Photo: Jose Aljovin (Unsplash)

14 Mental Models to Help You (And Me) Think Clearly, Rationally, and Effectively

Brian McFadden
Oct 18, 2017 · 10 min read

Here’s some good news: You can train your brain to think faster and work smarter.

I first became curious about mental models while watching Gray’s Anatomy with my wife one day. In this particular episode, the resident surgeon made a call to treat a patient with a certain method that he was familiar with. It turned out the decision was inaccurate given the situation. A more appropriate procedure existed, however, this resident had fallen victim to what the availability bias. The availability bias is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate, stored examples in the person’s mind when evaluating a situation, concept, method or decision.

This spurred my interest in decision making and lead me to explore mental models.

A mental model provides a framework for us to check a concept, framework, decision, method, or worldview to help us interpret and understand the relationship between things. Mental models support clear, objective thinking to aid in the likelihood of success. And more importantly, mental models support less irrationality.

In the landscape of modern life, there is no shortage of inputs. On the regular, we are bombarded with new information, presented with new situations and swarmed with varying scenarios that all need decisions.

This is the question I wanted to answer: How do rational high performers maintain such constant decision-making capacity?

They do it by storing away a list of fundamental and essential frameworks that can be used in evaluating every decision across a wide spectrum of scenarios. Instead of thinking on the fly, they use mental models to analyze each input that comes in. In other words, they have mastered the art of thinking for themselves.

The concept of building a “latticework” of mental models was popularized by Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the finest thinkers in the world. But, compiling a library of mental models is not reserved for high-level executives and CEO’s. Approaching life with a set of sturdy mental models is an approach we can all enjoy.

Myself as an example:

I’m transitioning into a long-term contracted position. I’m going to be managing a small team. This team has operated with little variance over the years and have become comfortable in their methods — regardless of how effective or ineffective these practices have become. Also, the culture of this organization is foreign to me and at times, communication barriers are prevalent.

This is why having a set of mental models is going to be important in my performance. With the pre-existing layers of complexity, mental models will help me think clearly, rationally and effectively.

I’ve discovered that the best mental models are the ones with the most utility that can also be used in our day-to-day lives. That being said, this isn’t a conclusive list of mental models but instead an entry point to better decision making in an organizational environment.

What follows are simply the 14 mental models I plan to internalize and use in my new position moving forward.

If you’re in any type of management position, grabbing these concepts can also help you navigate decisions and essentially make wiser choices.

1. Disconfirming Evidence

When organizations or individuals become comfortable in their ways, they become blind to new information that might conflict with their ingrained habits. Failing to evaluate an unbiased posture can lead to irrationality. Disconfirming evidence states that we ignore any inputs that contradict our existing views.

An organization that has done things the same way for a long time is breeding ground for disconfirming evidence. But as writer Aldous Huxley penned, “Facts do not exist because they are ignored.”

2. CRM (crew resource management)

The CRM mental model is influenced by the airline industry. Years ago, the captain was king. His orders were never questioned and the entire crew submitted to his authority even in the face of misjudgment.

Modern-day airline protocol has changed. Today, airline institution have employed crew resource management which encourages copilots and crews to discuss any challenges or issues openly and quickly.

CRM is defined as a system which utilizes resources to promote safety and effectiveness within the workplace.

By promoting a CRM culture, it gives permission for anyone to speak up when “authorities” might be acting in misjudgment and question them respectfully. The CRM framework can also help everyone on the team recognize the gap between what is happening and what should be happening to spot any errors quickly so they can be addressed.

3. Forcing Function

A forcing function is any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result.

One of the most effective forcing functions I have come across is the ruthless follow up. When you want something done, follow up until it gets done.

I adopted this concept from Scott Belksy, author of Making Ideas Happen. Scott highlights the simple strategy of a sales rep who followed up with people until he got an answer.

As Scott pointed out in the book, “This man had no MBA, no souped-up technological solutions, and no magical powers. [He] has perseverance and a simple conviction that he adheres to with an almost religious fervor: he follows up like crazy.”

It’s simple but effective.

4. Law of Triviality

Focusing our best energies on the things with the least impact is an obvious misjudgment. However, when an organization or individual does not get objective feedback from someone who doesn’t incur organizational debt, it’s easy to fall for the law of triviality.

As the “new-guy” I’ll have a fresh on eye where our energies are being invested and by analyzing everything by the law of triviality I’ll be able to make clear decisions on how we should best use our resources.

5. 1:1's

A 1–1 is a dedicated space on the calendar and in your mental map for open-ended and anticipated conversation between a manager and an employee. Unlike status reports or tactical meetings, the 1–1 meeting is a place for coaching, mentorship, giving context, or even venting.

I made it a point to have 1 on 1’s in my first week to establish the fact that I want to help the team thrive and in order to do that I needed to learn a lot about my team and the organization. I figured there’s nobody else who knows the ins-and-outs of this organization better than its people.

6. Scenario Analysis

I got brought on to move the organization forward and trailblaze a new path. To do so, I need to propose a scenario analysis: “a process of analyzing possible future events by considering alternative possible outcomes.”

This mental model suggests that presenting multiple future outcomes — both from a pessimistic lens and from the rose tented optimistic glasses. The goal here is to not become attached to a possible outcome based on any emotion. It also lends to contingent planning reducing the amount of anxiety if a given situation does transpire.

7. Get 100 People to Love You

The Get 100 People to Love You mental model pivots the mindset from quantity to quality of clients, supporters and fans. This concept was coined by investor Paul Graham, but I came across it by the co-founder of Airbnb, Brian Chesky.

Getting 100 people to love your product or service is better than having a million people kind of like you.

This mental model suggests that we think small to go deep. With the lean team that I am working with, this feels more manageable and authentic. It gives us hope that depth and impact are realistic.

8. Herd Instinct

The herd instinct is a mentality characterized by a lack of individual decision-making or thoughtfulness, causing people to think and act in the same way as the majority of those around them.

Herd instinct can influence flat, vertical thinking that can cause a rut. It’s easy to see why this happens: We as humans want to belong. Therefore, we join in the activity of what other people are doing.

When innovation is needed, the herd instinct is often the bottleneck. As a new executive, manager or employee you have a unique opportunity to analyze what’s going without the “herd” influencing your behavior. This pocket of time is vital. Use it wisely.

*Related: Social Loafing


When running a business or managing people, there will always be conflict. This is where BATNA saves the day.

BATNA stands for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).

When things come to a standstill between two parties, someone has to propose an alternative course for each party if an agreement cannot be reached.

BATNA offers the next best option for each parry if the ideal outcome cannot be agreed upon.

10. Framing

When communication barriers are present, framing is a vital tool. By using the same information being used as the foundation, the “frame” around the topic can change the reader’s (or receiving parties) perception without having to alter the facts.

Framing is a tool that can be used to reduce the ambiguity of intangible topics by contextualizing the information in such a way that the recipient can connect to what they already know.

11. Paradox of Choice

Our organization relies on raising funds to cover its operating costs. One of my first discoveries was that it was too confusing for the public to understand how they could donate money or get involved with our organization. There were too many decisions, and thus, it’s my belief engagement has been historically low.

By leveraging the paradox of choice, I’m proposing that we eliminate as many choices as possible to reduce the anxiety for possible donors.

*Related: Hick’s Law states that with an increasingly higher number of choices, the longer it takes a consumer to decide.

*Recommend reading: Paradox of Choice by Barry Shwartz

12. Coda (a.k.a Call to Action)

As humans, we are trained to expect endings. Think about it. When you go to see a movie, you expect it to end. When you go do a workout, you expect it to end. When you read a book, you expect it to end. When you read an article, you expect it to end.

In the music world, there’s a term for this: Coda.

It’s a term that is used to identify a passage in a piece that brings everything to an end.

Well, in marketing, the concept is used all the time and instead of calling it a Coda, the industry phrase is better known as a “call to action.”

I see the Coda conditioning of our minds as a way to leverage influence. In most positions today — whether it be online or offline — a Coda or call to action is expected from the receiving party (whether they know it or not).

When Coda’s are not used in the story or brand, people become confused and wonder what they should do next. (Often, it’s nothing. Which isn’t what you want if you’re in marketing).

13. Creator vs. Reactor Schedule

Juggling tasks and responsibilities is not a new thing. The landscape of work influences that we are competent in more than one area. Therefore, managing our energy becomes vital or else we fall victim to a reactors schedule.

A creator schedule demands solitude and divergent thinking. A reactors schedule depends on inputs to manage situations.

Both schedules are needed . However, one usually gets more energy. With the increasingly higher amount of inputs that come at us each day, we usually give more energy to the reactors schedule — simply reacting to whatever situation is thrown at us.

Yet, high performers embed a creators schedule into their routines. It’s during these times they are working on the business, organization, or craft to move things forward rather than putting out fires all day long.

*Recommended reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport.

14. 99/50/1

I came across this framework from Brennan McEachran from SoapBox and Robleh Jama from Shopify. This mental model can be used to manage things in a chaotic environment. The 99/50/1 model works like this:

Check in at the beginning of the project, when there’s still 99% of the work left to be done. At this stage, high-level strategy is discussed and ironed out.

Check in at the halfway point, where there’s around 50% of the work left. At this stage, we analyze progress and course correct where necessary.

Check in just before the finish line, where there’s 1% left to complete. This is where we make the final push and complete the project.

Now you’re equipped with 14 useful mental models that will help you think clearly, rationally and effectively. Remember, these frameworks are designed to help you think faster and work smarter. Don’t delay on employing them or else you’ll run the risk of missing the opportunity to create a remarkably accurate picture of your work.

Brian McFadden

Written by

Made in 85. I write about self-discovery & personal effectiveness using both sides of my brain. My work:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade