8 Habits of Effective Critical Thinkers

Critical thinking is the ability to make decisions, solve problems, and take appropriate action in a systematic fashion. It has been identified as one of the key skills required for future success by educators, business leaders and governments. 97.2% of managers surveyed by the American Management Association for its 2012 Critical Skills Survey believed that critical thinking skills were important to drive future growth of their organizations. The same group, however, believed that only 10% of their employees were fully competent in critical thinking. As most of us could improve our thinking skills, here are eight simple ways to become a better critical thinker at work and in life:

  1. The five second rule.  Nope, this isn’t about the edibleness of that cookie you just dropped on the floor. We are talking about the brief pause you should take before making a decision. Some decisions require the triune or instinctive brain (“Hungry!), others the limbic or emotional brain (“That cookie would make me feel better”), and the rest the neocortex or rational brain (“That cookie fell where the wet dog was sitting and therefore should not be eaten.) By taking a brief pause of a few seconds, we allow the appropriate brain the time to function.
  1. There is no “I” in Critical Thinking. (Scratch that, there are several of them.) Thinking is, in many ways, an individual activity (“group think” and “sharing a brain” are not overly positive terms.) This does not mean that most decisions should be made in isolation however. The more people who are involved in making a decision, the more successful it tends to be. With differing points of view, you will get better ideas on the table as each person can draw from his or her experience (“My aunt once got very sick from eating a cookie off the floor.”) Effective critical thinking involves four key skills: gathering information, generating ideas, evaluating options and gaining agreement. Nobody has equal strength in all four areas. The best thinking happens when several people pool their individual thinking strengths to arrive at a collective solution.
  1. Not my circus, not my monkeys. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying to change what is outside your sphere of influence. Take a page from the oft-quoted Serenity Prayer: accept the things you cannot change; change the things you can; and learn to recognize the difference. Put your time and energy into the issues over which your have control: your team, your clients, your product line… If someone else’s cookie falls in the floor and they eat it, that’s not your concern.
  1. Assume nothing. Have you ever been at a training session where the guy at the front of the room reminds you that to assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Annoying, huh? It’s also totally correct. Critical thinkers never assume. They ask open questions to find the information they need, rather than trying to confirm what they already think (“Cookies on the floor are fine to eat, right?”) Don’t assume that other people think the same way that you do: ask them for their perspectives. You’ll arrive at better solutions this way.
  1. No bandaid solutions. Often we are so eager to fix the problem that we don’t take the time to figure out what the problem really is. A big trap here is correlation versus cause. Correlation means that two things happen at the same time. Cause means that one thing causes the other. Let’s say that ever since your birthday, you’ve been dropping cookies on the floor. Has age made you clumsy? Perhaps. Or perhaps the new hand cream your aunt gave you for your birthday is making your hands slippery. Critical thinkers always seek root cause.
  1. Stay at the reins. Plato, a 5thC BC philosopher, used the concept of a charioteer driving two horses to describe human nature. One horse had an ethics-driven code of conduct. The other one simply followed his emotions and appetites. The job of the charioteer, Plato’s symbol for the rational mind, was to keep these two horses going in the same direction. Critical thinkers keep a tight hold on the reins to bring reason and emotion into balance. They know that just because we want to believe the cookie is edible, doesn’t mean it is.
  1. Don’t jump to conclusions. Perhaps your significant other always eats the last cookie. So when you get home from work and see that the cookie you have been craving all day is gone, you blame your spouse. He looks guilty. There are crumbs all over the floor. Jumping to conclusions too quickly can lead one to wrong information and poor decisions. Before you start to yell, take a look at the dog in the corner with the oatmeal-cookie crumb beard… Critical thinkers draw conclusions from their evidence, not evidence from their conclusions.
  1. Consider the risk. A lot of life focuses on risk mitigation. Think about fire safety: we install smoke alarms, fire hydrants, fire extinguishers and emergency exits. While these things reduce the damage of fire, they do nothing to prevent the fire in the first place. In order to prevent a fire, you must do complicated things like update building wiring to prevent electrical fires, initiate strategic ground fuel burns and tree cuts to prevent wildfires, and disallow smoking and campfires in high risk areas to prevent controlled fires from spreading. Installing a couple of new batteries in the smoke detector each year is so much easier. Effective critical thinkers know how important prevention is, however. They will keep their kitchen floors sparkling clean so that if someone happens to drop the cookie, there is little risk it will make them sick.

Keeping the above points in mind will make you an effective critical thinker: you will solve problems more easily, reach better decisions, and will have more agreement from stakeholders. Your life will be easier, you will be more popular, and your enemies will have more reason to hate you. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.