How Abstract Thinking Can Help You Reach Goals

There’s more than one way to look at a situation. You can look in concrete terms at the details of the situation by itself, and the specific details of it.

You can also think in more abstract terms, by looking at how the situation relates to other situations and considering how it fits into the “big picture.” As it turns out, this second type of more abstract thinking can be helpful in motivating yourself to do stuff you might not otherwise want to do.

Some evidence for this idea comes from a recently published paper titled Using Abstractness to Confront Challenges. In their study, the authors of the paper found that when people were prompted to think in more abstract terms, they were more likely to take on difficult tasks.

Along the same lines, the researchers found that people who were naturally inclined to think in more abstract terms also had a tendency to engage with challenging tasks. In other words, the connection between abstract thinking and confronting challenges held when people’s natural levels of abstract thinking were considered, but encouraging people to think in more abstract terms apparently made them more likely to confront challenges.

That might seem surprising, but it fits with several previous studies on the power of abstract thinking. For example, a 2016 study found that when people are prompted to think in more abstract terms, they’re more prone to consider long-term outcomes of their actions and to make healthier dietary choices. Similarly, a 2018 study showed a link between looking at situations in more abstract terms and having higher levels of self-control.

One reason these findings might make sense is that looking at a situation in more abstract terms involves considering that situation’s effects on other aspects of our lives, and its implications over time. Rather than focusing on the details of the situation, we look at how it fits into our overarching goals, which leads to decisions that are consistent with those goals.

Take the study that looked at abstract thinking and unhealthy food, for instance. Let’s say the “situation” I’m looking at is a pint of ice cream. If I’m thinking in concrete terms, I might think about how good that ice cream will taste, and about the specific flavors of the ice cream.

But if I’m thinking in more abstract terms, I’m more likely to consider things like how eating that pint of ice cream would fit in with my long-term health goals, and whether I’d feel good about eating a pint of ice cream once I’m done. Those considerations, in turn, might give me second thoughts about consuming the pint of ice cream.

The more general point is that thinking in more abstract terms can help us weigh how a given course of action fits in with our goals, and other aspects of our lives. By zooming out from the details of a situation and thinking about how it relates to other situations, and what it will mean in the future, abstract thinking can help us act in ways that bring us closer to our goals.