Abstract Thinking Exercises: 5 Strategies for Generating New Insights
The best feeling in the world is finally cracking the solution to a problem you’ve been puzzling over
The worst feeling in the world: That moment when you’re ready to pound your head against your desk in frustration after being stuck on solving that problem for ages.
What if you could spend less time frustrated, and more time celebrating the solution? The key is tapping into the power of abstract thinking.
Abstract thinking is a great way to generate new ideas and gain new insights during any problem-solving process. Developers — who solve problems every day — will greatly benefit from exercising their abstract thinking muscles.
Before you encounter your next tricky problem, learn how to tap into your ability to think in an abstract way. It might be the key you need to find the solution.
What Is Abstract Thinking?
Abstract thinking has to do with seeing the context and bigger picture surrounding an event or idea. Abstract thinkers can reflect on events and ideas and think beyond just the “here and now”.
For example, a concrete thought would be thinking about your own dog. Abstract thoughts would be thinking about dogs in general, their relationship with your dog and with you, and how dogs fit into the bigger picture of your life and the world in general.
Another example may make more sense to engineers. Think about when you sit down to bang out some code. Before you even start, you have an idea of what you want the program to do and what features you want it to have.
These thoughts are abstract.
Then, after you write and deploy the code, you have a finished product — it has become concrete.
Put more simply, abstract thinking is thinking outside the box.
Don’t worry if that sounds vague. It’s hard to explain because abstract thinking is, in itself, an abstract idea.
You might be an abstract thinker if:
- You think about how everything relates to the bigger picture.
- You don’t just ask how — you ask why.
- You look for deeper meanings and underlying patterns in things.
- You seek to understand how everything relates to everything else.
You can tap into more abstract thinking by considering all the different parts of a problem, and thinking about them individually, as well as in relation to one another. We know that’s easier said than done, so here are some other strategies you can use to practice abstract thinking and tap into it when you need to solve a tough problem.
Everyday Ways to Tap Into Abstract Thinking
You might already be thinking in an abstract way without even knowing it. There are many ways to think abstractly that most of us do every day.
Thinking About Concepts
Any time you think about a non-concrete concept, that’s abstract thinking. Things like freedom and respect count — basically, anything that doesn’t have a concrete physical form is a concept that likely requires abstract thinking.
Coming Up With Theories
If you come up with a theory to explain an event, that’s abstract thinking. The theory may be based on concrete data, but it’s still conjecture, which makes it abstract.
Using Your Imagination
Even something as simple as using your imagination counts as abstract thinking. You’re thinking about things and possibilities that don’t exist in a physical form, which makes the thought abstract.
Using Metaphors and Analogies
Metaphors and analogies are another type of abstract thinking. They create relationships between two ideas that may be abstract or concrete. If they’re concrete, the act of thinking about them in relation to one another is a form of abstract thinking.
Problem Solving With Abstract Thinking: 5 Strategies
What abstract thinking can be really great for is solving tough problems, and that’s what makes it so useful for developers. Use these strategies to tap into your ability to think abstractly when you’re working on solving a problem.
Get Some Distance with Diffuse Thinking
One of the reasons we can get so stuck on a single problem is because we tend to get mired in the details.
So step back from the problem.
Don’t think about the detail you were stuck on. Think about the project as a whole — what is its purpose, what is your role in it, what are you and this project trying to accomplish?
If you’re having trouble getting away from the details and thinking about the project in terms of the big picture like this, try going for a walk. This triggers your brain into thinking about the problem in a diffuse way rather than with focused thought, which in itself can help inspiration to strike.
Reframe the Problem in a New Way
One of the simplest ways to use abstract thinking to solve a problem is to reframe the question you’re trying to answer.
For example, say you’re stuck working on a project because the question you’re asking yourself is simply, “How do I code this to complete the project?”
To get un-stuck, ask yourself questions that approach the problem from different directions, like “Why does this need to work this way?” “Can I make this simpler?” “Who is going to use this?” “What does the finished product need to be able to do?”
By asking a series of questions about the bigger picture of the project, you might stumble upon a solution that you wouldn’t have seen with a narrower view.
Keep Asking Why (Over and Over)
There are different levels of abstract thinking, and one way to move to higher and higher levels of abstraction is to keep asking “Why?”
- Why does your project have this feature?
- Why does it need to work this way?
- Why will the person using the finished product need that feature?
Keep asking why, and you’ll again be able to see the bigger picture surrounding the problem, rather than just the problem itself.
Look for Patterns
If abstract thinking is about seeing the big picture, a great way to get there is by looking for patterns in your work. Have you seen a problem like this anywhere else in your work or life? Is this problem similar to or different from problems you’ve solved before?
Sleep On It
When all else fails, take a break from the problem and sleep on it. Whether you just take a quick afternoon snooze or a full night’s rest, research shows that sleep can disrupt your thinking when working on a difficult problem, allowing you to reapproach the problem with fresh thoughts and reach a solution faster. Some of history’s most famous thinkers agree: Thomas Edison famously took naps in his workshop with a steel ball-bearing in each hand, so that when he fell asleep, the sound of the metal hitting the floor would wake him up, allowing him to get right back to work with fresh eyes and fresh thoughts.
Next time your reach that awful feeling of wanting to beat your head against the desk out of frustration, put these strategies to use. Abstract thinking isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always come naturally (especially for detail-oriented people like developers tend to be).
But it’s one of the best tools you can use to tackle the toughest engineering problems, and when you’re celebrating the victory of cracking the solution, you’ll be thankful for abstract thinking.