By Robin Brodrick
Learning how to be a critical thinker is like learning how to do a split - it takes time and practice. Start by devoting 20 minutes each day to practice the exercises in this post, and you'll be well on your way to becoming an effective and efficient critical thinker.
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is the practice of impartially examining a problem or scenario by gathering information, gauging both the real and hypothetical aspects of the situation, identifying the possible courses of action, and determining the best course of action by evaluating potential consequences.
How do I get started?
Based on the definition above, it logically follows that the first step in learning to be a critical thinker is to understand how to identify a problem. Even on the best of days, there are always things that could be improved. These are the things that can be labeled as 'problems'.
If you are brand new to critical thinking then the first problem to tackle might be that you are unaware of important problems in your thinking. If you are already aware of the holes in your logic, then the Foundation for Critical Thinking suggests that you ask yourself questions like:
- When did I do my worst thinking today?
- If I had to repeat today what would I do differently and why?
- Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals?
- If I spent every day this way for the next ten years, would I have accomplished something worthy of that time?
If you have trouble coming up with a current problem, try identifying a previous experience that was emotionally significant to you.
Whatever problem you choose to think about that day, write it down in a critical thinking journal.
Step Two: Gather information & gauge both the real and hypothetical aspects of the situation
The successful completion of this step will vary depending on the problem. If the problem is the way you reacted to a situation at work or with a family member then you can write down what thoughts you had and what actions you took in response to the situation. If the problem is that a competitor is poaching top talent from your company then you should find out what employees feel is better about your competitor. You can do this by conducting exit interviews, doing benchmark research, and reading company reviews ad salary levels on websites like Glassdoor.com.
Step 3: Identify the possible courses of action & determine the best course of action
If the problem you are working on occurred in the past, then analyze what the possible courses of action could have been. If you are working on a current problem, then analyze the current possible courses of action. For this step, Holly Green of Forbes suggests that you utilize other types of leadership-style thinking, such as:
- Conceptual thinking: Identifying patterns or connections between abstract ideas and putting them together to form a complete picture
- Innovative thinking: Coming up with new approaches to old problems
- Intuitive thinking: Factoring in things that you sense or perceive as true, but have no concrete evidence to support
Take the prior example of a competitor recruiting your employees. Possible courses of action may be increasing salaries or bonuses, changing the benefits offered, adding or taking away policies that effect company culture (such as a work from home policy or flexible work hours), or implementing a non-compete agreement that would prevent employees from going to a competitor within a certain time-frame of leaving your company.
When identifying courses of action, be sure to look at the situation from many different perspectives. First, put yourself in the shoes of the CEO, CFO, and the Director of HR. Next, put yourself in the shoes of the employees who are leaving. Last, look at it from the viewpoint of your competitor and from the viewpoint of a leading company outside of your industry.
When deciding on the best course of action, you should also look at the outcomes from many different perspectives. Don't forget to be honest with yourself about how much money, time, and influence you have to devote to the solution.
What if the problem is outside of my control?
If you determine that the problem or situation is outside of your control then just put it aside and start over again by identifying a new situation that is in your control. Being able to acknowledge that a situation is outside of your control and moving on from it is a key attribute of critical thinkers. Spending time worrying about things outside of your control is considered a waste of time by critical thinkers.
What if I get stuck?
Don't worry! Even the best critical thinkers get stuck from time to time. Take a break with something active or relaxing. Avoid things like watching television. Instead, try taking a nap, going for a walk or a run, taking a bath or a shower, or playing a strategic video game. That's right, a 2010 study in Current Biology revealed that action and strategy video games (like first-person shooter games) help improve a person's decision making skills. You could also try brainstorming with a friend.