The pathway to effective thinking

Explore how to improve your mental skills and make them your superpower

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Thinking is one of the most ordinary activities humans engage in. It is the process through which humans solve problems, make connections, come to a decision, and create new ideas. It can even be a measure of intelligence.  An average person carries out these activities multiple times on any given day. It leads to the safe assumption that everybody thinks, and further that everyone has some measure of thinking skills. It also begs the question of why some are better thinkers than others. Put differently: are there skills that make some individuals more effective thinkers than their counterparts?

Thinking involves making a logical connection between a series of facts. However, the methodology of it, i.e., the process through which we arrive at our thoughts, makes all the difference. Everybody has (some measure of ) thinking skills, but the method these skills are applied and how they are wielded vary from one person to the next.

For the most part, thinking is intuitive and impulsive. Hence we may have no control over that aspect. However, thinking can also be systematic. These usually involve situations when we need to come to a conclusion or make a decision. When it comes to decision-making, it is indeed possible to identify and hone the skills required to make one better.

In this article, the focus will be on the skills you need to become an excellent thinker. The idea here is that if you apply these principles, not only will you affect the quality of your thought outputs, you will be affecting your life, too. After all, the biblical King Solomon said, “as a man thinks (in his heart), so is he.”

Skills for Effective Thinking

There are relevant skills you need for practical thinking. The discussion below will elaborate on them, drawing examples from books to underscore each point’s importance.

Seek to Understand

You start from the simple before going on to the complex. That is one skill you ought to follow in your thinking process. Before you engage actively with thinking, break down the complexities in your brain to unravel the clutter, revealing what may have been hidden beneath the debris of your mind. Seek first to understand, and then take it up from there. 

In The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin recognizes the power of clarity in a world chocked full of chaos. He acknowledges that there are interferences to clear and concise thinking and that this ‘seemingly’ affects intelligence. He asserts that individuals cannot often compartmentalize, retrieve information, and be coherent when the need arises because of data proliferation. Hence, he advocates for simplifying information sources, i.e., starting from the simple before climbing to the complex. There is undoubtedly much more to understanding than you thought, isn’t there?

Clarity

An ancillary to understanding is clarity. It might appear on the surface that we have the routes of our thinking process mapped out in our minds. Hence, we fall into the delusion of assuming that we are looking to arrive at a certain destination in our thoughts. However, the process may be hampered by certain inherent factors that we may possibly have no control over. For instance, we carry around learned behaviors, biases, and prejudices that impact our thinking. In the vast majority of cases, we may not even be aware of these factors and how they affect us. It makes it necessary for us to achieve clarity in our thinking.

This is the core theme of Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast, and Slow. He points out the inherent dangers in fast thinking, especially when there is no room left to examine thoughts profoundly. He refers to the blocks on our way to effective thinking as “mental glitches,” opening that the thinker becomes exceedingly adept at the process if removed.

Make Mistakes

The fear of failure has hindered many a man from even venturing into the murky waters of effective thinking. Many folks are afraid, not necessarily about the thinking process in this case, but about the outcome of their thoughts. They hold the belief that a poor outcome can only stem from a flawed thinking process. However, that is often hardly the case.

In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell holds that people often make mistakes in their thinking because of a lack of experience. In his opinion, rationalizing and mooning over past decisions actually prevents an individual from advancing in critical thinking. The solution: learn what you can from experience and move on!

As in every situation, mistakes make for great learning experiences. With every mistake you make, there is room for you to evolve and do better. When you acknowledge the holes in your thinking, you will be incentivized to do better. 

According to Annie Duke in her acclaimed book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, there is no such thing as a wrong decision. Or put more accurately, there are several other boxes to categorize decisions apart from adjudging them either right or wrong. The book teaches that this sort of thinking ties in with how the world is, seeing as many randomnesses make up human existence. The author believes that acknowledging and giving up the good feeling that comes with being right leaves room to learn from perceived wrongs without feeling any twinge of guilt. As the author puts it:

“If we don’t change our mindset, we’re going to have to deal with being wrong a lot.”

 Question

People often ask whether we control our thoughts and whether we can have a hand in their creation. This tool discussed here attempts to answer that question. It is because problems can be fundamental to the thinking process.

As hinted at above, a tool for effective thinking is the ability always to ask questions. In fact, it should be the bedrock on which you begin your thinking enterprise. Formulate questions around the issue (s) you want to think about and start from there. Your thoughts will supply the answers.

Question your prejudices and biases. Ask questions to attain clarity. The harder the questions are for you to untangle, the deeper the prejudice/bias is entrenched. If asking a question makes you uncomfortable, that should be an automatic red flag, signaling some unresolved issues in your mind. Problems might appear as though they undermine your decision-making process. However, that is not so.

Raising questions is one of the elements discussed by authors Michael Starbird & Edward B. Burger in their book, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking. The authors highlight the importance of asking the right questions in a bid to arrive at perfect answers. Expending energy on the wrong questions can almost be as futile as not asking questions at all, they hold. Asking the right questions will reveal the interconnectedness in your thinking process. It will reveal to you patterns that were otherwise invisible, and if need be, help you break them. 

You’d consider that thinking is easy. Well, it is, and it isn’t. Becoming an effective thinker, i.e., analyzing facts to arrive at a dynamic conclusion, requires some skills and dexterity. Sadly, most people lack the patience to cultivate this much necessary skill. The suggestions above provide a template, a roadmap of sorts. The books give a deeper understanding of how to become an effective thinker. If you are on a quest to improve your thinking abilities, this article is a great place to start. 

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