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“Critical thinking” is a phrase that leaves many students nervously quaking in their desks. By the time we’ve become adults, though, we’ve largely forgotten it. We imagine that we think critically, but we let our ability to engage with new ideas atrophy when we leave college. We get set in our ways, and become closed off to new ways of seeing the world.

The Information Age has made critical thinking both more important and more difficult than ever before. But these skills are at the foundation of an informed civil society, and they need to be fostered.

It’s time to go back to basics.

Why Is Critical Thinking Important?

The World Economic Forum listed critical thinking as the fourth most important skill in 2015. In 2020 it surges into the #2 spot, just behind complex problem solving, a closely related proficiency. To create the list, the Forum asked “chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers” which skills they value. These aren’t random people off the street. They’re important influencers in the world economy.

WEF Top 10 Skills

If the Forum says critical thinking is important, you can believe that it’s true. For getting a job, if nothing else.

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What, then, is critical thinking? The Philosophy department at the University of Hong Kong has a great definition, stating that someone with critical thinking skills can do the following:

  1. Understand the logical connections between ideas.
  2. Identify, construct and evaluate arguments.
  3. Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.
  4. Solve problems systematically.
  5. Identify the relevance and importance of ideas.
  6. Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values.

These six points should make clear why critical thinking is so important. It enhances problem solving, communicative, logic, and creative skills 5 Creative Hobbies That Will Make You a Happier Person 5 Creative Hobbies That Will Make You a Happier Person Read More , all of which are important not only as an effective employee of an organization, but as an inhabitant of the modern world.

Information Management

We’re constantly bombarded with new data in the Information Age. Constant internet access, crowd-sourced ideas, and the instant availability of new ideas means you have a huge amount of information to process if you want to make sense of it all. And critical thinking helps you do that.

It might be more helpful to think of critical thinking as a way of life instead of a set of skills. Here’s a quote from Gautama Buddha that might help you see what I mean:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Critical thinking, at its core, is a path to truth. Along the way, it’ll help you come up with creative ideas, solve difficult problems Can You Solve 5 of the Internet's Hardest Logic Puzzles? Can You Solve 5 of the Internet's Hardest Logic Puzzles? Try these five brain-teasing sites and some of the hardest logic puzzles that are loved by anyone who likes solving stuff. Read More , and make connections between concepts. Building up critical thinking skills is a life-long process, but you can kickstart that process by keeping in mind a few simple principles.

1. Ask “Why?”

The question at the core of critical thinking is “Why?” Everyone makes claims, and listeners without critical thinking skills may be inclined to just accept those claims as fact. Critical thinkers, however, will ask why — why is your presidential candidate better? What makes this philosophy a good one? Where did you get your information? What makes you think this interpretation of an event is true? How did you come to that conclusion?

(As you can see, “why” questions can come in many forms.)

Critical Thinking Ask Why
Image Credit: Dragon Images via Shutterstock

There’s no need to sound like a child and literally ask “Why?” after every claim someone makes. But by engaging them in conversation, doing your own research, and considering the stories behind the claims, you can gain a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.

I’ve been asking a lot of this kind of question as I’ve been working on a book on the history of board games — why did humans start playing? Why have board games persisted for so many centuries? Why have they made a resurgence in popularity? And, finally, why should readers care? These are all valuable questions, and their answers have spawned many more questions and answers that I didn’t expect. And that’s where insight comes from.

2. Read

One of the best ways to increase your critical thinking abilities is to learn more about other peoples, places, cultures, and time periods. You can do this by traveling the world, of course, but we can’t all be global nomads. But we can read. A lot.

Read better content online Read More Intelligent Content in 2016 with These 35 Sites Read More Intelligent Content in 2016 with These 35 Sites We should all read these 35 sites more often. If you are tiring of dumbed-down content make things somewhat more thoughtful this coming year with this super list. Read More . Read as many books as you possibly can 5 Tips To Read More Books Every Year 5 Tips To Read More Books Every Year There are just so many amazing books out there. To never have finished at least some is a regret waiting to be felt. Forestall it by reading more and reading smart with the following tips. Read More . Read writers who have opinions that contradict yours politically, theologically, philosophically, scientifically, or just stylistically. Read things from great thinkers as well as everyday people.

The more you read, the more you learn. And being learned is a great pillar upon which to build critical thinking skills. Reading non-fiction will help, but don’t discount fiction, either; novels, short stories, and plays can also offer insight into the way other people think and live.

Don’t forget to apply your critical thinking skills while you’re reading, too. Just because someone printed their claim on paper (or posted it on an internet forum) doesn’t mean it’s true.

3. Forget Multitasking

Today’s technology and culture make it easy to multitask. We continue to tell ourselves that multitasking helps us get more done, but science has repeatedly debunked that claim Single- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity? Single- vs. Multitasking: What's Best for Productivity? Multitasking is a common method to increase productivity. Turns out it's not necessarily the silver bullet for productivity. The key is to know when to multitask. Read More . Multitasking gets you out of the zone and prevents you from giving serious thought to whatever it is that you’re doing.

This is the exact opposite of what you need for critical thinking. To be critical, you need to be fully present in whatever task you’re taking on. Reading, writing, debating, discussing, cooperating, arguing… to successfully do any of them, you need to be singularly focused.

Critical Thinking Read Focus
Image Credit: Lolostock via Shutterstock

Close your inbox. Silence Twitter. Stow your iPad. Turn off notifications on your phone How to Stop Checking Your Phone by Replacing It With Your Computer How to Stop Checking Your Phone by Replacing It With Your Computer Device hopping between your computer and phone? Losing your time, focus, and mind? Set up your computer as the main device with these simple tips and cut away the distractions. Read More . Get rid of extra tabs. These things distract you from deep thought. Not only will you not be thinking critically, but you probably won’t be thinking very much at all.

(Before you take to the comments to disprove my claims by saying that multitasking works for you, I know this isn’t the case for everyone — but it is for most people. If you can juggle tasks and still give each one the time and deep thought it deserves, great. Go for it.)

4. Spend Time Observing

Whether you’re faced with a problem, you need to come up with a new idea, or you just see something that interests you, your starting place should be observation. It’s easy to let your assumptions and past experiences take over when you’re faced with a problem or you get into a disagreement (this is especially relevant at the time of this writing, during election season).

Instead of falling back on what you think you know, spend time observing the situation. You might assume that surface issues and motivations are driving situations and people, but many multi-faceted layers are often at play. Being quick to judge or act on these initial observations might be tempting, but spending more time observing will give you a clearer picture of what’s going on.

This is especially difficult in the modern world, where firing off a comment on a news story, downvoting a Reddit post, or unfollowing someone on Twitter only takes a few seconds. Instead of acting quickly, though, engage your critical thinking skills, starting with observation.

5. Think

It might be counter intuitive, but spending time doing nothing but thinking is one of the best things you can do to engage and strengthen your critical thinking skills. Since I’ve started working on my book, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with pen and paper, just thinking. Making connections between ideas. Developing lines of thought. Coming up with more questions to ask. Identifying issues that are relevant to readers.

Critical Thinking Writing
Image Credit: Who Is Danny via Shutterstock

This is an especially difficult thing to do in the face of a world that prizes speed over almost everything. Sitting down to reflect and ponder doesn’t seem like a productive use of time. But that’s how great ideas are born. Some people are lucky enough to come up with a brilliant thought while they’re in the middle of a project, but many need quiet, solitude, and time to think.

Starting a journaling habit Start this Simple Habit to Rocket Your Productivity: Journaling Start this Simple Habit to Rocket Your Productivity: Journaling Journaling is an underrated career tool and a core habit of many successful people. From increasing productivity, to maintaining accountability, we explore why you should consider introducing journaling as a productivity tool into your workday. Read More is a great way to spend more time thinking without distractions. Doodling on a sheet of paper to help spur your problem-solving processes is another. Intentionally using time when you’re alone (even if you’re out on a walk or bike ride) to think is a great habit to get into.

Think Critically, Live Effectively

Critical thinking might not be the solution to all your problems, but it’s a good habit to get into. The more time we spend thinking critically, the more effectively we’ll be able to innovate, govern, communicate, and learn. And that’s good for everyone.

Do you make a point to flex your critical-thinking muscles? What do you find challenges your critical thinking skills? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  1. Kyle
    November 11, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Good stuff. Especially the part about mindfulness and avioiding the urge to multitask. I have found that it's impossible to get in "the zone" when trying to do too many things at once. I do find it somewhat ironic however that the article was full of advertisements and random pop ups. Hard to keep focused.

    • Dann Albright
      November 12, 2016 at 10:45 pm

      Yeah, ads are a necessary evil. You always have the choice to block them, though!

      But yes, multitasking is absolutely murder on solid thinking. I've come to learn that lesson over the past few years of being a writer. Since putting routines in place that encourage me to focus on a single thing at a time, I've become much more productive and a much better writer.

  2. Lev E. Levenson, PhD, MSW
    November 7, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    Very fine summary of what critical thinking involves. I especially underline book reading and conversation/discussion/argument as ways of developing and improving one's thinking skills. The role of keeping a reflective journal cannot be over emphasized, especially one that is hand written. It seems as though writing, as opposed to keyboarding utilizes certain brain functions related to cognitive ability. (I speak as one who uses a fountain pen to write my journal has taught courses in journaling.) I also recommend both the active life and the contemplative life, as Hanna Arendt discusses them in her "The Life of the Mind."

    • Dann Albright
      November 12, 2016 at 10:44 pm

      I'm not familiar with The Life of the Mind, but I think I have to check it out now! Hand writing is an amazingly contemplative activity; I try to write out some of my blog posts and articles on paper before typing them to make sure my mind has a chance to make connections that I might not at a keyboard.

      Also, fountain pens absolutely cannot be beat. :-)

  3. Sal
    November 4, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Great article. Logic or critical thinking should be part of high school. Our school system is producing or continues to produce very ignorant graduates that contribute very little to society.

    • Dann Albright
      November 12, 2016 at 10:43 pm

      That'd be great if high schools had a course specifically focused on critical thinking! It'd be hard to do, but absolutely worth it for students and society. I hope someone out there is trying to make that happen.

  4. Howard A Pearce
    November 4, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Believe it or not, I find discussions (including arguments) important for what I call "testing your views"

    People can feel/fear when their arguments are failing in one area or another.
    Too many people use the fear to simply deny any problem.

    I almost welcome these circumstance as it is a clear indication to me that my thoughts and ideas have weaknesses that should be addressed by improving OR even questioning the validity of holding them

    • Saikat Basu
      November 7, 2016 at 6:25 am

      Absolutely true, Howard. Every day I am plagued by (and others too) confirmation bias. An open discussion is so vital for an open mind.

    • Dann Albright
      November 12, 2016 at 10:42 pm

      That's such a great way to reaffirm—or, importantly, modify—your beliefs. You can read all the articles you want from people who think the exact same thing as you, but engaging in conversation with someone who has different views and a different cultural background just has no equivalent. I wish more people thought the same way.

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