“A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.” – From Wikipedia
As a child growing up in the 1960s, that golden age before computers, videogames, and too much technology, one of the great joys I had was building models. Airplanes, boats, aircraft carriers, and cars were common models that boys of my age built. The boxes depicted colorful and exciting pictures of planes and boats of World War II and the hottest cars of the decade. My mother would buy me about one per month, and I spent the next week or so tediously putting it together. In those days the directions inside were usually pretty accurate, and it was simply a matter of laying out the parts, matching them to the directions, and following directions meticulously, one step at a time. Just be sure to use enough, but not too much, glue!
Today directions that come in a box to build an item are seldom accurate. They usually written to generally follow the product that you have purchased that was built by some person being overworked in a foreign factory. It’s pretty common that some of the parts will be missing and that the directions will be a rough approximation of how that item will look when done. I often find myself so frustrated that I give up, call one of my adult sons on the phone and have them come by and help me put it together. Hard to believe that I was once that kid that put together the USS Enterprise in 1966.
As adults, whether we realize it or not, we are still model builders – mental models. A mental model is a internal representation, an expectation, of how something is going to play out in our lives. For example, today is Sunday and most people are building a mental model of how they believe their Monday is going to go. At the beginning of each day, usually while doing some mundane and routine task like brushing your teeth, shaving, or putting on makeup, you are mentally building a model, a plan, of what you expect will happen that day. As you are building this model you are visualizing, feeling emotions-both positive and negative-and setting yourself up for either success or failure. The emotions that you have going into that day become the devils that hide in the details and can either set you up for success or failure in the next 8 to 12 hours.
Human beings are thinking and planning animals. This is our most useful survival mechanism, something that sets us apart from all other creatures on the planet. The problem is that our thoughts are often programmable and our decisions and feelings often result from the mental models that we have previously built rather than the events that are happening right in front of us. We react in the moment not to the moment itself, but to the mental models that we built earlier that day, while going through our morning routine, or daydreaming while at a traffic light.
The mental models that we build, much like the directions in that great item you bought that was made in Taiwan, are close approximations and not entirely accurate. Realizing this is important or you may inadvertently set yourself up for failure by building a negative mental model. If the mental model you’ve built is a negative one, you will begin to follow those negative directions as soon as you feel uncomfortable. Automatic pilot will kick in, you’ll start putting the parts together in a way that doesn’t fit, become overly frustrated, lose valuable time building it, or giving up altogether. The mental model that you built prior to any event can either set you up for success or failure.
How does one build better mental models? As with all complicated models (remember that aircraft carrier?) directions that are as accurate as possible are necessary. It’s also helpful if you are flexible and maybe have a “Plan B” set of directions in mind. Here are some suggestions of how to build better directions for those mental models you build:
1. Make sure you have the tools needed. Maybe you have a presentation that you are doing at work or school. Are you prepared? Do you have the necessary facts, tools, and research? Lay these out in the same manner that you would if you were building a model airplane. Do they match the images that you are visualizing?
2. Use visualization to your advantage. Realize that, when you visualize, you are predetermining what you will do at a future time. Positive visualization is more likely to allow you to function the way you would like to when confronted in real time. The human mind cannot tell the difference between that which is real and that which is imagined. When you visualize yourself succeeding, performing well, and completing tasks as you wish, you are rehearsing success. Your mind cannot tell the difference. If you doubt this, think about what happens when you have a nightmare. You wake up with a racing heart, anxious, in a bed covered with sweat. Why? Your brain has convinced your body that something horrible has happened. When you visualize failure as you build your mental model, you are setting yourself up for failure when that moment of doubt arises. Visualize success when you put your directions together.
3. Use more than one sensory modality to design your directions. A “to do” list, diagram, or visual can help you plan more graphically in advance. Just remember to be flexible when the time comes.
4. Prepare for the emotions that are likely to get in the way. Emotions are the saboteurs of success. Fear, doubt, and negative self appraisal are likely to pop up as you go through your day. These thoughts are most likely to be incorrect, but you may believe them because they are yours. We all like to think that we have such self-awareness that our thoughts about ourselves are accurate. They are not. Be careful not to believe your thinking, particularly if it is negative and is about your performance. Thoughts are not facts and only sometimes do they reflect reality. Prepare for these emotions in advance, realize that they are likely to pop up, and act the way you planned when you wrote your directions.
5. Plan to relax. When putting your mental directions together, build in moments where you pause, take a breath, and slow down. A brief pause of 3 to 5 seconds may seem like an eternity while under stress, but it just may be enough time to allow you to follow those directions accurately.
6. Build mental models often. Chances are you are doing this anyway, whether you realize it or not. Consciously building mental models on a regular basis will improve these skills, build confidence, and lead to more successful outcomes. Success builds upon success, and confidence grows from the positive reinforcement of a plan coming together as you imagined and hoped.
Whether we realize it or not, we are all model builders. Consciously building the models that you desire may take a little time and effort, but you are doing it anyway. You’re a grown up now – and you don’t have to plead with your mother to buy them.
” I love it when a plan comes together.” – Colonel Hannibal Smith
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