Sun Tzu says “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.”

Business is an intrinsically competitive sector. The ability to think strategically, to make shrewd and purposive decisions, is an invaluable skill. There’s no sure-fire method to cultivate this most prized of attributes. Yet these 5 ways have a long history of use by our greatest business leaders, athletic champions, and military tacticians.

Education 

Access to expert knowledge in any field has never been more readily accessible, from blogs and online classes to YouTube. Then of course, there are books. There are hundreds of business and self-help books published each year. From modern classics like David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, to enduring best-sellers like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Why not go old-school and see what lasting lessons the business world has found in samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings, or Chinese general Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Your rivals have read these books – it’s time to level the playing field.

Diet

As the saying goes, you are what you eat. Including certain key foods and supplements in your diet can be of benefit to your grey matter. Walnuts are not only rich in vitamins and minerals that our brain loves, but are a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Dark chocolate contains phytonutrients that impact the areas of the brain related to learning and memory. Let’s not forget the legendary productivity potion that is coffee. Scientists from the University of Arkansas published their latest findings on the effects caffeine has on cognitive ability in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Dr. Zabelina, when discussing the research, said they found that 200mg of caffeine (the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee) enhanced problem solving ability significantly.

Games

One of the oldest most tried and tested ways to cultivate the ability to think strategically and maintain focus is through playing games. Games let you experiment with different approaches to problems. In the past military commanders would learn combat tactics by playing strategic games. Practising competition in a low-risk situation is of invaluable benefit when it comes to negotiating in the boardroom. We’ve been honing these mental abilities through gaming since the dawn of history. In archaeological sites dating from 3,000 B.C. there is evidence people used to throw astragali, or the huckle-bones of sheep to play, compete, make decisions or settle disputes. Chess, known as the “royal game”, has been lauded for its ability to cultivate the virtues of patience and focus. It helps one strategize, think ahead and seize opportunities when they present themselves. Go is a similar ancient Chinese game played on a 19×19 square grid. It has been used by Buddhist monks as a training tool to cultivate a focused and still mind as they seek enlightenment.

Rest 

We know the value of a good night’s sleep; that no matter what other tricks we use, if we’re asleep at our desk we’re not going to be at the top of our game. But one area that is little discussed is the value of down-time when it comes to processing information and making new connections. Meditation and taking walks are great opportunities to reflect and learn. And why stop once you’re asleep? Geniuses such as Beethoven, Isaac Newton & Nikola Tesla credit dreams as the source of some of their greatest breakthroughs.

Goal Setting 

To approach something strategically, it pays to know what you’re aiming to accomplish. Knowing your desired outcomes means you can more effectively allocate time and resources to secure it. Being able to clearly visualise your goal, a technique used by many champion athletes, will keep you focused. Couple that with good project management and you’ll have a robust strategic overview to work from. Try out the Eisenhower Matrix, a method of time management. It sorts all your tasks in to one of four categories ranging in degree of importance and urgency. Such techniques will help focus you on the most efficient route towards achieving your goals.