Confronting Your Default Thinking

For many years we have known that the brain is a great pattern maker. In fact, the only way for it to process all the data it receives is to drop information into pre-prepared pathways or patterns. It needs a ‘default’ method for processing information to cope. Our best guess is that the brain handles around 11 million bits of data per second and that we are capable of consciously processing only around 50 of these. Our default processes handle the rest. This can be regarded as our default thinking, even though most of it happens unconsciously.

However, to think that the unconscious nature of the processing of information means you can’t do anything about it is a mistake. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say you built the default pathways and processes that enable your brain to work in this way.

So, how did you pick which information you choose to push down a pathway and which to spend time thinking about? Well in simple terms you create some ‘default rules’ that the brain uses to filter the data.

So why is this so important, especially if it happens to all of us all the time?

Well simply put, our default thinking places us on a trajectory towards our default future. Or, to put it another way, we become the result of all our collective decisions and choices.

Now, here is the important bit. Very often we find ourselves lamenting our luck, blaming circumstances and cursing the situations that happen to us without realising the impact that we have had on the situation. Our unconscious default thinking has made choices for us based on the default patterns and pathways in our brain.

Now let’s think about this in terms of bad news / good news:

Bad news – we create a lot of our own problems.

Good news – we can fix this by doing two simple things:

  1. We confront our default future – ie we look at the current trajectory of our life (including the endogenous and exogenous forces that define it) and ask ourselves one question, “is that future acceptable?”
  2. The second, which inevitably follows a ‘No’ to the above question, is to develop the cognitive skills that will help break our default thinking patterns and push us onto another trajectory ie one that takes us to a different – and hopefully better – future.

What do we mean by endogenous and exogenous forces? These are the things that change our context and, as a result, put our life onto a different course. They can be things like our relationships, our families, our ‘home life’, our economic circumstances and our health. These all impact on our thinking and, as a result, our future.

What are the sorts of cognitive skills that can be used to confront your default thinking? Well, here are some of the most powerful: Outcome Thinking; Active Listening, Mental Modelling, Alternate Perspective, Bias Avoidance, Recognising Anchors and Emotional Attachments.

So, here is my challenge to you. Look at where you have been. What has been the path of your life choices to date? Do you look back and see opportunities that were missed, things that you wish you had done differently and decisions you felt you had no choice but to make? If you do, then the good news is you are certainly not alone.

Now, how confident are you that given the same circumstances you would make a different decision this time around? Let us be honest, probably not very. Your default thinking will result in the same outcome.

That is the whole point of default thinking: it’s predictable, repeatable and consistent.

Final thought

If any of what we have talked about here is resonating with you, then act on that instinct. Do not deny yourself the chance to confront your default thinking. It will lead to a new trajectory, a new future for you and for those around you.

I welcome your thoughts.

Chris Hallam
Change consultant, behavioural psychologist, Director of CH Coaching Solutions and Beyond Default Delivery Partner.

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