How to use critical thinking for better decisions

Claire Hewitt | March 19, 2020

Just like you, we have to make lots of important decisions right now. We understand the pressure!

Critical thinking helps when the stakes are high

When the stakes are high, critical thinking helps us make well-reasoned decisions. It gives us tools to help check our assumptions and test our logic. It’s especially important in uncertain times, because strong emotions like stress can stop us from seeing things clearly. Deep, steady breathing helps. Slower, systematic thinking does too.

Most of the time it’s fine to make decisions with fast thinking: emotion and intuition lead, which is practical because it’s quick. But our biases influence this kind of thinking, and we may overlook problems in our logic.

Image, person walking a rock labyrinth

Slower, systematic thinking helps bring clarity. Image by Ashley Batz / Unsplash licence

First, choose the right decision to make

Start by being clear about the purpose of your thinking. A precise objective will help set the scope of your thinking to match the time, information, and resources you have.

Einstein got this. He said,

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about
the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

Break it down into simple steps

It helps to break big decisions down into easier steps. Some of our favourite tools are mind-mapping, drawing a ‘tree ‘with branches of questions, and making lists. The trick is to narrow your questions as you go, so it’s easier to answer each one.

For example, to break down the question of what to cook for dinner, you could start with simpler questions: ‘How many people are eating? Do they have any food allergies?’

Image, man walking over a chasm on a slackrope

Break your decision into simple steps. Image by Greg Rosenke / Unsplash licence

Notice assumptions

Assumptions are the things we take for granted in our reasoning, even when they’re not true. Separating fact from opinion can help you spot them. Look out for common biases too. Most people tend to:

Check your logic

A logical argument is a consistent one. It’s like a chain where every link is strong. Testing your logic is a bit like checking all the links — you want to find those that are weak or broken.

Take this example, where the ‘links’ aren’t sound.

If you think about it, vegetables are bad for you. I mean, after all, the dinosaurs
ate plants, and look what happened to them…

Wrongly identifying the cause of something is one of the most common errors in logic. Another is called the ‘slippery slope fallacy’. This is when we escalate our thinking from a reasonable starting place to a very improbable extreme. It’s easy to do when you’re in crisis mode.

Child playing on a swing in a playground

Check each link in your chain of logic. Image by Olivia Bauso / Unsplash licence

Test your conclusions

Have you overlooked anything? One of the best ways to test your conclusions is to check with other people. Does your decision make sense to them? Other testing questions can help your thinking too.

We’re in uncertain times, and we’ll probably all need to make lots of hard decisions over the next few months. Write’s courses are available virtually, including our Critical Thinking Lab, and we’d love you to join us. (We’d also welcome a few of the world’s leaders.)

More information

Write’s Critical Thinking Lab will teach you how to define your thinking process. We’ll get you asking the right questions and offering reasoned answers.

Read about how to sharpen your writing with critical thinking

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