As many have noted, we live in an age of distraction. Our world is a noisy one, with video screens and always-connected capabilities robbing us of any time alone with our thoughts. We have become more and more dependent on such distractions, as one study found "Ninety five percent of American adults reported that they did at least one leisure activity in the past 24 hours, such as watching television, socializing, or reading for pleasure, but 83% reported they spent no time whatsoever 'relaxing or thinking.'" 1 So it's no wonder that the researchers found that most people found sitting in a chair and thinking for ten to fifteen minutes was not an enjoyable experience and a significant number chose to administer small, painful electric shocks to themselves rather than simply think about something. 2,3
Deep Thinking Versus Distracted ThinkingYou may jump to the conclusion that it's the younger generations that are more incapable of uninterrupted thinking, but in "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind", Timothy Wilson and his co-authors found that the age of the participant (ranging from 18 to 77) or whether they performed the test at home or in a lab setting made no difference. The only real difference in helping people "gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits."4
I agree that deeply thinking about a particular problem or issue is a lost skill and one that every believer should seek to cultivate. The Psalms are replete with commands for us to meditate on the Scriptures and the works of God5 to help us better understand Him and our place in the world. Therefore, I want to offer some tips on ways you can practice thinking about an issue more deeply. These are just ways I try to approach certain problems I mull over as I work through them.
1. Ensure You're Exposed to Rich IdeasThe first step in thinking well requires you to get in the habit of taking in ideas that you may not have previously been exposed to. The best way to do this is to develop a habit of reading. You don't have to read for huge chunks of time, but simply read regularly. Plan in getting ready for bed and spend the last 30 minutes every evening reading. This will help you wind down from the day and it will also improve your sleep. You should read actively, with a pencil in hand and marking up your books. If you disagree with the author, write it in the margin. If you think a point is confusing, note that too. You don't have to look up a word or reference at this point, just read. Choose some classic works of fiction and choose some non-fiction. Mix it up. You'll find that there are many different ways people approach certain issues. All of this helps you to think about ideas in different contexts.
2. Mull over the ideas to which you've been exposed.Next, pick a particularly intriguing or difficult idea and start thinking through it. You should do this at a different time than your reading. Morning is always good. In my devotional time, I try to meditate on a different aspect of God's character each morning. I've taken a list of the different names of God and use it to contemplate that aspect of his character. I really try to think about what it means for God to be the Lord Our Banner. What aspects of God does such a title reflect? How do those aspect impact me in my walk? This is my very first action in my morning prayer time.
With other ideas, I usually try to find a time where I will have limited distractions to think over an issue. The key is to focus on one thing. How does that idea fit in with your understanding of the world? Does it have implications for other beliefs that you hold? What are three reasons to reject such an idea? Would such a concept be true under any circumstance? Can you outline an argument in your head for or against that view? Who else would be considered an expert in that topic and have you looked at what they would say? All of these questions will help you explore that topic much more deeply than simply taking the author's word for a particular point of view.
3. See how your previous ideas work with your new thoughts.Lastly, as you take in new ideas, you'll want to see how well those mesh with previous ideas you have. Are there any points of connection? Sometimes, new insight will be gained by taking two ideas that seem disparate and trying to connect them in some way. For example, I was once reading an opinion piece lamenting the fact that the candidates for the various offices in the city of Los Angeles were almost exclusively male. The pundits were decrying this as a travesty, making the point that women add a voice and an influence that men cannot replicate. I was also working on some questions about same-sex marriage and it really struck me how if each sex offers unique views that are necessary to the well-being of governance, then it should be more true that two parents of different sexes offer unique views that are necessary to the well-being of any children that are raised, which prompted this post. However, that's just one example of how new ideas can form when you think about an issue more deeply and carefully.
2. Wilson, 2014, 76.
3. Pomeroy, Ross. "Some People Prefer Electric Shocks to Thinking Quietly by Themselves" RealClearScience. RealClearScience, 13 July 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2014. http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/07/some_people_prefer_electric_shocks_to_thinking_quietly_by_themselves.html.
4. Wilson, 2014. 77.
5. For examples, see Joshua 1:8, Psalm, 1:2, Psa. 4:4, Psalm 77:6, Psalm. 119:23-27, Psalm. 145:5.