Slow vs Fast Thinking

We humans, and other animals of higher order cognition, can engage two distinct types of thinking. The first is fast thinking. These are the thoughts that come quickly, and intuitively without much deliberation. In other words, fast thoughts are those that are automatic, such as the answer to a simple addition problem, comprehension of a simple sentence or mindless driving on an empty road. This type of instinctive and reactionary processing is critical to our survival as it allows us to perform the split-second actions that we need to adapt to the ever-changing environmental landscape that surrounds us. However, this type of thinking also tends to be filled with reactionary emotions that can be damaging to ourselves or those around us if they aren’t kept in check by our second form of processing, namely slow thinking.
In contrast to fast thinking, slow thinking is slow and deliberate. They are the thoughts that we engage in when we are conscious or mindful of our own internal environment or the external environment. This is the type of thinking that is involved when one is solving a more complex math problem, otherwise engaging in logical reasoning, or consciously directing one’s attention at a particular thing or event. In other words, this is the type of thinking that occurs when we are consciously engaged with what we are doing, rather than just performing a task automatically and instinctively such as is the case with fast thinking. As was eluded to previously, this type of thinking can help us take a step back from our reactionary behavior and tame our response to a stimulus that might have provoked an adverse reaction that may not have been conducive to our ultimate plan or goals. In this way, slow thinking can also help us acquire skill by bringing conscious attention to our actions and thus help us understand how it is that we need to improve and what steps we can take to improve.


The acquisition of any skill can be broken down into four distinct levels:

  1. You’re bad at what you’re doing, but you’re so inexperienced that you don’t understand how bad you are at what you’re trying to do.
  2. You’re still bad at what you do, but you’ve accumulated enough experience to understand that you’re bad at what you do.
  3. You’re now skilled at what you do, but you still have to think about what you’re doing.
  4. You’re highly proficient at the skill you’re trying to acquire, so much so that you don’t even have to think about doing it. This is the stage at which advanced practitioners or athletes will experience flow, a state of effortless engagement with one’s skill. A state of flow occurs when body and mind are engaged simultaneously and synergistically.


By engaging in slow thinking, one can progress from skill level to skill level by consciously engaging with what it is they are doing. This holds true for any skill, whether it be ski racing, performing standup comedy, or learning mathematics. This is not to say that fast thinking is not valued or required for the performance of these skills, but that slow thinking helps us improve our skills so that our fast thinking can become more accurate and useful. The goal is to get so proficient at the skill via slow thinking that you reach level 4 at which time you are now more or less engaged in fast thinking again. By engaging in slow thinking for long enough, a particular skill will become second nature and one can now engage with it using fast thinking.
For example, I can remember experiencing these four stages while learning to pole plant. At first, I was waving my arms all around as I went from turn to turn not quite conscious of the fact that more than my wrists were moving and that I looked ridiculous. This stage was level one, I sucked but didn’t realize it. Then eventually I realized that I wasn’t doing it quite right (mostly after watching video), so at this point, I was still doing it wrong, but at least now I could recognize as much, and so I worked on it, this was level two. After working on my pole plant tirelessly I was now able to do it correctly, but I still had to think about it quite consistently, this was level three. And finally, after continuing to work on this particular skill for some number of years I now pole plant as though it is second nature, I rarely think about it and yet do it constantly, I do it in a consistent manner, and I do it well (or well enough for my own sake), and thus this is level 4.
Slow thinking is powerful, but it’s not always necessarily easy to access. We must often override our instinctive emotion filled reactions to engage in slower, deeper, and more meaningful thinking, and this requires a certain level of self-awareness. Practicing meditation is a great way to cultivate a sense of self-awareness and thus cultivate slow thinking habits, but it’s also not entirely necessary. Everyone has their own path, and any way that helps you take a step back and separate who you are from your instinctive emotions will aid your ability to increase your skill level. Regardless of how you choose to do it, understanding our two inherent modes of thinking and consciously choosing to engage in slow thinking we can improve our skill sets, our relationships, and thus ultimately ourselves.