Emotional Thinker → Intellectual Thinker?

A reader asks:

I’m mostly an emotional thinker and would like to move toward more intellectual thinking. Any advice?

I’m going to assume that by “emotional thinker” what you mean is you tend to make sense of your experiences and make decisions based primarily on how you feel emotionally. And that by “intellectual thinking” what you mean is you want to be more rational or analytical in the way you make sense of your experiences and make decisions.

Assuming that’s not too far off, here are a few thoughts…

  • Don’t make it emotional vs intellectual. Emotions can certainly be helpful in our thinking and decision making, as can analytical thought. The key is to listen and be aware of what our emotions are telling us and use them when helpful. But don’t be afraid to disregard your emotions when they’re unhelpful. Similarly, analytical reasoning can be a very helpful tool in many situations, but it can be less helpful in others. Most big decisions will probably require a mixture of both emotional and intellectual thinking. The trick, of course, is to adjust the balance depending on the demands of the situation.
  • Spend more time around intellectual thinkers. If you want to be more of an intellectual thinker, try to spend more time around people who think that way. In person is ideal. But you can do this on-line and asynchronously too. For example, you might look for a handful of podcasts where the host is very analytical in the way they think and communicate. If you commit to listening to those for 30 minutes a day, that way of thinking will eventually rub off on you.
  • Filter your emotions through your values. When emotions lead to unhelpful decisions, it’s usually because our primary motivation is to feel better in the moment rather than doing what will lead to our long-term best interest. In other words, problematic emotional reasoning is problematic because the behaviors it encourages don’t align with our values. So rather than trying to do less “emotional thinking” generally, try to filter your emotional decisions through the lens of your values—that is, when your emotions push you in one direction, ask: “Does this behavior align with my values or go contrary to them?”

Okay, those are some bigger principles to think about.

But I’ve also got a handful of more specific tactical suggestions if you want to work on becoming a more intellectual or analytical thinker:

  • Look for evidence. Do I have real, verifiable data or experience suggesting this decision is good or bad?
  • Weigh the pros AND the cons. Before making a big decision, think through both the expected benefits and the expected costs of a decision (the second part is much harder than it seems…)
  • Do your thinking on paper whenever possible. Writing your thoughts down forces you to clarify them and be specific.
  • Do your thinking deliberately, not reactively. Schedule a time to think through a difficult problem, don’t just do it on the fly or last minute.
  • Play devil’s advocate with yourself. Make it a habit to always generate the best possible counterargument to any decision you’re contemplating.
  • Reflect on bad decisions. After a decision that doesn’t turn out well, make time to compassionately reflect on how you made the decision and what led to the bad outcome. Just be careful not to fall into rumination.

Good luck!