Become a better critical thinker

Mastering the art of critical thinking will help you make decisions and solve problems, says Dr. Jenny Brockis. Here’s how you can quickly and easily add it to your EA skill set.

It takes around 28 decisions to order a ham and cheese Subway™ roll, which puts the fact we make around 30,000 decisions every day into context. With so much to be decided, no wonder we can succumb to decision fatigue, especially as a super busy EA who has to simultaneously juggle multiple competing thoughts, ideas and demands even when tired, stressed and under pressure.

We’d all like to be able to avoid that fatigue, make consistently good decisions and solve problems fast but that requires a certain skill. That skill is critical thinking, which has been identified by the Society for Human Resource Management as essential to success in the modern workplace.

So, what exactly is critical thinking?
It’s thinking about how you think; running a critique on your thoughts and challenging their validity, relevance and completeness. It means being more discerning in your thinking and not accepting things at face value – instead you’ll dig a little deeper to quickly distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.
EAs who wear a critical thinking cap have their mind opened to the perspectives of others and new ideas – it keeps you curious and asking questions. It also frees you up to know when you might be wrong and helps you to let go of those thought patterns holding you back from a well-thought through and considered decision.
But could mastering critical thinking be seen as time wasted on yet another so-called PA productivity hack? Thankfully it’s far from it – being a critical thinking pro actually makes acting as the second brain to your boss easier and more effective.
So, what gets in the way of being a better critical thinker? That would be you, me, us. As humans we’re imperfect, fallible and sometimes completely irrational – and when working with too many mental tabs open, as many EAs do daily, our brain powers down to operate in survival mode. In an increasingly complex and complicated world, our need for speed can lead us to take mental short cuts, jump to conclusions or make assumptions that may be completely wrong.

The steps to critical thinking
Developing your skill as a rock star critical thinker begins with identifying the common culprits that contribute to poor thinking – these include the following:

  • Filter failure
  • Being stuck on auto-pilot
  • Feeling time poor
  • Knowing you’re right

Filter failure
Start dealing with information overload by avoiding filter failure and, instead, devising your own filtering system to determine what really is important and urgent. This keeps stress levels in check and maintains access to your pre-frontal cortex; the conscious thinking part of your brain used for planning, organising and decision-making.
Of course, filtering takes time, so prioritise a daily ten-minute appointment with yourself to spend thinking, reflecting and considering.

Being stuck on auto-pilot
Autopilot is great – except when it isn’t. It’s that time where you’ve driven to your destination but have no recollection of how you got there, or the day you turned up for a scheduled appointment that was in the diary, but you got the time completely wrong.
Here, having greater situational awareness (the conscious process of being fully in the present moment) can help. Being more mindful hones attention to what’s needed now, so you can quickly respond to that urgent request from above to obtain two VIP tickets to that oversubscribed business event without falling foul of the cognitive load of high stress or panic.

Feeling time poor
If there’s one thing that can really get in the way of making a good decision, it’s the terror of time poverty: the feeling you don’t have the time or resources to think it through. Decision-making requires energy and clarity of thought but feeling time pressured reduces both. Therefore, getting enough down time and rest is vital.
It’s been shown that staying engaged with our technology adds to the feeling of time running away from us. The solution? Taking time out to disengage from tech, even for a few minutes (and especially after work). It’ll help you to relax, re-energise and, paradoxically, providesthe time you need.

Knowing you’re right
When you’re absolutely certain you’re right, beware – often knowing can work against you because it shuts down the possibility of being wrong. Instead, adopting a beginner’s mind reduces the burden of knowing, replacing it with the confidence to seek more information, learn more and come up more potential solutions to deal all with those problems.

As with any skill set, becoming a better critical thinker takes time and practice. But the bonus is that developing this useful art builds competence and capability, making you not only increasingly indispensable but also a strong voice of reason and clarity – the perfect PA ingredients.
So, next time you’re facing a difficult decision or challenging problem try adopting the critical thinking approach. Create the space to think; slow down your thoughts; keep an open mind and adopt that quiet determination to see it through because critical thinking provides you the cognitive advantage to make better sense of the world and be better prepared for what lies ahead.