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3 Steps to Outsmarting Your Brain

by Mark R. Stephens

Your brain is smart and has a system all of its own to make decisions independently from conscious thought. While that system may help you brush your teeth while thinking about last night’s football match or drive to work without ever thinking about which way to go, it’s not always best for making important decisions in our private and professional lives.

Sometimes we need to outsmart our brain! And there are three steps we can take to achieve that Click To Tweet

The Two Thinking Systems

Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman identifies two thinking systems from his neuroscientific research.

The first system is a fast, emotional, and subconscious system; and the second is slow, purposeful, conscious, and calculating. All of use both systems in our daily lives, but there are times and places when one is more effective than the other.

Fast, emotional decisions have little place in the boardroom when we are making strategic decisions, while slow, deliberate and calculated thinking is not what we need to ride a bicycle.

The problem is that the first system is something of a ‘default’ system; it’s easy to fall back on and requires little effort, so it becomes the dominant system of thinking for those without the necessary awareness and control to ‘outsmart’ it. That can get us into problems in the workplace, where egos can run rampant and harmful conflict can take hold.

Training the Elephant

The Buddha compares his desires and his discipline to an elephant and a trainer; the desires, if left untrained, will wander off in a direction of their own, but if trained, they can stay on the path that discipline decides.

Photo by Sebastian Knoll on Unsplash

This metaphor can also be used in terms of the thinking systems described above. Like the elephant controlling the trainer, our brain will make decisions based on its own natural and emotional responses in the absence of any discipline. Sometimes, because of its immense size, it still win even when do try to pull it into line – it is, after all, a stronger beast. But when the trainer sticks to his job and becomes dominant, then the elephant obeys.

Therefore, we need to ‘train’ our brains to click into ‘System 2’ type thinking when required, and not to simply wander on their own course. This will improve the decisions we make.

So how do we train the elephant? How do we outsmart our brain’s tendency to lapse into ‘System 1’ type thinking?

1. Create the Right Environment

We need to create environments where the right type of thinking can flourish; calm, non-stressful work environments where people are allowed the time and space to make the right decisions must prevail. Over-busy, over-stressful workplaces ‘feed’ the desire for emotional responses that lead to snap decisions, or the elephant ‘bolting’.

2.Stay focused, active and strong

Tired minds lead to tired responses based on quick fixes and decisions aimed at ‘anything to make the problem go away’ mentality. This is not healthy for strategic decision-making so we must keep ourselves motivated and strong physically to encourage the best mental processes. We must be ready to tackle the ‘elephant’ and come out on top when he starts to rebel.


Frequent practice and training is key. Over time behaviours become habits that the brain finds it easier to follow because it literally becomes ‘re-programmed’ by these repeated new behaviours. The new habits become as easy as the old habits used to be.

Nobody is saying that we must all become slow, deliberate thinkers all the time. But when important decisions need to be made then ‘rational’ usually trumps ’emotional’. It is useful to be aware of the pitfalls and to be ready to ‘switch’ into the appropriate thinking mode as required. This can separate the most successful leaders from the rest.


About the Author: The team at NeuroPower is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience. We apply them to all types of businesses, developing high performing teams and enhancing leadership. Find out more at our website:

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