“Let’s get more work done,” was the mantra I followed until a few years ago. I spent all my time completing one task after another.
Today, I have changed my approach completely. I spend a small portion of my time thinking.
“What difference does that make?” you ask. The answer is – a whole lot. A few minutes of deliberate thought has made my work more meaningful and focused. It has helped me complete tasks that add value and serve a bigger purpose.
Critical thinking is one of the most underused skills among human beings. Most people underestimate their thinking ability and take it for granted. I did too. You’ll even have myriad reasons to justify that assumption, like “I can’t think like successful people do”, “I don’t have exceptionally high IQ”, “All my time goes on work.”
Whatever your reason is, you can learn how to improve your critical thinking skills to make a difference in your goals and self-improvement. Also, you don’t have to beat the smartest people at the thinking game. If you make the best use of your thinking prowess, you’ll reap the rewards.
- The importance of critical thinking skills
- Different models of thinking
- How to improve your critical thinking skills
The importance of critical thinking skills
Let’s begin with what critical thinking is in the first place. If you look up on the internet you’ll find sophisticated definitions that add more confusion than clarity.
In simple real life, critical thinking is using your knowledge, experience, and thoughts to make the best possible decision. It also includes learning from your past experiences to improve yourself, avoid mistakes, and make better choices in the future.
When you do not spend time thinking, you will find yourself pondering over things forever or making decisions on impulse.
In my case, I had an itch to get things done. I never paused to analyze if the task helped me achieve my goals or not. As per the Eisenhower matrix, the areas which were less urgent but important never got my attention.
When I set aside time to think I noticed the difference. I turned more conscious, self-aware, and thoughtful about where I spent my time and energy. I taught myself to prioritize the right tasks and say no to the fruitless jobs.
Different models of thinking
You cannot change into a critical thinker overnight. You’ll need practice to make critical thinking a part of your regular decision making and learning process. Until it becomes second nature, you’ll have to put in deliberate time and effort to sharpen the skill.
You can choose among 3 different methods of deliberate thinking.
1. Setting aside time every day:
One of the easiest methods to prompt your brain to think is to keep aside time every day. I follow the same method due to its simplicity and flexibility. If I get caught up with work, I can find a more convenient time later in the day. On super busy days, I use my breakfast or lunchtime for thinking.
Most people have no trouble accommodating 15 min on their weekdays for thinking. If you cannot even spare 15 min, that’s a compelling reason in itself to set aside time to pause and analyze.
Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn spends 90 minutes to 2 hours of uninterrupted time each day to think. He developed this habit when he realized he was entangled in a schedule so busy that he had no time to process what was going on around him.
While you don’t have to keep aside a few hours each day, 15 minutes will give you a good headstart.
2. A few hours once a week
A few people I know have a habit of setting aside an entire day(or half a day) a week for thinking alone. Such an approach suits people who like to think in a flow for hours instead of spending small chunks every day.
Writers and artists follow the interrupted model of continuous thinking. That said, you can use the method irrespective of your profession if you believe it works for you. But, setting aside continuous hours or an entire day a week isn’t feasible for everyone.
3. A few days off every few months
A harder but powerful way to clear your mind and focus is to take a few days off to explicitly think. Bill Gates was among the most notable people who followed such a methodology. He would take a week off, twice every year, and isolate himself from family, friends, and coworkers.
He spent the time in a cabin in the woods, reading, analyzing, and thinking. While he was away from the rest of the world, a cook brought him 2 meals a day.
Not every one of us has the privilege to lock ourselves amidst nature with a private chef. But, you can find a budget hotel to spend time by yourself if you want to. The practice helps you pause, slow down, and focus on the right things.
Many authors, actors, and musicians also isolate themselves for weeks or months until they finish what they intended to. A writer wraps his head around the first draft of a book, an actor gets into the character for a movie and a musician comes up with the songs for a new album.
One such example is Heath Ledger who locked himself in a room for a month before he played the iconic Joker in the Dark Knight.
How to improve your critical thinking skills
You can choose any of the above three methods based on your personality, circumstances, and thought process. What’s more important is how you spend the time you’ve set aside for thinking. Though a blueprint for successful thinking does not exist, here are a few ways to make the best use of the time.
1. Think of an improvement
Take any major area of your life you’re focusing on at the moment. You might want to skyrocket your career growth at work, improve the relationship with your partner, grow your business, or start a healthy lifestyle.
Take the time to think of an improvement that will take you one step closer to your goal. Do not focus only on massive game-changing ideas. Minor improvements tally up to exponential returns in the long run.
For example, if you’re thinking how to earn a promotion at your job, do not only focus on executing a gigantic project. Think how can you draft better emails and build better rapport. They might seem like tiny improvements, but when you implement many such changes day in and day out the results out shadow a single major idea.
2. Analyze failures and mistakes
Recall any mistake or failure and analyze what went wrong. Use your judgment to decide how to avoid a similar error the next time.
Your mistakes do not have to be as massive as the one which leaves you bankrupt or end your relationship with your partner. Ask yourself the reason behind simpler missteps like uttering the wrong words, gobbling unnecessary calories, or missing a deadline.
The petty mistakes have petty reasons which are easier to correct. In the long run, the compound effect of avoiding such errors pays handsome rewards. The technique applies to students, working professionals, entrepreneurs and in personal life alike.
It is easier to avoid stupidity than seek brilliance.Charlie Munger
3. Consider the pros and cons
Not every decision is straightforward. At times, you’re confused if you’re making the right choice or not. In such cases, list out all the pros and cons of each option that you can think of.
For the method to work, you have to jot down all the positives and negatives with utmost honesty without favoring one choice discreetly. Make sure you’re not under the influence of confirmation bias where the process turns into a sophisticated method of deceiving yourself.
Once you have the list of pros and cons, reconsider your choice. The right decision isn’t choosing the option with the longest set of positives and the least number of negatives. One single advantage or disadvantage can sway the judgment in any direction.
“Why list the pros and cons if one pointer can change the decision altogether?” you ask. That’s because when you have all the positives and negatives noted down, you’ll know what your opportunities, risks, and consequences are.
4. Use mindmaps
One of my favorite activities during my thinking time is creating mindmaps. They’re best suited when you’re in an early stage of an idea.
By using mindmaps, you can expand from a central theme and let your thoughts run wild. Do not worry about following the traditional rules used to create them. Mindmaps work best when you apply commonsense and capture ideas in a format that makes sense to you.
If you have never created a mindmap before, here is the process to create one. As a quick example, let’s say you have set yourself a target of losing weight.
To begin, you start with the central block, ‘I need to lose weight.’ For the first level of branching, you choose different ways you can achieve that goal. For example:
- Start working out
- Cut junk food
- Play a sport
You can further break down those areas into different ways of working out, a dieting schedule, and the different outdoor games you can engage in.
5. Consider tried and tested method vs out of the box solutions
When you have an idea in mind, you’ll have to think of a method to execute it. When you have more than one method to implement a task, consider which path will you choose. Each choice has its advantages and disadvantages.
For example, consider the goal of starting a business. You can choose any of the two routes:
Tried and tested:
In such businesses, you follow a conventional method which has worked before instead of building a new idea. For example, starting a restaurant business involves a standard procedure of chefs, inventory, storage, billing, and service.
The advantage of a known approach is you know what pitfalls to avoid. You’ll also have references and benchmarks from other people who delved into the same concept.
But, a tried and tested method isn’t a guaranteed recipe for triumph. Besides, because the method is well known, you’ll face competition. Also, old techniques fade out for different reasons, and replicating success isn’t an easy feat.
Thinking out of the box:
You can achieve the same goal by starting a disruptive business that the world has never seen before. For example, when Uber or Twitter first entered the market, nobody had heard about a similar idea.
A brand new product adds oomph and an element of surprise. Also, the first person to enter the market gains a slight edge over the competitors that follow.
But such shiny ideas come with challenges of their own. The most prominent problem is the uncertainty around it and the time required for growth. A few businesses work like a charm while the rest fade into darkness.
These two approaches do not only apply while starting a business. You can choose between the two methods when you’re planning a vacation(commercial spot or unknown place), picking a career(software or beatboxing), or impressing your crush(sunflowers or roses). In fact, you already do that subconsciously.
When you’re applying your critical thinking skills, decide which approach do you want to follow. The out of the box approach seems captivating in most cases, but you must apply your judgment to pick the most rational choice.
6. Consider risk and reward
When you’re making a decision, measure the risk against the reward to determine if you’re making the right choice.
For example, let’s say you have a net worth of 500K dollars at the moment and you want to increase that figure to 10 million dollars within the next 10 years.
You can choose various methods to achieve your target.
- You can head to the nearest casino and try your luck at the roulette table
- You can set up an illegal business of smuggling and drugs
- You can invest in high-risk stocks
- You can diversify over different businesses and investments to play a long game
As you can see, the gravity of risk in each method is significantly different. Investing in a high-risk stock or gambling at a casino can wipe out what you currently have or yield massive returns in a short time. An illegal business can make you a multi-millionaire and also throw you into prison. Diversifying the risk in different businesses takes boatloads of effort and patience.
I have provided contrasting examples to portray how risk and reward vary with each approach. Only you can decide which method works the best for the goal you’re targeting.
You can develop your own philosophy of risk-taking. For example, Donald Trump had explained his method of making a decision. He said “While taking a risk I think of what can be the worst possible outcome. If I can deal with it, I go ahead with the risk.”
While you’re thinking, decide what risk vs reward ratio are you comfortable with. How far do you want to go to achieve your goal? At what point will you call off your efforts and aim for a different target?
7. Think of new ideas
Research has time and again shown that the human brain works like a muscle. The more you put it to work, the stronger it gets.
Thinking of new ideas is one of the most interesting ways to stimulate your brain. Besides, it is also another way to sharpen your problem solving skills along with your critical thinking.
If you have no clue where to begin, start with the goal you’re trying to achieve.
Ask yourself what are the different ways to reach your target without worrying about implementation. Map your skills with the methods to find suitable tactics to accomplish your goals.
To illustrate that in practice, here is how I came up with the idea of starting Productive Club. I have a goal of running successful businesses. One of the businesses I had in mind was around blogging and self-publishing.
My skills lie in the technical knowledge of the web world and effectively managing time to get work done. So starting a blog on productivity and decision making worked as an amalgamation of my goals, skills, and knowledge.
Your goal will differ from mine. Whether you want to travel the world, win an Oscar, grow to the position of an executive at work or be the ideal parent for your children, you can think of a bazillion little ways to take a few baby steps towards your destination.
Critical thinking skills involve more common sense than exceptional talent or IQ. You do not need to learn complicated techniques to think better. You can craft the most appropriate decision-making rules for yourself using your own thinking ability.
When you approach critical thinking skills as a process to follow, you’ll steadily enhance your thought process. So, make it a practice to sharpen your brain and your mind will obey your command.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.