8 Habits of Effective Critical Thinkers

This is a guest post by Jen Lawrence.

Critical thinking – the ability to make decisions, solve problems, and take appropriate action – has been identified as a key skill by educators business leaders and governments. Here are 10 ways to become a better critical thinker at work and in life:

1. The five second rule. Nope, this isn’t about the edibleness of that cookie you just dropped on the floor. We are talking about the brief pause you should take before making a decision. Some decisions require the triune or instinctive brain (“Hungry!), others the limbic or emotional brain (“That cookie would make me feel better”), and the rest the neocortex or rational brain (“That cookie fell where the wet dog was sitting and therefore should not be eaten.) By taking a brief pause of a few seconds, we allow the appropriate brain the time to function.

2. There is no “I” in Critical Thinking. (Scratch that, there are several of them.) Thinking is, in many ways, an individual activity (“group think” and “sharing a brain” are not overly positive terms.) This does not mean that most decisions should be made in isolation however. The more people who are involved in making a decision, the more successful it tends to be. With differing points of view, you will get better ideas on the table as each person can draw from his or her experience (“My aunt once got very sick from eating a cookie off the floor.”) Effective critical thinking involves four key skills: gathering information, generating ideas, evaluating options and gaining agreement. Nobody has equal strength in all four areas. The best thinking happens when several people pool their individual thinking strengths to arrive at a collective solution.

3. Not my circus, not my monkeys. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying to change what is outside your sphere of influence. Take a page from the oft-quoted Serenity Prayer: “Accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and learn to recognize the difference.” Put your time and energy into the issues over which you have control: your team, your clients, your product line. If someone else’s cookie falls in the floor and they eat it, that’s not your concern.

4. Assume nothing. Have you ever been at a training session where the guy at the front of the room reminds you that to assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Annoying, huh? It’s also totally correct. Critical thinkers never assume. They ask open questions to find the information they need, rather than trying to confirm what they already think (“Cookies on the floor are fine to eat, right?”) Don’t assume that other people think the same way that you do. Ask them for their perspectives. You’ll arrive at better solutions this way.

5. No band-aid solutions. Often we are so eager to fix the problem that we don’t take the time to figure out what the problem really is. A big trap here is correlation versus cause. Correlation means that two things happen at the same time. Cause means that one thing causes the other. Let’s say that ever since your birthday, you’ve been dropping cookies on the floor. Has age made you clumsy? Perhaps. Or perhaps the new hand cream your aunt gave you for your birthday is making your hands slippery. Critical thinkers always seek the root cause.

6. Stay at the reins. Plato, a 5thC B.C. philosopher, used the concept of a charioteer driving two horses to describe human nature. One horse had an ethics-driven code of conduct. The other one simply followed his emotions and appetites. The job of the charioteer, Plato’s symbol for the rational mind, was to keep these two horses going in the same direction. Critical thinkers keep a tight hold on the reins to bring reason and emotion into balance. They know that just because we want to believe the cookie is edible, doesn’t mean it is.

7. Don’t jump to conclusions. Perhaps your significant other always eats the last cookie. So when you get home from work and see that the cookie you have been craving all day is gone, you blame your spouse. He looks guilty. There are crumbs all over the floor. Jumping to conclusions too quickly can lead one to wrong information and poor decisions. Before you start to yell, take a look at the dog in the corner with the oatmeal-cookie crumb beard. Critical thinkers draw conclusions from their evidence, not evidence from their conclusions.

8. Consider the risk. A lot of life focuses on risk mitigation. Think about fire safety: We install smoke alarms, fire hydrants, fire extinguishers and emergency exits. While those things reduce the damage of fire, they do nothing to prevent the fire in the first place. In order to prevent a fire, you must do complicated things like update building wiring to prevent electrical fires, initiate strategic ground fuel burns and tree cuts to prevent wildfires, and disallow smoking and campfires in high risk areas to prevent controlled fires from spreading. Installing a couple of new batteries in the smoke detector each year is so much easier. Effective critical thinkers know how important prevention is, however. They will keep their kitchen floors sparkling clean so that if someone happens to drop the cookie, there is little risk it will make them sick.

Keeping the above points in mind will make you an effective critical thinker. You will solve problems more easily, reach better decisions and gain more agreement from stakeholders. Your life will be easier, you will be more popular, and your enemies will have more reason to hate you. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Lawrence, who holds an MBA in Finance, has widely written and spoken on corporate culture, critical thinking and strategic planning. She has been interviewed by media outlets including The Toronto Star, Report on Business TV, National Post, and Toronto Life. A resident of Toronto, Lawrence is a proud mother of two children. Read her blog at http://jenlawrencedesign.blogspot.ca.

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How to Escape Your Unemployment (or Under-Employment) Trap Principal Recruiter Lays the Blueprint

This is a guest post by Richard B. Alman.

There’s good news for jobs in the United States.

In June, the private sector added 288,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • The unemployment rate has shrunk to 6.1 percent, the lowest since September 2008, when the Great Recession was just starting. The rate has dropped nearly 2 percent since the beginning of 2013.
  • The U.S. Payroll to Population employment rate (P2P), as tracked by Gallup, now stands at one of its highest points since tracking began in January 2010.
  • More companies, states and cities are either raising their minimum wage or considering it.

Does this mean that we can put our minds to rest regarding jobs and prosperity? Not exactly, says Richard B. Alman, principal and chief career/employment strategist of Recruiter Media, owner of www.RecruiterNetworks.com, the world’s largest owner/operator of career websites.

“It’s great that reports show improvement, but the good news comes with an asterisk; we need to keep in mind the term that has become so common since 2009 – the ‘new normal,’ which, in part, refers to a lower expectation for prosperity,” says Alman, who has managed human resources for Fortune 100 and smaller multinational companies.

“Raising the minimum wage, for example, is a step in the right direction for many, but it’s certainly not happening everywhere and it doesn’t guarantee a living wage. California raised its minimum to $9 per hour, but that’s a state with a very high cost of living.”

What is the quality of these new jobs, and how many hours do they offer? What about the Catch 22 ensnaring the long-term unemployed, who can’t get work because they don’t have jobs? And where’s the hope for the recent college graduates who are deeply in debt and can’t find the jobs they’ve prepared for?

Alman has a blueprint that can help would-be employees in these tough positions.

One word: volunteer

“This is, by far, the best advice I can offer if you feel like you’ve tried everything and it hasn’t worked,” he says. Volunteering can pay very high dividends for anyone who is unemployed, under-employed or simply looking for a new career trajectory. It helps current and future employees of any age.“You may not see the payoff right away, but volunteering has many long-term benefits,” he say

Volunteer in positions that will build your resume. “When you volunteer, you can update your skills and resume, which shows potential employers that you’re not lazy,” Alman says. “Ask for jobs that use the career skills you have. For instance, if you have a background or degree in marketing, look for opportunities to volunteer in marketing for a non-profit.”

For those with stretches of long-term unemployment on their resume´, volunteering is the best way to show future employers that you value staying active and building new skills. And, if you’re a low-wage worker at a fast-food restaurant, for example, you can have a whole new headspace in which to consider your future.

Work on developing leads

“You can be just like everyone else who’s desperate for a decent job or you can be proactive and build professional relationships, which do more than resumes to earn interviews and employment,” he says.

The non-profit sector attracts people who are passionate about a cause, a wide range of associated professionals and, frequently, people who are in high income brackets.

Where can folks go to volunteer?

A half-hour of research online can yield viable options for legit non-profit organizations. Other great sources are hospitals, which tend to work closely with non-profit organizations. Hospitals also involve a wide variety of professionals.

“Once again, if you work well and develop great working relationships with others, you open yourself up to a whole network of possibilities,” he says. “Who you know can make the difference.”

About Richard B. Alman

Richard B. Alman is the principal and chief career/employment strategist of Recruiter Media Inc., the world’s largest owner/operator of career websites, which offers recruiters, employers and job seekers a smarter alternative to the impersonal, less-specific “universal” employment websites. www.RecruiterNetworks.com has been the only national, city-specific job board on the planet for more than a decade, serving more than 1,000 US cities with their own unique career web site. Alman has worked in all aspects of recruiting and career/employment strategies with corporations such as General Motors and UBS and privately owned multinational companies.

 

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Are You Presenting a Professional Image on Social Media?

Despite the enormous membership on LinkedIn and Twitter, many employees still aren’t in professional shape, failing to maximize the potential of their social media presence.

Social guidance company, PeopleLinx, has compiled this infographic summarizing the three main planks of social business, as a checklist to ensure that your are representing yourself and your company in the best way possible.

Anatomy of a Social Businessperson

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Quick tip: Always establish a priority level

Always establish a priority level when you assign new work to employees. That allows staff to schedule their tasks over a reasonable amount of time, rather than trying to rush and get everything done at once.

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3 Tips for Practicing Mindfulness in a Multitasking Workplace: Neurologist Shares the Science Behind Its Effectiveness

This is a guest post by Dr. Romie Mushtaq.

Google, eBay, Intel and General Mills offer classes on it. So do Harvard Business School, Ross School of Business and Claremont Graduate University, among other campuses. Mindfulness is not just a corporate trend, but a proven method for success.

Mindfulness – being focused and fully present in the here and now – is good for individuals and good for a business’s bottom line.

How can people practice it in a workplace where multitasking is the norm, and concerns for future profits can add to workplace stress?

“Even if a company doesn’t make it part of the culture, employees and managers can substitute their multitasking habits with mindfulness in order to reduce stress and increase productivity,” says Dr. Romie Mushtaq, http://www.BrainBodyBeauty.com, a neurologist with expertise in Mind-Body medicine and Mindful Living.

“The result that you and your colleagues will notice is that you’re sharper, more efficient and more creative.”

Dr. Romie says the physiological benefits of clearing away distractions and living in the moment have been documented in many scientific and medical studies.

“Practicing mindfulness, whether it’s simply taking deep breaths, or actually meditating or doing yoga, has been shown to alter the structure and function of the brain, which is what allows us to learn, acquire new abilities, and improve memory,” she says. “Advances in neuroimaging techniques have taught us how these mindfulness-based techniques affect neuroplasticity.

“Multitasking, on the other hand, depresses the brain’s memory and analytical functions, and it reduces blood flow to the part of the right temporal lobe, which contributes to our creative thinking. In today’s marketplace, creativity is key for innovation, sustainability and leadership.

Romie offers these tips for practicing mindfulness in a multitasking business:

Focus on a single task for an allotted amount of time. You might say, “For 15 minutes, I’m going to read through my emails, and then for one hour, I’m going to make my phone calls,” Dr. Romie says.

If your job comes with constant interruptions that demand your attention, take several deep breaths and then prioritize them. Resist the urge to answer the phone every time it rings – unless it’s your boss. If someone asks you to drop what you’re doing to help with a problem, it’s OK to tell them, “I’ll be finished with what I’m doing in 10 minutes, then I’m all yours.”

When you get “stuck” in a task, change your physical environment to stimulate your senses. Sometimes we bounce from one task to another because we just don’t have the words to begin writing that strategic plan, or we’re staring at a problem and have no ideas for solutions.

“That’s the time to get up, take a walk outside and look at the flowers and the birds – change what you’re seeing,” Dr. Romie says. “Or turn on some relaxing music that makes you feel happy.”

Offering your senses pleasant and different stimulation rewires your brain for relaxation, and reduces the effects of stress hormones, which helps to unfreeze your creativity center.

Delegate! We often have little control over the external stresses in our life, particularly on the job. How can you not multitask when five people want five different things from you at the same time?

“Have compassion for yourself, and reach out for help,” Dr. Romie says. “If you can assign a task to somebody else who’s capable of handling it, do so. If you need to ask a colleague to help you out, ask!” This will not only allow you to focus on the tasks that most need your attention, it will reduce your stress. “And who knows? The colleague you’re asking for help may want to feel appreciated and part of your team!”

While it is possible to practice mindfulness in a hectic workplace, Dr. Romie says she encourages business leaders to make it part of the company culture. Stress-related illnesses are the number one cause of missed employee workdays.

“Offering mindfulness training and yoga classes or giving people time and a place to meditate is an excellent investment,” she says. “Your company’s performance will improve, you’ll see a reduction in stress-related illnesses and you’ll be a more successful businessperson.”

About Dr. Romie Mushtaq

Dr. Romie is a mind-body medicine physician and neurologist. She did her medical education and training at the Medical University of South Carolina, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and University of Michigan, where she won numerous teaching and research awards. She brings to healing both her expertise of traditional Western medical training and Eastern modalities of mindfulness. She is currently a corporate health consultant and professional health and wellness life coach at the Center for Natural and Integrative Medicine in Orlando, Florida. She is also an international professional speaker, addressing corporate audiences, health and wellness conferences and non-profit organizations. Her website is http://www.BrainBodyBeauty.com.

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Rein in Runaway Projects

One of the biggest barriers to any project’’s success is “scope creep”— – changing requirements that come without corresponding budget and deadline adjustments. The key
to managing that is to stay in control.

First, define objectives. In writing, set out the scope of the project, and ask both internal and external customers to review, revise and sign off on that plan before you begin.

Then, plan for change. Start with the expectation that the project plans are not written in stone, and create a system for handling change requests using these strategies:

  • Specify from the beginning that any new request must come with a change-request form that includes a cost-benefit analysis. Determine who will hold the authority to approve changes.
  • Boost your time and cost estimates by 15% to 20%, and you gain breathing room to handle inevitable changes.
  • Keep priorities in sight. Draft a list of the critical success factors for the project. Along with that, post the budget, deadlines and feature requirements in a place where you can refer to them often as you decide how to proceed.
  • Work the plan. Even for a single-person project, use a spreadsheet to create a management plan that details the work you must complete for each stage, from training through documentation. The bigger the project, the more detail you need.

Result: With clearly established change processes in place, you maintain control.
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- Adapted from “”Preventing Scope Creep in Project Management,”” Rick Cusolito, Boston University Corporate Education Center.

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Quick Tip: Link Errands in a Chain

Drivers use a technique called mapping to plan their route in a loop to save gasoline while running errands. Apply that strategy to your walks around the office. Instead of taking several trips back and forth, make one circle around the building to drop off files, fax a  document and fill your coffee cup.

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