Updated: Jan 19
Many may think that gaining clarity of thought is only for those who have some type of mental disorder and don't need to be concerned.
What we discovered in coaching individuals and business is that almost everyone has a critical need to gain greater clarity of thought.
If you think you don’t need to, then your mind is probably not operating at its full potential. The key issue is we don't have a good sense of what it means to have clear thinking or a clear mind since we don't have any reference what clarity even looks and feels like.
Our research in the literature about clarity of thought yields thousands of hits. Many articles highlight the importance of this skill, yet do not provide a lot of insight what clarity of thought is and how to develop it.
The good, bad and ugly – factors impacting our clarity of thought
What comes to mind first is our physiology – we all have felt the impact of our body on the performance of our mind. Whether we are tired or suffering from a high fever our ability to think clearly is impacted to a large degree. Since the demands of modern life leaves us little time to help our physical body recover and re-gain our mental performance, we resort to stimulants starting with caffeine to fight off tiredness or OTC drugs that help us to contain a cold.
High levels of stress, especially of a chronic nature have a large impact on our thinking. When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. Recent studies have shown that long-term stress can change the structure of the brain, especially in areas supporting learning and memory. Amongst other effects chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the pre-frontal cortex, the area responsible for memory and learning. Stress can ability to plan, concentrate, learn quickly, think ahead and act decisively.
Stressful environments are the antidote of creativity, innovation and clarity of thought.
Employees focus on the tasks at hand to manage the workloads and get the results they must deliver. The bandwidth for thinking processes examining how the work can be improved, leveraging their creativity for innovation falls by the wayside.
There are few who would disagree that when emotions are raging inside of us,
we do not think clearly. As highly Emotional Intelligent individuals we are conscious of our emotional state we even try to put off decision making until we calm down. This is in case we are aware of them and have a clear conscious appreciation of the impact these feelings have upon our ability to make clear and productive decisions. What if the emotions are at such low level that we are not even consciously aware of their presence - could they still be playing a conscious or even unconscious role in our decision making?
The answer is a clear yes. Again, whether these are feelings we experience consciously or unconsciously, they are without a doubt intruding into our ability to see things with clarity and influence our decision-making.
Our mood, the environment, and the people we work with play a big role in our ability to relax, engage in our creativity and clarity of thought. The CEO of Delta, Richard H. Anderson explains the importance of how employees feel in their work environment to perform at their best in his HBR article Using Innovative Thinking to Revive a Bankrupt Airline. ‘We have a saying at the company: “We hunt in a pack.” From the C-suite down, we approach every challenge and opportunity as a group in which each member feels valued, and that ability to work together gives us the freedom and clarity of thought to do business differently.’
What is clarity of thought?
In Hiring for Smarts Justin Menkes equals clarity of thought to the ability of critical thinking. Justin quotes ‘Lucent Technologies CEO Patricia Russo, who has led the company’s turnaround, described this ability [critical thinking] to me as “clarity of thought.” The people who have it are rare, she said, but if you get a team of clear thinkers, “the possibilities are endless.” Avon CEO Andrea Jung made a similar observation: “Clear thinking in senior leadership is a primary attribute we look for. I’ve seen little correlation between those who have a formal business education and those who possess clear thinking. Some people have a knack for this, some don’t.”
Critical thinking is an aspect of clarity of thought.
Being able to think critically relies on our ability to intellectually process the information to come up with a clear analysis. Being able to contribute an assessment to this analysis implies that we possess perspective, various viewpoints or experiences that can serve as a reference and help us formulate a critical opinion.
What do our personal experiences have to do with our clarity of thought?
Rob Lachenauer mentions in his HBR article published this year ‘What happens when you lose your mentor’ Today, with the pace of business, who wants a leader “considering” things? People want leaders with clarity of thought and action. As Rob eludes to in the article, we all expect that leaders have the insights and answers to the situations that present themselves daily. Leaders draw these from the years of experience and learnings throughout their careers. Positive actions and decisions are repeated, and we apply learnings from unfavorable decisions and mistakes we’ve made in our lives. What we don't consider is that the traces of our personal experiences influence our clarity of thought. This applies to both experiences that were anchored in our memory that we can recall as well as those that impacted us at a subconscious or non-cognitive level.
Non-cognitive factors are a critical component of our clarity of thought
Today researchers firmly believe that non-cognitive factors and skills are equally or even more important than cognitive aspects. When identifying the personal qualities that influence work performance 21st century, the role of non-cognitive factors is often highlighted. The overall notion is that non-cognitive factors should be taken seriously. A myriad of specific factors has been identified as non-cognitive. To name a few, grit, tenacity, curiosity, attitudes, self-concept, self-efficacy, anxiety, coping strategies, motivation, perseverance, confidence are among those frequently referred to in the literature. Some of those are often also referred to as soft skills and personal characteristics that fall into the affective domain.
Non-cognitive aspects highly influence our clarity of thought.
Several non-cognitive aspects like curiosity, attitude, self-concept, confidence and anxiety influence the ability of our mind to think clearly. Those aspects possess emotional, physiological and cognitive components and can be understood as a texture or quality that impacts our clarity of thought. Let’s take an example like grit. Emotional, cognitive as well as physiological components of our mind generate the levels of determination, resilience and the entire thought process that as an entity result in decisions, behaviors, and thoughts that are interpreted as grit from the outside.
Every one of us possesses a certain quality of thought that influences the way we think. This quality impacts the underlying processing and analysis of information. For instance, qualities of thought like having a tendency towards anxious thoughts or a lack of perspective impact our clarity of thought as well as aspects of our ability to think critically.
Our quality of thought influences the way we think.
To understand what quality of thought entails, we must consider the mental, emotional and physiological patterns of our mind that influence our fundamental thought process, including our ability of processing information, analysis, perception, perspective and memory. Our quality of thought has a big impact on the objectivity of our evaluation and assessment of any situation. The factors contributing to our quality of thought have been established by our unique genetic profile and our unique personal life experiences; they form part of the landscape of patterns that define our Physical Intelligence.
Improving our clarity of thought
Accessing non-cognitive levels of the mind requires leveraging the right tools
To gain a greater understanding of our quality of thought we must get in touch with our non-cognitive levels. To achieve this with our cognitive abilities is rather difficult since we need to access older parts of our brain. Those cannot be accessed by our cognitive mind. One strategy to get in touch with our quality of thought is to engage in a process called Centering.
Centering is a completely different aspect of thinking altogether. It is, however, fundamental and essential. Centering is a fundamental property of everyone, and we all use it even if most are not aware that they are. It is as essential as breathing. It can be directly accessed by breathing if the breathing is performed properly.
Through the Centering process, we become aware of the patterns that influence our clarity of thought. Awareness is the first step to making fundamental changes and improvements helping us to change aspects of our thinking:
Eliminate patterns that cloud and distort our thinking to improve our ability to assess and evaluate more objectively
Improve our perception capturing important aspects of the situation
Contemplate more viewpoints through expanding our perspective to enable critical thinking
Manage emotions that impact our clarity of thought like increasing our level of confidence
Access important personal insights
Balance or detach from environmental influences
Increase the clarity of our state-of-mind
Improve our ability to focus
Centering is a fundamental pattern that broadly affects most of our thinking. It enables us to determine our sense of identity, clarity and balance. It also defines the clarity of our relationship with the Self and with our environment. In almost all things Centering makes the difference between mediocre and exceptional results.
To learn more about clarity of thought and how it can be enhanced through tapping into your Physical Intelligence please refer to our book ‘Introduction to Physical Intelligence’ and the courses we offer. More information can be found at www.physicalintelligence.guru
Anderson, M. R. (2014) Delta’s CEO on Using Innovative Thinking to Revive a Bankrupt Airline. Harvard Business Review.
Bergland, C (2014) Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity
Khine M.S. (2016) Non-Cognitive Skills and Factors in Educational Success and Academic Achievement. In: Khine M.S., Areepattamannil S. (eds)
Non-cognitive Skills and Factors in Educational Attainment. Contemporary Approaches to Research in Learning Innovations. SensePublishers, Rotterdam
Menkes, J. (2005) Hiring for Smarts. Harvard Business Review
Stankov, L., & Lee, J. (2014). Quest for the best non-cognitive predictor of academic achievement. Educational Psychology, 34(1), 1–8.
Topics: Clarity of thought, Physical Intelligence, Stress, Non-cognitive factors, Centering, Leadership
About the Author
Dr. Martina Wagner is the cofounder of ArtesHumanis – a boutique executive development firm that helps individuals and companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100 companies—succeed by enhancing performance and improving effectiveness of their leaders and teams.
To find out how you can tap into your Physical Intelligence to take active control of your mind, change limiting patterns and enhance your wellbeing check out "An Introduction to Physical Intelligence" available on Amazon