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Ten Commandments For Critical Thinking

Your ten top tips for thinking more clearly about pretty much everything...

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1. First and foremost, slow down

Via Flickr: nancynance

Does what’s in front of you matter and require deep thought? If so, pause. It deserves a strategy. If not, don’t worry too much. Get on with it, get it out of the way. Apply your attention selectively and effectively.

2. Conserve mental energy

Via Flickr: 88786104@N08

You have limited willpower, limited mental energy and limited attention. Try to build habits and a working environment that help you focus. This almost certainly means not having email or social media open in the background. Deal with things like email in focused bursts. Don’t let others dictate your time and attention.

3. If in doubt, wait

Via Flickr: claveirole

Time itself is a powerful filter. Pauses and silence are the friends of better thought. Leave those difficult messages for a few days, even a week, and suddenly what you need to say will feel much clearer – or you may decide not to say anything at all. Doing something is not necessarily better than doing nothing,

4. Know your limits

Via Flickr: paulboxley

Don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. Practise saying: I don’t know, I haven’t read that, I need to find out more. Seek out others’ expertise where yours runs out. And remember: expertise is always specific. Don’t assume that someone who knows about particle physics has even half a clue about economics.

5. Beware sunk costs

Via Flickr: olivierpasco

Once you’ve put time, effort, cash or care into something, it’s tempting to stick with it no matter what, in order to justify your input. Don’t. You’ll never get that expenditure back, so try not to consider it at all when looking ahead. Don’t over-value what you have just because you have it. If it’s not working out, if it’s failing, if it turns out not to be what you wanted, cut your losses. Be brutal – don’t get shackled to your past.

6. Judge strategy, not results

Via Flickr: joriel

Judging by results is dangerous. Stupid strategies can end well; sound strategies don’t always work. A bad strategy with a good outcome was still a bad strategy, while a good strategy that didn’t work is still worth repeating. This is the only way to play the odds in the long term. Don’t be obsessed with short-term success or with those who have succeeded: much of this is just luck. Keep doing the right thing.

7. Most things revert to the mean

Via Flickr: 68179203@N03

An exceptional result is likely to be followed by a less exceptional one, whether good or bad. Don’t be fooled. Just like the economy after a crash, things tend to recover over time, or to fall back from a high. Don’t give someone or something credit for whatever was likely to happen anyway. Look to the long term, the big numbers and the underlying trends if you want to see signals rather than noise.

8. Seek refutation, not confirmation

Via Flickr: hubble_esa

Any idea can endlessly be confirmed if you’re only looking for things that support it – you can convince yourself the Earth is flat if you never look more than a mile away. The most precious kind of evidence forces you to re-examine what you think. Seek out challenges and contradictions, and put your arguments and beliefs to a genuine test. If an idea or a theory cannot be tested or disproved, it isn’t worth much.

9. Beware your frame of reference

Via Flickr: 53898309@N00

Would you walk one mile for £20? Imagine: you’re about to buy a kettle for £40 and then discover it’s on sale for £20 in a shop 1 mile away. You probably take a walk. Now, you’re buying a car for £6,000 and you discover it’s on sale for £5,980 a mile away. You probably stay put. Why? Your perceptions of cost and value are always relative, never absolute. Make very sure you define your terms of reference in advance and don’t always let someone or something else do it for you.

10. Every option can be wrong

Via Flickr: amanessinger

Before you choose, ask first – is the best or most meaningful response even on offer? A website says you must either enter your personal details or not get access. Perhaps the better choice is to reject the deal. A politician says we must either raise taxes or lower immigration, but that’s no reason for you to accept that you have to go with either of these things. Look outside the frame. Ask whether you’re really being given a choice. Ask, is there a different, better way of thinking?

11. Want to find out more?

Check out my book Critical Thinking in all its glory!

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