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How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills and Think Clearer

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills and Think Clearer

Every day, we are bombarded by information. From the morning paper to news and on social media throughout the day. We might not think of it much now but, that’s an overwhelming amount of information.

And it can be dangerous in some cases. From fake news or inaccurate information, or the information heavily biased.

This, in turn, impacts you. It impacts who you vote for, what you buy and maybe how you feel. In a sense, the information we consume dictates our entire life.

As a result, critical thinking skills become our saving grace in our lives. It’s a skill that so many of us lack in our lives and yet it’s one of the most critical.

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills

First off they help with critical thinking, a skill I said that many people lack these days. Critical thinking is merely our ability to be thinking, and present evidence for our ideas.

How is this different from how we typically think?

Well, most of us tend to gravitate towards our own personal reasoning. We cling to information and ideas naturally without checking them. And of course, we develop a bias, pushing away other ideas and only accepting ideas and opinions that support our existing belief.

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To see that in motion, consider a CEO similar to the man I read about in an article published in Harvard Business Review.[1] He was very confident in himself and believed he was the market leader of a company. But eventually, he lost one of their largest clients.

How did that happen? Because the CEO was certain his clients wouldn’t leave and that leaving would be expensive. He didn’t consider the possibility they could leave.

Another way to think of critical thinking is that it’s a self-directed, self-monitored, self-disciplined, and self-corrective method of thinking.

Why this is important boils down to several reasons:

  • A universal skill – Regardless of occupation, having critical thinking skills helps. True, some jobs need it more than others but there is always a time and place to use this skill anywhere. It’s why many people value this talent regardless of field.
  • Improve language and presentation skills – Critical thinking can also determine how we best articulate and present our ideas.
  • Promote creativity – Critical thinking often demands we think creative.[2] Whether it’s finding a middle ground between ideas or presenting an idea outright, how we get there is through a creative process.
  • Improve self-reflection – If critical thinking demands self-correction, there is some level of self-reflection involved. You can’t present ideas using critical thinking skills unless you’ve spent time reflecting.
  • Solve problems before they become bigger – Critical thinking allows us to look at situations and to digest them in different ways. We can identify problems before they become larger issues.

Examples of Critical Thinking Skills

As I said, critical thinking skills aren’t restricted to specific occupations or scenarios. Examples of this way of thinking at work are:

  • A manager considers customer feedback and uses that information to create training sessions for employees in customer service.
  • A real estate agent reviews the home and surrounding area to determine how to best sell to their customers.
  • A stock investor keeps an eye on the news to determine whether to sell their shares or invest in a company.
  • An attorney reviews evidence to devise a strategy to win the case or whether this matter should be settled out of court.
  • A group of nurses analyze patients’ medical conditions to determine which order each patient should be treated.

Another great example of critical thinking is actually an exercise that you can do as well. It forms the basis of critical thinking skills.

In this example, think about something someone told you recently. Follow that up with the following questions. The questions in parentheses dive deeper:

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  • Who said it? (Someone you know? A manager? Does it matter who told you this?)
  • What did they say? (Was it a fact or opinion? Did they present all the information or did they leave something out?)
  • Where did they say it? (Public or private area?)
  • When did they say it? (Is timing important? Was it before, during, or after an important event?)
  • Why did they say it? (Did they explain their opinion? Was the goal to make someone look good or bad?)
  • How did they say it? (Recall their tonne and body language. Were they happy, indifferent or sad? Could you make out everything they said?)

This exercise is simple but it adds perspective to what critical thinking is like.

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Anyone can develop critical thinking skills, the big question is how to do it. Asking yourself questions is a good start and ensuring you dig deeper, however, consider these other techniques.

1. Ask Meaningful Questions

The questions mentioned above are solid, but you can go deeper. But before asking them, it’s key that you don’t take everything you read or hear as the absolute truth.

This sets asides biases and favouritism, and helps you to ask those important questions such as:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What are all the solutions to this problem?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?

You still have to believe in something, however by setting aside biases and ask those meaningful questions, you feel confident about your decisions.

2. Look at Motives

Information and conversations always have a motive. After all, people are the ones who control that and there is always some agenda. Yes, no one isn’t always going to tell you outright what that is, but it’s safe to think there is one, malicious or not.

But understanding others’ motives can be tricky and have several pitfalls as motives can often be conflated with personality and character, or disguised by emotions.[3]  And that’s all the more reason to evaluate information based on where it’s coming from. This should also determine how you act on it- if at all.

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3. Do the Research

Critical thinking skills demand information. And while information is overwhelming at times, it’s also the most powerful tool around. It becomes incredibly powerful when you decide to make your own decisions.

Do research when you have a problem you need to solve or have a decision to make. Google about the subject, and read books about it. Do so until you have a grasp and understanding as that’ll better prepare you for the future.

4. Never Assume You’re Right

We all love to be right and naturally, we think we’re right most of the time. And why wouldn’t we? We naturally have a bias to place ourselves in the best light possible. But while that feeling is definitely good, it’s that very feeling that can lead us down the wrong track: Why Our Minds Can’t Be Trusted And What We Can Do With It

Critical thinking demands self-reflection and self-monitoring, and sometimes, we have to accept that we’re wrong. Thinking this way allows us to embrace other perspectives. It helps us to develop empathy and understanding of parties involved.

If your form of thinking is taking someone’s thoughts and comparing them to your own, you’re not really doing much thinking. And it’s definitely not thinking critically.

5. Make It Simple

Occam’s razor[4] is a term used in the hypothesis step within the scientific community. What this theory suggests is that the hypothesis that provides the simplest explanation is likely the one that fits all the facts. It’s what we would call the most obvious explanation. And this obvious explanation is the truth until it’s proven wrong.

But the point here is that Occam’s razor is basically a theory that has a bias towards the common sense answer. However, it has other applications outside of science.

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For example, you turn on the TV and you see an ad promoting a high-priced anti-ageing cream. It’s something that many are excited for. The big hook is that this cream will make you look 10 or 20 years younger.

But you can break that down using Occam’s razor. Have you ever heard of that product before? If not, how can it be such a big hit if it’s so new? It’s also fair to say that there is a high chance that the company behind the product hired a younger model to promote this too. Meaning it’s likely the cream is bogus and over-hyped.

Final Thoughts

Developing critical thinking skills isn’t as simple as asking questions. It’s a deeper process that places a lot of weight on you. You need to develop deeper skills and to set aside your own thoughts and opinions.

However, by doing this, you are opening the door to a lot of self-growth and fulfilment. After all, so many people are looking for people who can think for themselves and to think in more creative and critical ways.

More About Thinking Smarter

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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