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Book Review: Smart Thinking by Art Markman

Book Review: Smart Thinking by Art Markman

Book Review: Smart Thinking by Art Markman

Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals is an interesting book about how to improve your thinking and in particular develop better habits and assimilate useful knowledge for problem solving.

In any walk of life, it is an advantage to be smart. It is difficult to argue with this statement.

Being smart underpins our ability to think, analyse, compare, consider, communicate, decide and act. Each of these activities is essential to achieving more and being successful. !

In Smart Thinking, Art Markman has developed a formula for more effective thinking and provides it in a highly applicable format. If you read and apply the lessons in this book you will take some significant steps in moving towards success and creating successful habits. !

Chapter 1 – What is Smart Thinking

Smart thinking follows a basic formula:

Smart thinking requires that you develop smart habits to acquire high quality knowledge and apply that knowledge to answer questions and achieve your goals.

Markman has some exemplars for the type of behaviour that may be helpful or hindering us. He recommends we:


  • Skim reading
  • Multi-tasking
  • Reviewing email as soon as it arrives
  • Reviewing non relevant material before meetings or work activities
  • Treating each problem as if it is new…Search for formulas that fit. !

Ensure we:

  • Limit meeting agendas to a few items
  • Turn off your email and phone for a few hours to focus on production and thinking.
  • Build patterns into your day so you can conserve your cognitive energies for thinking – go the same way to work, morning routine, etc.
  • Use examples of previous successes to overcome current challenges.
  • Describe challenging problems in differing ways to find similarities with previous problems.
  • If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
  • Engage with others to see what they are working on.
  • Draw diagrams to understand problems and solutions.

If you know what good thinking habits and you are not doing them, then challenge youractions and change the bad habits you have developed. !!

Chapter 2 – Creating Smart Habits and Changing Behaviour

Markman suggests that there are 2 ingredients in developing smart habits:

1. Mapping between and action and the environment. For example, when you learn to drive, your body learns the patterns of action that allow you to move from conscious action to subconscious action. But if you tried to practise the activity of driving by sitting on your dining chair, it would require a great deal more effort. The environment helps you adopt the habit.

2. Repetition – Doing the activity over and over again creates a habit. Developing habits helps because it removes the need to expend cognitive effort in doing the routine and mundane. You also don’t need to be intentionally develop habits, they develop whenever there is a consistent mapping between the mental and physical environment and the behaviour you are repeating.

Knowing these principles you can help you create your own positive habits that reduce cognitive overhead.

Changing Habits

There are also 2 elements to changing habits:

  1. Stop the old habit from recurring.
  2. Build a new habit in the same environment with the associated new actions.

Changing a habit does require conscious effort and so you are more able to avoid an old habit when you are refreshed. If you become tired or stressed you are less able to resist the old pattern of behaviour. So if your habit has been to eat chocolate in the evening while watching television, then remove the chocolate and you can resist. If the chocolate is present, then you will resist for as long as you have energy to do so and then you will give in and eat! If you replace the chocolate with fruit, you have changed the environment and so are more likely to change the habit.

Installing a New Habit

  1. Commit to the new habit and to replacing an old one, emotionally and intellectually.
  2. Record when you are drawn to the old habit to identify the triggers.
  3. Avoid the situations when you may feel the trigger.
  4. Use the trigger as a way to activate the new patten of behaviour until it becomes a habit.

The brain wants to form habits. Use that strength to develop useful smart habits.

Chapter 3 – Promoting Quality Learning by Knowing your Limits

The world around you is very busy and you can only process a very limited subset of the information around you. You don’t process everything and so can you sometimes miss changes in the environment.

We are so focused on a small subset of information that we can sometimes miss large changes. The eyes provide low level information that helps us build a bigger picture. This supports the more conceptual information and knowledge base we have developed over the longer term.

Our conceptual information, once developed, then influences the information that we take on, reinforcing our views and sometimes trapping us into situating the new information in support of our old views. When you see something new it is influenced by what you have seen before. You see what you believe.

Role of 3

We have a limitation on how much we can pay attention to anything at any point. We can focus on a maximum of 3 things.

Imagine a football game. You can probably focus on the player, the ball and the goalkeeper but not the scoreboard and the referee.

We can apply this limitation to our benefit to build High Quality Knowledge:

  1. Prepare – For a learning activity, meeting or reading a book.
  2. Pay attention – Thinking is hard work. Focus on the material rather than multi-tasking. Avoid looking around the room or being distracted.
  3. Review – Just like habit forming, repetition consolidates knowledge.

Chapter 4 – Understanding How Things Work

Causal knowledge or the understanding of how things work and why, is a significant part of what makes people smart.

Consider an expert – Firstly, experts know more than non experts, secondly they know how things work in their field of expertise. So the deeper the causal knowledge, the more capable or more ‘expert’ someone is.

Additionally, the more causal knowledge someone has, the more able they are to apply these concepts to solve problems and innovate. The key to developing causal knowledge is to try explanations for the things around you and then test those hypotheses. Be specific and use the ability to explain and confirm how something works as a way to build up your causal knowledge database.

Chapter 5 – Making Comparisons and Applying Your Knowledge

Having developed (and continuously be developing) your High Quality and Causal Knowledge learn to look for similarities in the problem you are facing to the problems in other domains you have seen before.

Knowing about plumbing might help you understand electricity. Archimedes sat in a bath and spilled his volume of water over the bath edges leading to a method of testing volumes of solids of equal weight to compare density.

Similarities are critical to applying your High Quality Knowledge in differing domains.

Analogies are helpful in forming a level of understanding of complexity.

Chapter 6 – Maximizing Memory Effectiveness

Getting information into your memory requires deep and active thinking and processing.

To help assimilate the information, psychologist Bob Bjork suggests having some ‘desirable difficulties’. Working hard with the information actually helps you remember.

If you apply and use the information by generating products from that information, then you can ensure you have understood the material. Using the information in a wider context, binds the new knowledge to the old like a magnet picking up ball bearings.

Ultimately, High Quality Knowledge is a collection of facts, interconnected and linked so that we can draw analogies and similarities to resolve problems.

So to build your smart thinking, it is not a matter of thinking differently, but of thinking of different things. This is typified in the phrase ‘thinking out of the box’. The box in this case being the limitations of your experience.

Markman suggests a useful approach to improving memory and recall is to use diagrams for memory and explanation. This use of facts in images and diagrams allows you to tap into your visual memory and make stronger links between a selection of facts.

Once information is in your memory, retrieval should be effortless. If you expend too much effort in retrieving information from memory, you are working against the way your recall works. A better approach is to become distracted for a while and then reattempt the retrieval.

Use stories, proverbs even jokes to consolidate knowledge to aid memory and to trigger recall and use.

Chapter 7 – Smart Thinking in Practise

This is a very practical chapter recapping and applying the lessons in the earlier part of the book. Markman suggests you:

  1. Try techniques one at a time not all at once.
  2. Summarize a learning experience before moving on to the next.
  3. Make changes in your physical environment as part of the knowledge and habit adoption process.
  4. Use diagrams and stories to explain things to yourself and others and tap into your visual memory.
  5. Use this technique to find new solutions:
  •     Write out a statement of the problem.
  •     Ensure it is specific enough to be solved.
  •     Broaden the description by considering more of the situation.
  •     Find one or more ways to classify the essence of the problem.

Beware settling on the first answer or any answer too quickly. Also beware of being biased towards confirming any one answer. Be objective and find a good solution.

Chapter 8 – Creating a Culture of Smart

To improve organisational performance exploit the following techniques and approaches:

  1. Encourage people to think about thinking.
  2. Create an environment in which smart thinking habits can be supported. Remember habits are better formed within an environment.
  3. Explain clearly and explain often using stories and pictures to aid understanding and knowledge transfer.
  4. Create desirable difficulties. this is common in training where a challenge can often be used to help a student understand.
  5. Apply the role of 3.
  6. Discourage multi-tasking.


There is a lot of value in this book. It offers some very practical tools for improving thinking and some concrete examples of how to apply those tools.

If you are looking to improve your own thinking or the thinking of your team then you will find some simple and applicable techniques here.

While there is nothing dramatic in the text, the more helpful techniques are those that are simple enough to understand AND ARE APPLIED and Markman has certainly provided some of those.

Helpful and useful for both understanding thinking and improving your practise of thinking.

If you’re a coach of managers or executive, then there is certainly some material in here to help with your clients buy more effective thinking and problem solving habits.

Dare to Aspire

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