Two Systems of Thought

Portland, Oregon, USA

In general, most of us take a lot for granted… and it’s good advice to try not to: to instead be intentional about recognizing the good things we have going for us, and be grateful for them. Strangely enough, though, there are circumstances where taking things for granted is actually a beneficial, even healthy thing – and our struggles as the pandemic unfurls into its second year of impact on us, actually highlight this well.

At this point in human history, with our unparalleled access to information, it’s increasingly common for people to feel overwhelmed. In reality, the world around us has always held too much information for us to deal with. Take our vision as an easy example. Apparently we only actually focus on and directly process between 1 and 20 percent (depending on who you ask) of what we see. In essence we are only really “seeing” what is directly in the center of our focused gaze. Everything surrounding that is a mesh of less focused visual information and extrapolated data our brain puts together. We mentally fill in something like 80% of what we think we’re seeing!

There’s a good reason for this. To actually process our entire field of vision constantly would be inefficient and exhausting. It’s a far more efficient use of our resources to focus on a small portion of what we look at and let our brains fill in the rest with assumptions based on past experiences and context.

This phenomenon expands beyond our vision. In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he makes the distinction between two different types of thinking:

System 1 is pattern recognition: it’s automated, and tied to our limbic system. We use System 1 all the time… we form habits, which lead to shortcuts, and efficiency… and it works phenomenally well… until it doesn’t.

Chairs are a fun example of how entrenched we are in System 1 thinking. The overwhelming majority of people will recognize that a chair is for sitting on. Our life’s experience backs this up. Very few people check the structural integrity of a chair before sitting in it. There are obvious exceptions, but if a chair passes a cursory visual check (that we likely perform in the background of our minds), we sit in it. We take for granted that chairs will hold us, because a lifetime of experience reinforces the assumption.

Just imagine how time-consuming it would be to have to do an inspection of every chair before you sat in it… we take for granted that our chairs will hold us. In exchange, we save hours of time per week. A huge chunk of our life rests in System 1 thinking.

Then there’s System 2: Critical thinking. Focused thinking. Lots of good comes out of System 2 – new ideas, new perspectives, a plethora of NEW! But new is expensive. That’s true not just for possessions but for thoughts. As an example, if you’re having a stroll whilst chatting with a friend, and they bring up something that requires your full attention, you’ll instinctively stop walking. On a core level, your brain says, “Hold up! I’m going to have to turn off auto-pilot for this. We’re gonna divert energy away from System 1… auto-functions like walking are suspended… Full throttle energy to critical thinking, we can walk later!”

System 1 takes a lot for granted, but it allows us to conserve energy and do amazing things when we need to focus and use System 2. Of course, there are loads of examples to illustrate how dangerous it is to relegate some things (like people) into System 1. Misuse of System 1 can lead to prejudice, ignorance, and stereotyping. Used in balanced and healthy ways though, these two systems, and the benefits we reap from having both at our disposal, are a phenomenal example of our body’s resource management.

Here’s where the pandemic comes into play. At this point we’re coming up on two years of disruption. We’ve had waves of denial, anger, and resignation. We’ve felt loss, we’ve felt uncertainty, we’ve changed so many things. There’s a lot we can’t take for granted anymore: seeing friends in person, being able to travel, reading emotion of peoples’ faces.

I genuinely believe some of the stress and anxiety we’re feeling, perhaps even more now than at the beginning of the pandemic, is due to us having to move so many things from System 1 (auto-pilot) to System 2 (critical analysis). To illustrate this, just the addition of masks has added a step we have to think about into previously auto-pilot worthy adventures.

For students in school, teachers in schools, parents in jobs, for everyone – a steady stream of changes and lack of predictability are using up so much more energy than before. We can’t auto-pilot like we used to, so we’re using up more resources – and when we experience resource scarcity, we get anxious.

I think it’s helpful to understand the root of some of our stress and anxiety. It’s helpful to know the dynamics students, teachers, and parents are dealing with. It can also help us identify where to focus more resources to combat the scarcity at the root of our stress.

System 2 thinking, critical thinking, is a good thing, but it is resource intensive. We might benefit from building in some space to compensate for the fact that some processes in our lives that used to be handled on auto-pilot in System 1 are now in System 2 and therefore cost more.

Simply allowing more time in our day for what we used to think of as easy routines can have a positive effect. You used to be able to get out the door and on the way to school in 5 minutes… but there are extra steps and checks now, so allow 10 minutes. You may have been getting by allowing 5 minutes just like before the pandemic, but you’re jamming more in – so give yourself a break.

It sounds small, but these allowances add up throughout our days. In essence we’re asking our brains to do more with the same amount of time and resources. So if we can add time buffers into our resources, we’ll feel less strain.

It’s also worth intentionally helping shift appropriate routines into System 1 where possible. Create patterns, routines, mini-traditions even – and it will likely have a stress-reducing effect. Our mind likes patterns, and it’s amazing how self-soothing we can be just by creating the patterns our minds crave. Recognizing and even celebrating when something has been moved back into the System 1 “quick sort” pile is recognition that more resources are available for System 2 when necessary. Put a sticky note on your door to check for wallet, keys, AND mask. If you’ve already got that routine down and no longer forget your mask, GREAT! You’ve moved something back into System 1, now find some other addition you can auto-pilot.

It’s important to realize this doesn’t mean you have to accept these new additions to System 1 as permanent. Hopefully we won’t have to wear masks regularly at some point, and that will require a shift to get used to life without masks, but for now we need to free up our strained resources. Moving things to System 1 is not a sign of defeat, it’s a sign that we’re adaptable and resilient.

Two years in, we’re feeling the drawn-out strain of the pandemic – hopefully understanding the dynamics of why we feel strained can help us reapportion resources to help ourselves and those around us. Our lives simply cost more thinking power now, but we can make changes (even small ones) to help compensate. I can’t wait for us to move on to the next adventure… but my hope is that we’ll take the things we’ve learned from these past two years with us and use our honed resilience and change management skills for even greater good.


Brussels, Belgium

The concept of resilience has come up quite a lot lately in various realms – which makes sense with the ongoing changes we’re all having to deal with as a result of the pandemic. Resilience has a lot to do with how we react to challenges… and we don’t seem to have a shortage of challenges lately! It really is no wonder we’re seeing such in increase in anxiety and other mental health issues. Some challenges we can count on and therefore prepare for – exams, interviews, big presentations, and the like. Some challenges we know are possible, but hope we won’t have to deal with – things like losses, failures, accidents. Then there’s the challenges we didn’t see coming and didn’t necessarily directly prepare for… pandemics, sudden losses, tragedies.

Lately it seems we’ve been hit by all three of those categories: the stresses of expected everyday life, the stresses of possibilities that unfortunately came to be, and the stress of tragedies, sudden losses, and the unknown.

As a result, the skills associated with resilience are all the more important for students, families, teachers, and just about everyone, really. Depending on the research you read, we’re either getting better at being resilient, or we’re seriously lacking and in deep trouble… and I’m sure it’s an oversimplification to make sweeping judgements covering people in general, but I think with everything going on, it’s certainly worth looking into how we can improve our ability to bounce back from difficulties, persevere through them, and even learn from them and incorporate them in healthy ways into our life story.

Technology has certainly had an impact on our resilience. In some ways, a very positive impact: our ability to communicate across vast distances, in spite of isolation, and in real time is nothing short of miraculous. Imagine the set back we’d experience if we had to live through the same pandemic restrictions just 20 years ago with dial-up internet and no hope of video… or 50 years ago when long-distance phone calls could be unfathomably expensive. Technology has been a life-saver. But it’s worth bearing mind that it’s also cost us in some surprising ways when it comes to resilience.

For one thing, the ubiquitous nature of screens in our lives means that we’re actually stunting some of our capacity for resilience – and this is especially true for younger generations which have grown up with screens and personal devices from a young age.

Screens provide an incredibly convenient and often near-instant reprieve from negative feelings caused by things like boredom, loneliness, and awkwardness. They don’t necessarily end our struggles with those things, but they numb the pain. If I have to wait in line for anything, I do so with my phone so I’m not bored for even a few minutes! Not talking to anyone at a party? No need to look awkward, just pull out your phone and the assumption is you must be “talking” to someone just not in person. Feeling lonely? Just text, tweet, post, and scroll your way through a near infinite amount of people within your virtual grasp!

The reality is that dealing with boredom, loneliness, and awkwardness builds resilience. We learn to be self-entertaining, we hone social skills, and we come to appreciate the balance of being comfortable with our thoughts AND being able to appreciate the company of others. But devices protect us from the aches and pains that forge that sort of growth. Overcoming those discomforts lays an important foundation for our capacity to grow as we learn to take on bigger and more significant difficulties. Alleviating minor discomforts like boredom stunts out ability to grow through increasing challenges.

Now just as there are a variety of challenges to overcome, there are also different types of resilience we develop through those challenges. It’s a little too simplistic to simply label someone has having or lacking resilience… in reality we have a mixture of levels of resilience in different areas. Knowing this can help us hone in on where we need to grow specifically.

Perhaps you’re really good at cognitive resilience – how you think through situations and interpret circumstances, but lacking in relational resilience – your sense of social connectedness and access to a support network. Maybe you have great emotional resilience – you can tolerate negative feelings and balance them with confidence and hopefulness, but you struggle with motivational resilience – having a clear sense of purpose to focus you.

The truth is that like so many other things in life, there’s no shortcuts to resilience in all of its forms. Our ability to bounce back, keep going, and grow from the struggles we face is an important facet of our emotional, social, intellectual, and even physical health… and it takes work. Building physical strength requires us to strain our muscles – gradually – and with each manageable increase in resistance we tear muscle fibers, which heal over providing more strength. Resilience works the same way: we need to gradually be exposed to difficulties so that we can, over time, cope with more intensity – and bounce back from it.

I believe we’re now faced with some pretty hefty weights to lift as far as challenges in life, and many of us are feeling the strain of resilience-muscles not quite ready for the load. We know that too much adversity has negative effects on our quality of life, but the sometimes overlooked fact is that too little adversity can be just as damaging.

So, what areas of resilience do you need to work on? What small increments can you add to build them up? Perhaps starting with something as simple as choosing NOT to use your phone when you’re bored for a day or two a week, or initiating conversation even if you feel awkward with friends you haven’t connected with in a while. Bear in mind, manageable discomfort builds up strength, just like weights at the gym… so if it’s uncomfortable (but not overwhelming), then you’re probably on your way. We have phenomenal capacity for resilience, but also phenomenal access to comfort. Comfort’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a constant or a guarantee… so we’ve got to work a bit harder at being intentional in our growth so we can get through the difficulties AND enjoy our comforts.