Thinking Habits That Improve Problem-Solving Skills
Updated: Apr 5
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?
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:
Emptying your bucket
Using Anticipatory thinking
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
Anticipatory thinking is a way to stimulate thinking about consequences. It’s also about asking, “What’s next? or “What this action may cause?”
For example, instead of thinking:
“Customers will not be happy if we do that,” try asking: “What will happen if we do that?”.
Clarity Tool #5: Asking What Else?
You can ask what else to keep the thinking going, to stimulate new ideas and new possibilities, but also to prevent premature closure of an issue, idea, or solution.
Asking what else is also beneficial:
When you’re brainstorming, in order to encourage new ideas, concepts, and explanations
When you’re building or designing something
When you think you know the reason behind a problem—keep thinking about what else could have caused it.
The second phase, conclusions, consists of finding the right solution.
If you’re not sure that you’re ready to get out of the clarity phase and enter the conclusion phase, think about the following questions:
Do I have a clear definition of what the problem is?
Why am I working on this?
Who should be involved?
Why does this problem need to be solved?
What does success look like when the issue is solved?
In case you can reply to these questions with certainty, it’s more than likely that you’ll come up with a quality solution.
Conclusion Tool: Making the Right Assumption
An assumption is a thought you have and presume to be correct.
The difference between automatic and critical thinking is that in automatic mode, you take it for granted your assumptions are correct. However, by using critical thinking, you ask: “How do I know my assumption is a good one?”
Assumptions are based on facts, observations, and experiences. In the conclusions phase, you are making sure your assumptions are not based on a single experience or information that’s not a fact.
Whenever you come up with a solution, go back and ask yourself what assumptions you are making and why.
The Danger of Incorrect Assumptions
Judicial sentencing decisions should be guided by facts, not by chance. Yet, in one study, researchers found that sentencing decisions can be influenced by irrelevant sentencing demands.
Experienced jurists participated in a study of sentencing decisions. All the jurists, who were either judges or experienced lawyers, read a criminal case description that could result in a jail sentence of up to one year.
Then they were asked what sentence they would hand down given the facts of the case. Some jurists were told that a newspaper article had speculated the sentence would be three months, while others were told that an article had speculated the sentence would be nine months.
Those jurists given the larger anchor (i.e., a nine-month sentence) reported they would hand down significantly longer sentences than those given the smaller anchor. An anchor is an aspect of the environment that has no direct relevance to a decision but affects judgments. The influence of anchoring is an important illustration of the dangers of purely automatic thinking.
The third and final phase, decisions, consists of creating an action list.
Once you have selected a possible solution, create an action list by answering these questions:
What needs to be done and by whom?
Can I create subtasks?
How much time, money, and effort will I need?
What rewards will I get when I solve the problem?
After you reach a solution, evaluate the results to determine if it’s the best possible solution to a problem. Think about how effective it was. Did you achieve what you wanted? How do you know this?
It’s important to review what worked, what didn’t, and what impact the solution had. These insights may help you to improve your long-term problem-solving skills.
When trying to solve a complex problem, the most important thing is getting out of automatic thinking mode and using critical thinking tools. The framework consists of three phases:
1. Achieving Clarity
Emptying your bucket: making sure that your past experiences are not affecting the way you think about the solution
Inspecting: eliminating confusion by determining what all the words in a given problem definition mean
Asking Why: diving deeper into the problem and finding the right approach
Anticipatory thinking: stimulating thinking about consequences to avoid failure
Asking What Else: stimulating new ideas and preventing fast conclusions
2. Making Conclusions
Ensuring that your assumptions are not made based on a single experience or information that’s not a fact
3. Making Decisions
Determining what needs to be done and by whom
Evaluating time and resources
Determining the reward
Critical thinking takes discipline but it can drastically improve your problem-solving skills. By practicing, critical thinking may become second nature to you. So, next time you need to make an important decision, take a step back and use your new toolbox. The results may surprise you!