What Is a Mental Model?

08.03.2019 |

Episode #1 of the course Mental models: How to make better decisions by John Robin


Welcome to the start of our course on mental models.

My name is John Robin. I’m an author and entrepreneur, and I’ve also written several Highbrow courses on writing, math, science, and productivity, including my most recent, “Productivity Hacks: Lessons from Top Leaders and Billionaires.” I enjoy using my skill as an author to teach others about interesting topics, and I decided this time to go right to the core: decision making itself.

Today, we’re going to learn what mental models are and how they are the heart of decision making.


How You Think About the World Determines What You Become

What is a mental model?

Simply put, a mental model is a way of thinking about the world or a particular concept.

Here’s an example.

The key to a good day for me is a solid morning routine. A morning routine is a structured block of time where I do the same thing every morning, and doing this helps me get into the day. I can experiment and improve my routine, but I always follow it, as much as possible. When I do this, I get my brain working, and I go into the day ready to tackle whatever I have to.

This is a mental model. In this case, it’s a mental model of what a fixed morning routine is, how it works, and what it does (and why I should use it).

It might seem obvious and convincing, but hold on!

Here’s another mental model with the same setting:

Every morning, I get out of bed and do something different. Diversity is the key to making sure every day is interesting. I don’t always drink my coffee at the same time. I don’t take the same amount of time to get ready. Some mornings, I’ll go for a walk around the block right after dressing. The other morning, I decided to take a cold shower. Every day, different. This keeps me from getting bored.

What a different way of looking at how to start your day! Did you notice how it sounds just as obvious and convincing as the previous one?

This is the first thing to learn about mental models: How you learn to think about your world determines what you become. Some are better than others, but which are best?

Actually, none of them are perfect! This means your best bet is to try out several and test the results, refining over time (more about this tomorrow).

Let’s look at this one:

The morning is not the time to figure out the day. I get up whenever I want. The night is what matters to me. I work late and go to bed when the artistic energy is gone. I sleep until my body is done. The day passes how it passes. For me, really, it’s about getting ready for the next night at the studio. That’s when the creativity is flowing. That’s really when my day starts.

Wow! Three completely different ways to look at the world and three different people you could become from each. Notice how this third mental model is all about there being no such thing as the morning as the start of a day. It’s a complete shift in how one thinks about waking up, what sleep means, and what starting/stopping means on a day-to-day basis.

In all three cases, the mental models reflect a specific decision: What’s the key to a perfect morning?

You can sit and analyze and try to come up with the perfect morning, but the only way you’ll actually know how a mental model works is to try it out. In fact, as you’re reading this course right now, your whole day is full of mental models, not just on how to spend your day but also how to understand the world, your life, and other people.

Every choice you make is based on the mental models that govern how you think about the world.



A mental model is a way of thinking about how the world works. The most relevant models are the ones we use to think about how we should live our lives.

Here’s your homework to get the most out of today’s lesson:

Step 1: Write out how you approach your morning. What is your mental model? What purpose does it serve?

Step 2: Now, brainstorm three different mental models. They should all sound convincing to you, even if they are a bit radical. (Don’t be afraid of a cold shower! It might just be the thing you need to discover the newer, better you.)

Tomorrow, we’re going to explore the mother of all mental models: the scientific method.


Recommended book

Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear


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