5 Brain Exercises to Foster Flexible Thinking

Tips to get out of a mental rut

Mention flexibility and most of us think of yoga poses or Pilates positions instead of our thoughts. But what if we could also use a flexible mindset to promote good health and well-being in our bodies and our brains?

With practice and awareness, we can develop an agile mind that will elevate our experience and help us live more resilient, creative, happy lives.

“Mental agility can enable us to more fruitfully and effectively pursue both individual and group goals,” says Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D., psychologist at the University of Minnesota and the author of the forthcoming book The Agile Mind. “It can enable us to be more effective problem solvers and problem finders, helping to foster creativity and innovation and allowing us to identify and realize promising opportunities.”

Mental flexibility is really about adaptability and our ability to shift our thoughts between the abstract and specific in order to respond effectively to any given situation, Koutstaal says.

Rigid, “black and white” thinking can help to eliminate some stress-producing details, says Eric Maisel, Ph.D., author of Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions and numerous other books.

“But that doesn’t make us deep thinkers or creative. It doesn’t allow us to deal with problems easily when they arrive,” he says. “Rigid thinking does help us make quick decisions about things, but it is not suited to help us with our lifestyle.”

It’s easier, for example, to pick one position; to be against the war or in favor of lower taxes, for instance, instead of evaluating the complexities and recognizing that war sometimes has positive outcomes and that lower taxes aren’t always for the best.

“Sometimes you can get a lot of mileage from being highly specific, and that’s a good thing,” Koutstaal says. “But sometimes you need to be way more abstract to adapt to the situation.”

What flexible thinking does

A more agile mindset allows us to evaluate and adjust to the different jobs, roles and responsibilities we have each day. Sometimes it works to be more rigid, to follow specific rules; sometimes it’s better to be more open and loose, Maisel says.

Mental agility is also related to our perceptions, emotions, actions and motivations. A change of environment, attitude or behavior will also influence how we think. When we’re feeling happy or optimistic, for example, we tend toward broad and inclusive thinking. Fear narrows our focus down to specific details. When we’re able to make that mental shift without remaining stuck in a particular mindset, we’re demonstrating mental flexibility.

“We all vary in how mentally agile we are from moment to moment and day to day,” Koutstaal says. “Sometimes we can be very flexible, but at other times we can get surprisingly ‘stuck’ and become quite rigid or impervious to information that we really should take into account.”

A flexible mindset moves us away from limiting thought patterns to a place of openness and possibility. In those moments, when you are feeling stuck, worn out by the regular routine or caught in old habits and repetitive patterns, you can adapt your thinking and behavior in a way that will inspire you and boost your resilience and your chance at success.

 

How to develop an agile mind

While some people have an innate temperament toward mental agility, all of us are somewhat mentally flexible. With awareness and practice, we can become even better at it, say Koutstaal and Maisel.

Here are five brain exercises to help you do it:

  1. Change the context. Take a vacation. Take a walk around the block. Take a coffee break. Change the context or your environment and you’ll feel your mind shift. Exercise offers another great mental boost.
  2. Try something new. Learn to dance, pick up a new language or cook a new recipe. In a study led by Koutstaal, older adults who participated in a variety of novel and stimulating activities over a three-month period showed a significant gain in creativity, problem-solving abilities and other markers of “fluid intelligence” when compared to a control group. Mental flexibility is aided by novelty, and that contributes to brain growth and development throughout a lifetime.
  3. Question your thoughts and words. Become aware of what you’re thinking and saying. Don’t attach to or lock into one way of thinking, Maisel says. Also, notice your language. Dispute those thoughts and words that don’t serve you. Then, substitute them with more productive ideas and phrases.
  4. Plan to be spontaneous. Change up your regular routine. If you’re like Koutstaal and take an evening walk, occasionally venture along a new route. Once in a while alter the order of your day.
  5. Mix up the way you think. Innovative and creative ideas often arise after periods of both focused thought and diffuse attention, Koutstaal says. So, allow time to concentrate on projects or challenges both in a deliberate manner and in an unfocused way while you’re doing something else.

These tips will not only help your brain to bend, leaving you feeling more resilient and creative, but you’ll also be on track toward your loftiest goals.

"Mental flexibility is not arbitrary or whimsical,” Koutstaal says. “It’s grounded by our goals and aspirations and a balance between control and spontaneity. When we are mentally agile, we do pursue goals, but those goals may sometimes be changed or modified as we learn about a situation and what’s possible.”

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