Mental Models: The Key to Better Thinking & Decisions

The human brain takes in 11 million bits of information a second. But it can only process 40 to 50 bits a second. This applies beyond just our immediate senses, when we make decisions we don’t consider all the data. Instead, we use frameworks, systems and filters to help guide our decisions, and that’s where mental models come in.

In this article, I’ll take you through what they are, the benefits they bring and provide some example models that can help you reap the benefits of this approach to thinking.

A sketchnote showing a brain with mental models represented by gears, for each model, and bolts of electricity between them for sparks of ideas.

Table of Contents

What are mental models?

A mental model is a representation (model) of how things work in the world. We each have mental models from our experiences and we use these to understand information, make predictions and decide on what we should do.

They may arise from observations in one area but can be applied to other fields.

By gaining new mental maps we can improve our decisions, predictions and understand of the world. In fact, some discoveries were only possible once people gained new ways of looking at the world.

Streamline making decisions

Making good decisions is hard and takes time.

Mental models can help us navigate new situations using thought patterns that have worked in the past. They can help us work out what actually matters even when we’re ignorant of the topic.

This means better decisions, faster even in new experiences.

Be a more critical thinker

We all fall into cognitive biases and logical fallacies now and then.

In fact, some are bad mental models we’ve picked up over time. By focusing on refining, replacing and adding new models, we can remove our blind spots and become more critical thinkers.

Improve your problem-solving skills

Mental models give you a tool kit to solve problems.

By gathering a set of ways to focus on the information that matters, understand what the data in front of you is saying and act in light of that data, you can solve problems more effectively. By using models from outside of your field, you can come up with unique solutions.

Learn and apply new ideas & skills faster

Mental models help us understand and breakdown new ideas and skills.

This is a critical step in learning a new topic or idea. By identifying the patterns and principles of an idea or skill, you can learn not just the theory but how it works in practice too.

Improve your communication and empathy

We don’t all see the world in the same way.

We have different experiences, background and thought processes that change our perspectives and actions. By understanding different models, we can better understand others’ viewpoints. This enables us to communicate more effectively.

Mental models let us live in someone else’s world.

Compounding benefits

Mental models compound over time.

The more models we acquire and learn when and how to apply them, the more they aid each other. We can even use models to figure out which model to use.

The sooner you start building your toolbox, the greater the benefits you’ll reap.

Mental models to explore

If you want some practical examples, explore this growing list that I’m curating. Each one has a hand drawn illustration to help you understand and remember the concept better.

Start building your collection of mental maps

By being more intentional about how we think and the filters and maps we use to look at the world, we can improve our thinking and decisions. Subscribe if you want new models in your inbox.

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