Fast thinking is important, but sheer processing speed is often less valuable than accuracy. Learn 14 ways to help you think faster and more efficiently.
Do you often think of the perfect snappy comeback … after it’s too late?
Does it take you longer than your colleagues to get your work done?
Do you feel it takes you longer than it should to learn new information or read a book?
Are you the last one in your class to finish an exam?
If so, you’ll be interested to know that you can learn how to think faster and better.
Benefits of Fast Thinking
Most people associate fast thinking with higher intelligence.
This is not necessarily true, but there are still many reasons why thinking faster can be desirable.
Faster thinking can help you in many aspects of life:
- When people are required to think quickly, they report feeling happier, more energetic, more creative, and more self-confident. (1)
- Faster thinking can enhance skills critical to success such as planning, goal setting, problem solving, and the ability to stay focused on tasks. (2)
- When you know you can think fast on your feet, it can make you more comfortable socially, when speaking with customers or clients, or when giving presentations at work.
- Additionally, research confirms that people who think fast are seen by others as more charismatic. (3)
- Fast thinking can make you a more efficient student who blasts through homework and exams faster.
- If you play sports, faster reaction times can lead to better athletic performance.
- Fast thinking can make you a safer driver.
- Developing faster thinking can help you stay mentally sharp as you age.
Some Reasons Your Thinking Isn’t as Fast as You’d Like
If your thinking isn’t as fast as you’d like, or as fast as it used to be, it may be due to a variety of health and lifestyle factors.
Health and Lifestyle Factors
Diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and other vascular risk factors can starve the brain of oxygen and glucose, resulting in slower thinking. (4)
It’s also a common symptom of depression. (7)
Many Prescription Medications Can Slow Thinking
Anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants can impact your ability to think quickly.
One class of drugs known as anticholinergics blocks the activity of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning.
Anticholinergic medications cause brain activity to slow down, leading to memory loss and mental confusion.
A good clue that a medication is anticholinergic is in its name.
Most anticholinergic drugs start with “anti,” such as antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antibiotics, antispasmodics, and antihypertensives.
If you suspect that any of your medications are affecting your thinking, here’s a list of anticholinergic medications to check.
Age and Genes Can Be Factors
Your thinking speed may also be a factor of your age.
Thinking is slower in childhood, then ramps up during the teens and young adulthood, stabilizes during middle age, and ultimately declines during the senior years.
A clinical study on twins found that genes play a large role in mental processing speed as well. (8)
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Fast Thinking vs Efficient, Accurate Thinking
Your ability to think fast depends on your brain’s processing speed.
Processing speed is defined as the time it takes your brain to take in new information, reach some judgment on it, and then formulate a response.
This input can be visual, auditory, or from any of your other senses.
For most people, the efficiency and accuracy of thought, rather than speed, are the limiting factors.
Gary L. Wenk, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience, is a leading authority on the consequences of chronic inflammation on the brain.
In Psychology Today, Dr. Wenk writes:
“Your brain is probably already functioning almost as fast as is safe. Most of us can push the processing speed a little without risk. Unfortunately, the neural processing speed in our brains is already just a few extra action potentials per second away from a full-blown seizure.” (9)
So, perhaps the more important goal is to learn how to think more efficiently and accurately, rather than simply faster.
There’s always a push-pull between speed and accuracy that psychologists call the “speed-accuracy trade-off.”
This is good news if you are not naturally blessed with fast thinking.
Your thinking, which may feel slow, may be, in fact, more efficient or more accurate, which is often more important.
Thinking fast isn’t very helpful if you aren’t thinking clearly, accurately, or logically.
Additionally, there’s a potential downside to being a fast thinker.
Fast thinkers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than those who think more deliberately and slowly. (10)
14 Ways to Faster, More Efficient Thinking
So, thinking speed isn’t the only factor that determines your quality of thought.
Here are some of the best ways you can make your thinking not just faster, but also more efficient and accurate as well.
1. Make Minor, Unimportant Decisions Fast
The next time you go out to eat, challenge yourself to choose your meal in a minute or less.
Don’t worry if you don’t choose wisely since the consequences are small.
When you really want to make a decision fast, flip a coin. (11)
You may find yourself inwardly hoping for one outcome over another which will help you know what you really want.
(This is not recommended for important life-altering decisions!)
2. Practice Doing Things You Are Good At, Faster
If you play music, learn songs with a faster tempo.
If you do puzzles (like crossword or Sudoku) or play games like chess, set a timer to force yourself to work faster.
See how fast you can do a simple chore like cleaning your desk or preparing a meal.
Don’t try this with something you are just learning, as you’ll only get frustrated.
3. Stop Trying to Multitask
I say stop trying because, in fact, you don’t actually multitask.
Your brain can’t focus on two tasks at once and, instead, quickly toggles back and forth between tasks.
Get in the habit of giving one task at a time your undivided attention.
Paying attention to just one thing is key to learning and remembering.
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4. Get Plenty of Sleep
Getting adequate quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do for optimal brain function.
Lack of sleep negatively impacts both thinking speed and accuracy. (14)
Even moderate sleep loss can affect your mental performance as much as being drunk! (15)
5. Stay Cool
The latest research shows that mental processing speed goes down as the temperature goes up.
The ideal temperature for optimal thinking seems to be around 72 °F (22 °C). (16)
A regular meditation practice builds a more efficient brain by stimulating the formation of new brain cells and neural connections and by increasing brain plasticity.
Meditation strengthens communication between brain cells which, in turn, speeds up mental processing, enhances your capacity to learn, and improves your ability to concentrate. (17)
7. Play a Musical Instrument
8. Give Your Brain a Mental Workout
While any intellectually challenging endeavor can help you stay mentally sharp, there’s evidence that the right kind of brain training program can specifically help you think faster.
The IMPACT study, led by scientists from Mayo Clinic and the University of Southern California, found that BrainHQ’s original brain training program increased auditory processing by 131%. (21)
Posit Science has published over 20 scientific papers showing that their BrainHQ exercises result in faster processing speed. (22)
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9. Be Socially Active
Communicating via your electronic devices gives you time to ruminate over conversations.
Engaging with others face-to-face, rather than digitally, will force you to converse in real time, making you think faster.
10. Get Regular Aerobic Exercise
One huge study on over 1 million men found that exercise can actually raise IQ. (26)
All exercise is good for your brain, but aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, swimming, or biking specifically improve processing speed. (27)
11. Increase Your Dopamine Level
If you feel mentally sluggish, you may be low in the brain chemical dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of motivation, productivity, and attention.
12. Chew Gum
The simple act of chewing gum improves mental accuracy, reaction times, and the ability to focus.
It’s believed to work by increasing oxygen levels in regions of the brain responsible for attention. (30)
13. Get Your Hearing and Eyesight Checked
Most information enters the brain via your eyes and ears.
So either hearing loss or vision problems can significantly impair your ability to process information quickly.
14. Take the Mensa Workout
While taking tests isn’t most people’s idea of fun, an interesting way to challenge your brain speed is by taking a timed intelligence test like the Mensa Workout.
Mensa is a worldwide organization for people with above-average intelligence.
You must score in the top 2% on an approved IQ test to join.
But anyone can exercise their brain with their free Mensa Workout.
Take this 30-question test when you have a bit of uninterrupted time since it has a 30-minute time limit.
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16 Supplements That Promote Faster Thinking
Another way to promote faster thinking is to take certain nutritional supplements.
Here’s a look at those that have been shown to improve processing speed, processing accuracy, or both, thus promoting faster, more efficient thinking.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) is an amino acid that’s the precursor of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter of memory and learning.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is a traditional brain tonic noted for reducing stress and anxiety, boosting mental energy and clarity, and protecting the brain from aging.
Research on Bacognize, a patented brand of bacopa, has found it to be beneficial for processing speed, focus, short-term memory, and mood.
3. Black Cumin
Black cumin (Nigella sativa) is a culinary spice used in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking.
When taken as an herbal remedy, it exhibits modest benefits for increasing processing speed. (33)
4. Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements contain a mix of amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) usually taken to increase muscle mass.
But a little-known benefit is that they can also increase mental accuracy. (34)
Caffeine is the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance.
If you use caffeine, be mindful that too much can be counterproductive since it can increase stress, anxiety, and insomnia.
All these conditions can impair your ability to think clearly.
Citicoline is a naturally occurring fat that increases mental energy and protects the brain from damage, toxins, and aging.
Citicoline supplements can increase processing speed, working memory, verbal learning, and verbal memory. (37)
7. Fish Oil
Fish oil is usually taken for heart health, but it is equally important for brain health and function.
Fish oil can improve mood, memory, and processing accuracy. (38)
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is one of the most popular herbal remedies in the world. (39)
It has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine as a brain tonic.
It enhances both processing speed and accuracy.
9. Lions’ Mane
Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus) is both a culinary mushroom and a brain supplement.
10. Lutein and Zeaxanthin
Lutein and zeaxanthin are antioxidants found in the eye that promote visual processing speed, an important component in visual learning. (42)
Phosphatidylserine (PS) is a fat-soluble amino acid found in high concentrations in the brain.
It is an integral part of healthy brain cell membranes.
PS normalizes levels of important neurotransmitters and stress hormones and can increase both processing speed and accuracy. (43)
Phosphatidylserine works synergistically with ginkgo, so this is a good combination to take together. (44)
12. Rhodiola Rosea
Rhodiola rosea is a traditional herb used to increase physical stamina, mental vitality, and longevity.
It’s considered an adaptogen, a substance that increases tolerance to both psychological and physiological stress.
Research shows that it improves processing accuracy, attention, and reaction time. (45)
Vinpocetine is a synthetic version of vincamine, a naturally occurring compound found in the periwinkle plant (Vinca minor).
It increases both processing speed and accuracy. (46)
14. Vitamin D
Low levels of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, have been linked to slower thinking and poorer cognitive function, particularly in seniors. (50)
Since few of us get adequate sun exposure, almost everyone can benefit from supplementation.
15. Vitamin K
It’s found mainly in green leafy and cruciferous vegetables and also in extra virgin olive oil.
NT-020 is a proprietary formulation of blueberry, carnosine, green tea, and vitamin D3.
This patented nutrient blend is a key ingredient in a few select brain supplements.
It was found to significantly increase processing speed during a 2-month trial period. (53)
Foods and Supplements That Slow Down Thinking
There are a few substances which slow down thinking that you might want to avoid.
The herbal remedy lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which is often taken for stress, anxiety, or insomnia, acts as a natural sedative and leads to a decrease in processing speed. (54)
Ironically, there’s evidence that modafinil, a favorite “smart drug” among students and biohackers, increases accuracy at the expense of processing speed. (55)
Sugar, in excessive amounts, slows down communication between brain cells. (56)
And finally, it should come as no surprise that alcohol slows your reaction time and your thinking. (57)
How Fast Is Your Thinking? Take a Mental Speed Test
If you are concerned that your slow thinking is due to a health concern or your medications, talk to your doctor.
But if you’re just curious as to how fast or slow your thinking speed is, here is a reputable place online where you can check it yourself.
Psychology Today offers a Mental Speed Test that you can take for free in just 5 minutes.
How to Think Faster and More Efficiently: Take the Next Step
Developing faster thinking can benefit your life in many ways, both personally and professionally.
Fast thinking is important, but, in many cases, processing speed is not as valuable as accuracy.
There are plenty of techniques to help you think not just faster, but more efficiently.
Additionally, you can experiment with various combinations of supplements that promote faster thinking by helping your brain work better.