We all know someone who barrels into tasks without putting much thought into it. Just give them a directive—a household repair job, a homework assignment, a data entry project—and they dive right in.
Then there are others who can’t so much as wash the dishes or make a sales call without first devising an optimal plan of attack. They go to work every day not assuming that the accumulation of their labor will one day lead to a promotion. Rather, they’re going to analyze how promotions are awarded, to whom they go and why, and develop a road plan to check off the boxes that should get them that pay raise and prestige faster.
The planner types have what the psychologist Patricia Chen, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, and Carol Dweck, the noted Stanford University psychologist and Chen’s former adviser, have identified as a strategic mindset.
“Those with a strategic mindset tend to ask themselves strategy-eliciting questions, such as, What can I do to help myself? How else can I do this? Or, is there a way to do this even better?” Chen tells Quartz. “People who ask these strategic-mindset questions tend to generate and apply more and better strategies that end up making them more effective than others.”
In a new paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), lead author Chen and a team of researchers, including Dweck, assert that a strategic mindset “uniquely predicts how much people report actively using strategies and, in turn, how effective they are at pursuing goals across life domains.”
Crucially, they note it’s not enough just to have mastered a methodology for conquering a goal, or to know when you should try other means to reach your end. Nor is it enough to simply value the process of thinking about how you think (what psychologists call metacognition).
When you have a strategic mindset, you actually use multiple strategies and keep track of what’s working for you, or not, habitually.
The ticket to progress
The paper reported on three studies in the US involving more than 800 adults. First the researchers sent surveys to more than 350 students with queries about how often they step back to assess the ways they study for different classes or whether their study methods give them an advantage. “The higher they scored on a strategic mindset, the more they reported planning, generating strategies, monitoring, and adjusting their techniques during learning, and, in turn, the higher they scored in their GPAs,” says Chen.
A second study—one that asked randomly selected people to complete an online questionnaire—showed a correlation between having a strategic mindset and making greater progress toward a life goal, whether at work, school, the gym, or anywhere else.
The third study described in the paper is most compelling, if also messy. In a lab test, participants were presented with 30 eggs and asked to separate the whites and yolks in under two minutes. They were told that whoever separated the most eggs and collected the highest volume of egg whites would receive a $100 prize.
“Although this task does not seem like the kind of task that most people will encounter in modern life or the modern workplace,” the authors note, “it was carefully designed to meet the following criteria: The task was relatively unfamiliar and challenging for most participants; it could be accomplished with different methods, some of which were more effective than others; and there were clear performance metrics.”
Unscrambling a strategy
To discover whether there might be a causal relationship between a strategic mindset and goal achievement, some participants in the egg-separation study were randomly selected to be primed to think about a strategic mindset by reading and summarizing a Lifehack article about the concept, while the control group read an article about an unrelated topic. The researchers hypothesized that the first group would be more apt to explore several ways to speedily and cleanly remove the golden yolk from its sea of albumen, and to evaluate their methods along the way. And they did.
You can probably guess which bunch were the fastest at the job. What’s more, when participants were given eight extra eggs they could use to practice if they felt like it, those who had strategizing on their mind were more likely to do so.
Don’t worry, Chen and her team controlled for any casual bakers in the group. Each person’s experience with egg separating under normal conditions—i.e., as cooks at home—was first measured and taken into account in the study’s scoring rubric. Everyone in the study also watched a demo of a common “but suboptimal” method for separating eggs, the authors write: the back-and-forth sifting technique recommended by typical meringue or custard recipes that call for egg separating. The psychologists wanted to see whether people would default to that option and never improve upon it, or look for smarter, quicker methods.
In the study appendix, researchers labeled the five dominant more innovative techniques they observed in the lab, like Hand Straining (“letting egg white run through fingers while holding the yolk back”); the Break-and-Grab (“cracking eggs into a bowl and then removing the yolks with hand, tool, or eggshell”); and the Pincer (“partially cracking open the egg, allowing only the egg white to fall out whilst holding the yolk in”).
You can develop a strategic mindset
Chen says her future research will investigate why and how some people develop strategic mindsets and others demonstrate less of this trait, instead going through life passively or even blindly, she says. Without a strategic mindset, it may be easier for a person to become frustrated with a task, or to give up entirely—an unfortunate outcome when someone wants to, say, quit smoking for health reasons, or learn to code in order to become more competitive in the job market.
There may be a clue in Chen’s own life experience as to how the mindset is inculcated. When she was young, Chen says, her mother would regularly point out people or systems that were working ineffectively. Running errands in Singapore, her mother would say to Chen and her sister, “Look at what that person is doing. Do you think that’s the best way of doing it? Can you think of a better way?” Chen recalls.
“She would ask us, ‘What do you think they could do to make this better’ for their customers, or students, or people? And she’d make us think about the answers and brainstorm multiple answers to these questions,” says Chen. In time, running through that process became second nature to her.
People who didn’t grow up with that kind of nudging from a parent or teacher probably can still develop the same habits. Dweck’s famous research about the growth mindset is proof of this potential. “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset,” as Dweck once explained in the Harvard Business Review. “They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning.”
The growth mindset conceit is widely praised—if not always practiced—in the corporate world. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella claims his embrace of it served as a foundational principle in rebuilding the company’s culture. Dweck has been name-checked by both former US president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama. Her theory has become so popular that Dweck herself has had to debunk common misconceptions about what it is and isn’t.
In contrast, the concept of a strategic mindset is still in the early stages of research. Chen says she and Dweck have spent a lot of time discussing how a strategic mindset differs from a growth mindset, and concluded that the two frameworks complement each other. “Both mindsets can be helpful in moments of challenge or difficulty, but in different ways,” says Chen. “The strategic mindset motivates strategy, while the growth mindset promotes effort, investment, and persistence, which may or may not involve initiating different or better strategies.”
Combing both ideas ought to be powerful, at least in theory. Imagine someone is pursuing a long-term goal, says Chen. “Even if they believe that their abilities can be developed, people may not necessarily think about how best to develop their abilities and channel their efforts. And we certainly believe that simply exerting yourself can become discouraging if people simply double down on wrong and unproductive strategies.”
How else can I do this?
Enter the strategic mindset, she says, which “can motivate people to search for and try out new strategies, maybe seek out experts, maybe consult with mentors, and so on.”
The team is conducting studies with preschool children, college students, students, and other adults to better understand how to cultivate this mindset, she says. One of her earlier papers, published in 2017, has already demonstrated that a 15-minute intervention that asked students to reflect on how they craft a study plan led to better grades, lifting B+ students into the A range. More data about what else could work is still to come, but Chen suggests that teaching someone else about the strategic mindset, or just talking about it, might help a person internalize the process.
What’s most important, she says, is to question your own strategies when you’re faced with a tough challenge or aspiring to make a personal change. “Even if it’s to be a happier person, or be a more optimistic person, or to relax more,” she says, “there is no harm in asking yourself, ‘How else can I do this?'”