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.
load comments (17)
  • Megan Kerr

    I work from home as a writer and book coach – and for years now have gone to a local coffee shop to do my goal-setting, my weekly planning, and to plan the next part of my novel. I don’t take my laptop: it’s strictly pen, paper, and felt-tips! I can check details on my phone if I need to, but not having my laptop forces me to stay in thinking-mode, mapping things out on a larger scale and exploring all the possibilities before leaping into detailed evaluation or carrying out tasks. As a book coach, I constantly advise my clients to do their planning and macro-thinking away from their desks and away from their computers. It always made sense to me and this clarifies why!

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    I can think more when I’m not in front of the computer. Ideas came whenever I’m away with my desks. Sometimes I go to restroom to think, then suddenly thoughts are just popping out inside my head.

  • Pete R.

    Wow.. This is the first article I stumbled upon that can explain the way creatives do their work very clearly. I used some of these techniques myself but never knew the true benefit of it.

    Now i can use these techniques more effectively at the right time. :)

  • Laurence Smith

    Great, informative post… I want to add also that I’m totally down with Megan Kerr’s comments 100%. The coffee shop everyday for me is the best place to plan. Sitting at your desk means you can get sucked into things, out of order mostly, and breaking the day in half helps you to realign your goal planning. Added to that, if you are walking to the coffee shop you get some exercise too. Now what’s not to love about that.

  • Haim At Iqtell

    I encourage doing by completing small actions and building up the doing momentum bit by bit. To think, I get into the car. Nothing activates my creativity more than sitting in the car without radio or music…Just me and my thoughts.

    I’m form IQTELL, have you heard about us? :)

  • Megan Kerr

    Great point about the walk, Lawrence – one of the things I love about it (and the reason I’m looking forward to moving further out of town!) And Web Outsourcing Gateway – yes, going to the loo, having a shower, halfway up the stairs, doing the dishes – all those seem to generate ideas! One can’t “utilize” or “monetize” time like that, but one can make sure one gets it. A long shower time, flexible break lengths, and of course, those long walks again!

  • Vincenzo Vecchio

    Probably our daily work in front of our computers makes things go the other way around: thinking and doing are done just the opposite. I believe thinking takes place while moving, walking, running. Doing is nowadays when you sit in front of a desk!

  • Qeen (시이킨)

    I noticed creative people and those people involve in making vital decision has a bigger space office and everytime they return from vacation (away from office) they have lots of energy with brilliant ideas.

  • Jack Peterson

    Great article! This planner has really helped me especially the “Mission Critical” section.

  • Fabian Tilmant

    I fully agree! In fact, I’m designing an Innovation Method called Leanovation that connects these 2 capabilities and brings the most effective tools (Blue Ocean, Business Model Canvas… for the left, thinking side; and doing tools like prototyping for the right) to achieve it. Thanks for this article, it helps me organizing my thoughts! =o)

  • Chadene Harris

    At times for me to freely think, I need it to be just me and my thoughts no pen or paper. Sometimes I literally close my eyes so that there are no distractions that around me to observe. I then use that time to formulate and evaluate ideas, and plans, and that triggers me into my doing mode. Whenever I have a 10 or 15 minutes free, it’s a good exercise to just take some time and think in silence with yourself. It helps me in the refocusing process.

  • Marcelo Castro

    My best ideas inevitably comes up in the shower =)

  • Lias

    I think the best when I’m doing. So, I really don’t know how I should take this article. In fact I do to enhance my thinking. Doing tends to bring stimulation which sets off thinking.

  • Lias

    Actually, I’ve heard quite a few things about diverging and converging thought processes. I think it is important to emphasize that these are both ways of thinking. They are not “Doing” and “thinking”.

  • winmac

    I think as I am doing. Improvise.

    • C.S. Taylor, Jr.

      We continually think. Thinking as you are doing is the doing mindset. Selection requires thought but he still categorized it as the doing mindset.

  • Shawn Geddes

    I’ve been watching lectures on Coursera about how to learn effectively. The teacher spent one of the first lectures talking about two different brain modes – I think she called them diffuse mode and focus mode. She said that people learn better and retain more information if they allow their brains to relax into the diffuse mode after studying something.

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