Dark mode switch icon Light mode switch icon

How to use "Thinking Fast and Slow" to be more successful

4 min read

Daniel Khaneman is a psychologist who somehow won the Nobel prize in economics. That’s remarkable! His best known book is Thinking Fast and Slow, and you should read it.

A big idea in Thinking Fast and Slow is that your brain has two main ways of operating: system 1, which is your brain’s “autopilot”, and system 2, which is your brain “actively thinking”.

To feel the difference between system 1 and system 2 thinking, try the following two mental multiplication problems:

You (hopefully) got the first one instantly. The second one took a few seconds of thinking. That is if you bothered to do the second problem – many of you probably saw that problem and skipped over it.

That’s the hiccup of “slow” (system 2) thinking: it’s an unpleasant, mentally costly system to engage. I guess concentrating too much on abstract thought was an evolutionary disadvantage until recent history.

You are on autopilot most of the time (and what to do about it)

Since system 2 thinking is unpleasant, we’re all sleepwalking through most of life on system 1’s autopilot. This has a few implications:

Research on how we make choices show that our brain’s natural decision making process severely undervalues the long term.

The solution is to build good habits – if you overload your choice in common daily situations with a default action, you don’t even get to make the natural short sighted decision. You might still sleepwalk through life, but at least you’ll sleepwalk your way to a successful life.

I’m not going to go over how to build good habits here, but the same research overview I linked suggests that a very efficient way is to use commitment devices, like telling your friends you’ll do something (so you look foolish if you don’t).

If we assume that any time you spend in system 1 is wasted, the conclusion that you should spend your time sleeping, eating, exercising, or in system 2 mode actively thinking. That’s an exaggeration, but there’s truth in the fact that you can improve the amount of time you spend actively thinking in a day, and reduce the time you waste. Here are a few pointers:

  1. Minimize passive media consumption. Passive media consumption is things like instinctively checking twitter or reddit or re-watching a TV series. Active media consumption is critically reading social media, watching a movie you’ve never seen before, or reading a book.

  2. Actively rest instead of pseudo-resting. AKA, just go to fucking sleep. A lot of time in a day you rest by passively consuming media, you could instead take a nap, or actively do nothing instead (sweet silence). You actively rest this way and feel much better when you start being productive again.

  3. Practice mindfulness. Meditation has amply proven itself to be good for you by now. But the active practice of being mindful throughout the day has huge benefits – you’ll start to notice your body’s signals to you to rest or change posture, you’ll approach problems with a beginner’s mind once again, etc.

Even if you work on yourself, you have to respect that forcing others to actively think is unpleasant. So if you have to ask a favor of someone, do as much up front work for them so that they can solve your problem without thinking about it.

Otherwise you’re just creating pointless annoyance, like asking people to solve math problems at the start of a blog post.


As you internalize these concepts, you’ll see it explain behavior all around you. For instance, in most companies, artists, designers, programmers and other specialists hate open offices. Yet management often choose open office designs. We can say that it’s because the benefits of good working environments are hard to measure. However, it’s also important to note that managers work in system 1 most of the time, whereas artists and designers need to concentrate to get system 2 work. This misunderstanding helps create the open office situation.

There’s a lot to learn from dual models of the mind. For instance, did you know that your intelligence “crystallizes” as you age? Here is a fascinating story of a father learning chess at 40 and losing to his 4 year old daughter. As you age, the brain optimizes pathways it knows are good, whereas young minds tend to be more “fluid” in their intelligence.

Originally published on by Matt Ranger