Thinking Habits That Improve Problem-Solving Skills

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

Developing the right habits can increase your productivity because they reduce cognitive load and save your energy. If you repeat a behavior long enough, you spend little to no time thinking about the process—the behavior becomes automatic.

While automatic mode can be helpful when driving your car or brushing your teeth, it can also be a drawback because it makes you prone to mistakes.

That is because automatic mode can distort, discard, and create information that affects your problem-solving skills. When thinking about something important, you should take a step back and notice your thoughts. Then, get out of automatic mode and get into a mindful one by using critical thinking.

Critical thinking is a process that requires you to assess and understand a situation and to come to a conclusion about what to do.

The Importance of Critical Thinking

When we review problems using critical thinking tools, we get new perspectives and ideas. We make better decisions, come up with more innovative solutions, and enjoy faster outcomes.

Imagine you’re a manager and you’ve noticed a spike in your department’s workload. You might assume that the workload change is temporary, so you think that asking your team to work overtime is the best solution.

But if you thought the workload increase was permanent, you might start interviewing for a new full-time hire. As you can see, a simple shift in perspective can result in a different solution.

In the book Think Smarter: Critical Thinking to Improve Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills, author Michael Kallet presents a framework and set of tools to apply critical thinking techniques to everyday issues.

This framework consists of three phases:

  • Clarity: understanding the problem

  • Conclusions: finding the solution

  • Decisions: performing an action depending on the conclusion

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Achieving Clarity

The first phase, clarity, consists of understanding the problem you want to solve. This phase is crucial because if you’re unable to identify the problem you’re trying to solve clearly, you risk approaching the wrong problem. You also risk redos, mistakes, and misunderstandings.

To achieve clarity, Michael Kallet suggests using these tools:

  1. Emptying your bucket

  2. Inspecting

  3. Asking Why?

  4. Using Anticipatory thinking

  5. Asking What else?

Clarity Tool #1: Emptying your bucket

The metaphorical bucket represents memories of your experiences: past projects or attempts at solving a problem. These experiences can significantly affect the way you reach conclusions.

Next time you encounter a problem, try writing down all the items you think are in your bucket that might be influencing the way you think about the solution. Then, consider how your view of the situation would be different if those bucket items didn’t exist.

By understanding what’s in your bucket and how it impacts your perspective, you can learn to create new resolutions and come up with more creative solutions.

Clarity Tool #2: Inspecting

Inspecting is the act of determining what all the words in a given problem definition mean. By developing a clear understanding of the terms you will be better equipped to eliminate any confusion surrounding them.

Let’s say you’re writing an email. Before hitting “Send”, ask yourself,“Is what I am about to send clear? Could any of the recipients of this email misinterpret what I mean?”

Suppose your email said, “We need to get this done ASAP!

Instead, you might say, “It takes us ten days to do this, and we need to do it in seven days.”

The latter definition is more precise and clear.

Clarity Tool #3: Asking Why

Asking Why results in answers that enable you to dive deeper into the problem and get a clearer understanding of your objective for solving it.

  • When setting goals: Ask, “Why is that the goal?”

  • When setting and evaluating priorities: Ask, “Why is that so crucial?

  • When something unexpected or unplanned occurs: In this situation, you might want to look for the root cause by asking, “Why did that occur?” or “Why did we miss that?”

  • When someone asks you for something: Ask, “Why are you asking for that?”

  • When someone says, “We can’t do that”: Ask, “Why can’t we do that?”

Knowing the why before beginning any task can have a tremendous impact on how you approach it.

Clarity Tool #4: Using Anticipatory Thinking