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The benefits of thinking about your thinking

You know that voice that’s chattering on as you’re giving a presentation, or telling a joke, or listening in a meeting, or meeting someone new? 

It’s that conversation in your head, delivering helpful guidance as you move through whatever activity you’re doing. The voice can tell you to give a little more or to pull back just a bit, provide a mental thumbs up or thumbs down, let you know if you’re confused.

Well that voice has a name and it’s called metacognition. Metacognition is the thinking we do about our thinking—questions such as: Do I understand this?, What do I already know about this? Where should I take this next?, and a great many more practical questions helping to transfer what we already know to new contexts and tasks.

Metacognition is the process we use to plan, monitor, and assess our learning, thinking, and doing. It’s wildly important because it’s how we build an awareness of our understanding and performance. 

A good example is watching a carpenter work and doing that, at least as I recall, is an exercise in silence with an occasional question between the screams of power tools—and Jerry would answer all of my questions when I hung around his shop, which was good for a curious kid who just happened to have a neighbor always working on something interesting.

There’s one project I remember more than the others. It was an outdoor sign for a local restaurant. It was big. It was intricate. And the idea of writing words using pieces of wood captured my attention. 

There’s the thing of having the skills to create a sign from wood. It required an experienced carpenter to create something like that, using tools to cut wood and join it again with glue, screws, and nails to create the curves and angles of words.

Then there’s the thing, even more impressive to think about now, of working through something he’d never created before. Perhaps he’d built other signs and certainly he was using skills he had honed on other projects, but he’d never brought those skills together for this project, for this sign. That required thinking about thinking. It required metacognition. 

He planned, monitored, and assessed his thinking, learning, and doing along the way—and not just toward the completion of the overall project but in every measurement, every cut, and every use of a nail, a screw, or glue.

We’re doing the same thing in whatever it is we’re currently engaged—how we start something, how we decide what to do first, then next, and next after that, how we check progress, and how we know when we’re finished.

It’s a thinking process that may not be front-and-center, but it could be, and perhaps it should be, because metacognition is how we get better at thinking, learning, and doing. It’s central to getting better at the work we do.

Thinking about our thinking is natural. We improve just by doing the thinking, learning, and doing we already do. It’s also something we can improve explicitly. 

Becoming aware of your metacognition is a start. Doing so can be discombobulating in the moment because it’s multitasking in that you’re doing something (like giving a presentation) and thinking about that doing (e.g., Does the audience understand the point I’m making?).

Since most of us are poor multitaskers, it’s better—from my experience—to try it first in a low-risk setting where forgetting the point you were intending to make isn’t detrimental to something important. 

How? is a good question to use—so not just reflecting on What am I learning? but adding How am I learning?, How should I work on it? is a good companion to What should I work on next?, and How am I thinking about it? can be added to What are my thoughts on this topic?

Metacognition leads to an increased awareness of self and context, which is required for working in complexity. Start by building an awareness of your metacognition. Go out there today and while you’re working at your desk or participating in a meeting, listen to that voice in your head. 

The thoughts are there, I promise.

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