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Last Updated on February 9, 2021

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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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem

How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem

Do you take long to solve career or business problems? It may be time to learn how to use the 5 Whys to make the process simpler.

Maybe you believe that you need to know 1000 techniques to solve problems faster. The truth is that there isn’t a single technique that can solve all your problems. But despite this reality, you can still solve most of your problems in an effective way.

How? By leveraging Sakichi Toyoda’s 5 Whys technique. Toyoda used this technique for the Toyota production system, but you can apply it to most of your problems[1]. So, stop trying to memorize dozens of techniques and get ready to work smarter!

What Is the 5 Whys Method?

With the 5 Whys technique, you have to ask 5 questions.

Simple, right? Whenever you’re facing a problem, ask what may have contributed to the current results. Then, continue asking 5 times, or until you reach the root cause.

The 5 Whys | Find the Root Cause of a Problem Fast

    How do you know that this technique works? Well, Toyota has successfully implemented this technique to improve their assembly line. Now imagine what it can do to help you solve common problems[2]!

    The 5 Whys process isn’t complex, but it’ll take time to get used to. If you’re like most, you tend to jump at finding solutions when solving problems. Instead, start by asking one question each time you’re facing a problem.

    It can be for anything minor such as being stuck in traffic. In this case, your first question would be why you didn’t avoid traffic. Ask a single question for all your problems, and continue adding more until you ask 5 by default.

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    Eventually, you’ll know when to ask the 5 Whys and find a root cause to most of your problems. But, you don’t always have to work alone. When you work with unfamiliar topics, work with team members to brainstorm answers.

    If you want to know how to be a great team player, check out this article.

    For example, if you’re troubleshooting a bad marketing campaign for your business, work with your marketing team to find a solution. As a business owner, you’ll wear many hats but won’t be able to find a root cause to most of your problems alone.

    How to Ask the 5 Whys Efficiently

    Before you start asking the 5 Whys, you need to prepare to get the best results. Here’s the flow process for solving a real-world problem:

    1. Get the Right Resources

    You don’t know what you don’t know. So, gather information through books and online resources before solving a problem. You’ll find yourself researching more often for topics you’re not familiar with.

    If you don’t prepare, you’ll limit yourself to an ineffective root cause.

    You can also surround yourself with people who specialize in certain areas. This way you can work together with your group to find the best root cause of a problem.

    Your goal here is to feel comfortable with the questions you’re working with. Avoid answering questions you’re unsure of because you’ll most likely end up with a bad root cause.

    2. Understand the Problem

    Before you solve any problem, it’s important to know the nature of the problem you’re solving. This will help you avoid finding an irrelevant root cause.

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    When you define the problem, you’ll also avoid confusion when working with teams. For example, when working in teams, often it’s easy to assume that everyone is working on the same problem. But this isn’t always the case and can cause teams working to solve two different problems.

    3. Ask Your First 5 Questions

    Once you’ve spent enough time preparing, ask your first question. Instead of giving quick answers, brainstorm which answers will bring the most value. Each question depends on its predecessor, so give meaningful answers.

    The rule of thumb here is to keep repeating why five times until you’ve found a potential root cause. Typically, 5 questions or less is enough to solve the most common problems, but don’t limit yourself to 5 questions if it’s genuinely necessary to ask more.

    Instead, keep asking questions until you can’t anymore.

    4. Find Your Root Cause

    The main goal for using the 5 Whys framework is to end up with a root cause for the issue you’re experiencing. You should come up with an answer that helps you understand when/why the problem occurs.

    It’s also used to address high-level issues so that you can track your progress afterward. By addressing high-level issues, you’ll solve problems quicker before addressing the root cause.

    An Example of the 5 Whys

    Learning about the 5 Whys framework is great, but having real-world examples is better. Here’s an example you can use as a template for when you’re solving real-world problems:

    Problem: Employers haven’t called me back for an interview for the past 3 months

    • Question 1: Why is my resume not getting noticed by employers?
      Because it’s too generic and not showing any special skills for the roles you’re applying to.
    • Question 2: Why is my resume too generic?
      Because I want it to appeal to many professions.
    • Question 3: Why do I want to apply to many professions?
      Because I want to increase my chances of getting hired.
    • Question4: Why would applying to several professions increase my odds at getting hired?
      Because I wouldn’t limit myself to available job openings at one specific profession.
    • Question 5: Why would I limit myself to job openings available?
      Because there is a high demand for my profession.

    In this scenario, you’d stop at question 5 because you’ve found a potential root cause.

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    Since there’s a lot of competition for your industry, your resume needs to stand out. Who do you think an employer will hire, a jack of all trades or an expert in their profession?

    Whenever you’re working with a problem, take time to brainstorm the best questions. That’s because it’ll impact the quality of the root cause you’ll end up with.

    When Do the 5 Whys Not Work?

    As you’ve seen, the 5 Whys isn’t complicated and can be used for many kinds of problems, but it takes a lot of effort to execute correctly. When done right, it can help you find the culprit to most of your common problems. The problem is that this technique isn’t suited for every situation.

    Unreplicable Results

    You won’t be able to replicate the same results. Think about it: you’re creating your own questions and answering them in a unique way. No one else would be able to replicate your results for the most part.

    This means that even two teams working in the same environment will come up with two separate answers.

    Limited by the Knowledge Available

    As mentioned before, gather enough information when solving an unknown problem. The problem is that you won’t always have the best resources available. Because of this, you’ll limit yourself to the quality of your answers.

    If you’re ever facing an unknown topic, try a different problem-solving technique.

    Focusing on a Single Root Cause

    The main goal behind using the 5 Whys is to come up with a single root cause. But all problems don’t always have a single solution. For example, a marketing campaign can have a best, good, and worst case scenario.

    These limitations don’t make the 5 Whys a bad technique to use. Instead, they let you know how to use this technique more effectively.

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    The 5 Whys works best for improving processes and solving simple problems, but it falls short when working with complex problems. That’s why you’ll need to know other alternatives.

    For example, a company’s low customer response rate may be due to several factors. In this case, you’d choose a technique that’s better suited to solve complex problems. Determine which problems you face the most to know which techniques will help you the most.

    The Bottom Line

    Imagine conquering issues most people give up on.

    People would look at you and assume that you know 1000 ways to solve a problem. The truth is that not much has changed since you’d struggled with solving problems.

    But you’re now using a proven system that’s made your life easier.

    You’re a problem-solving machine.

    If you don’t believe this can be your reality, you’re wrong. You have what it takes to solve your problems, but you’ll need to practice. Start by asking one question today as you face a problem.

    Then, keep doing the same until you’re asking several questions for each of your problems. You won’t master the 5 Whys analysis overnight, but, with enough practice, this technique will feel more natural.

    More Problem Solving Techniques

    Featured photo credit: Startaê Team via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Harvard Business Review: The Unimportance of Practically Everything
    [2] Harvard Business Review: The Five Whys for Start-Ups

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