.

Your workplace environment is strongly associated with getting things done. In order to engage a thinking mindset, spend time working in another place. Change your environment, and you will change the way you think.

Stand up and move.

The modern workplace revolves around sitting. Most people have a primary workspace that involves a chair in front of a desk or table. This posture is great, because it allows us to work for long periods of time without causing bodily fatigue.

Change your environment, and you will change the way you think.

Additionally, the seated posture does not support many complex actions, so it reinforces the activation of a thinking mindset, especially thanks to years of schooling.

If you need to jumpstart your doing motivation, get moving. Stand up. Walk around your workspace. Put your ideas on sheets of paper and physically separate them in your space. Walk over to each idea and evaluate it separately. By getting up and moving, you shift yourself from a mode of deliberation to one of selection.

Experiment with your deadlines. 

The proximity of a deadline can also activate different systems: the closer the deadline, the more your “doing” mindset is activated. As the decision point approaches, you will naturally feel an increased need to determine a course of action.

On the other hand, use tight deadlines with caution as a tight deadline will make you feel the pressure to complete a project and, despite your best intentions, you may engage your doing motivation and begin to evaluate options before exploring them fully. Remember that you are going to be best at diverging when you have the freedom to think without having to reach a quick decision.

Most importantly, get to know how you act when your thinking and doing mindsets are active. Use this self-awareness to guide you through situations where you need to develop creative solutions to new problems.

What do you think?

What do you do to encourage your “thinking” or “doing” mindsets?

Art Markman

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Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. His research explores the cognitive science of creativity, motivation, and decision making. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership.
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