How to Improve Critical Thinking (in 7 Steps)

October 22, 2020

For innovative leaders, critical thinking is at the heart of everything they do.

We’ve developed a tremendous reliance on technology to deliver data and analytics. Heck, I’m not sure I’d know how to get from home to the grocery store 3 blocks away without Google maps.

But researchers from McGill University have determined that all the help we get from our pocket-sized processes is shrinking our brains. Navigation-assisted apps like Google maps actually reduces the size of our hippocampus – the part of the brain in charge of long-term memory and spatial navigation.

All the tech we’re reliant upon is literally making us lose our minds.

Better thinking = better decision making

In 2020, critical thinking was ranked as the second top skill (following complex problem solving) by the World Economic Forum.

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or believe. It’s thinking about thinking.

It’s the one skill that applies across every industry, every business size and every level of seniority. Since our future actually does depend on technology, and how we develop and use it. Plus, if we’re going to effectively express ourselves and our ideas, we need to know how to think clearly and systematically.

While it’s one of the most in-demand skills in the world, all of our reliance on technology has caused people’s critical-thinking muscles to atrophy. And now we’re suffering the results.

We’re hands-down in the toughest time we’ve seen in our lifetimes because of the intersection of the challenges we’re in the midst of – economic, health, social and political. We’re never needed problems solvers in all areas of business like we need them now.

Weak critical thinking skills show themselves in various ways:
– Dangerous and costly errors
– Repeated mistakes
– Bad decisions
– Inaction when you need action most
– Inaccurate assumptions or assessments
– Lack of confidence and poor moral

However, atrophied critical thinking skills keep us from doing the very things we need to the most. Weakness in this skill results in a loss of personal opportunities, team performance and organizational contribution to an industry or the world at large. It stymies relationships and hurts financial performance. To do more than dog paddle your way out of the current crisis (and, ideally, avoid the next one), you need to redevelop the neural plasticity that critical thinking requires.

Teach yourself critical thinking

Improving your personal effectiveness and that of your team means understanding the characteristics of effective thinkers. Next, use them every single day. The only way to because an effective critical thinker is to practice thinking. Here are seven steps you can take:

1. Identify

What are your goals? Critical thinking starts by defining your goals, and knowing what you are ultimately trying to achieve. Knowing what you want to achieve is the first step in figuring out how to get there.

2. Infer

Being able to draw conclusions based on what you know is an important part of critical thinking. Information doesn’t always come with an overview that tell you what it means. Often you’ll need to take the raw data and think about potential outcomes. Do know that not everything you infer will be right. But getting experience in what works and what doesn’t is part of developing a more sophisticated process of critical thinking.

3. Determine relevance

One of the hardest parts of thinking critically in any situation is figuring out what information matters the most. Understanding what’s relevant then tells you what to pay attention to. Certain sources of information will outweigh others. Learning to discern and prioritize what’s before lets you then dig deeper into the decision at hand. Less clutter means better decisions.

4. Become curious

Look at the situation from all sides. There’s never just one simple answer, and nothing is ever black or white. Explore all options and exhaust all you can think of before you come to any conclusions.

5. Develop self awareness

Pay attention to your habit of immediately jumping to a particular type of thought. What’s your experience been that makes you do that? Self-reflection leads to awareness. Understanding how you think and why you think the way that you do leads you down a path to (positive) self criticism.

6. Think in reverse

I like to start with the statement, “Let’s pretend…” for a couple of reasons. First, it puts everyone in the “I’m a kid” frame of mind and people go back to those unstructured days of thinking. Second is you can take anyone to a particular time and place and start from there. When you tell yourself (or a team), “Let’s pretend…” and fill in the blank with what you want to think about for a time down the road, the imagine the final destination and can reverse engineer what happened to get there. It’s then easier to think about different possible scenarios now that can lead to a variety of outcomes later.

7. Practice foresight

Once you know what you’re trying to conclude, you can foresee your solution to the problem and play it out in your head from all directions. Think about both the short- and long-term consequences. Both are significant and you need to think them both through ahead of time.

You might also be interested in:
Which type of employee are you?
What is Innovation?
5 Great Lessons You Can Learn From Curiosity

Photo credit: Pexels on Pixabay

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.