If there’s one skill common to all of history’s greatest minds, it’s probably critical thinking.

Critical thinking, which involves reasoning and processing information in a deliberate and systematic way, is deemed to be such an important intellectual skill, that there is a non-profit organization and annual conference (now in its 39th year!) devoted entirely to it.

As a small business owner, you’ll use (or need to use!) critical thinking skills – skills like problem-solving, decision making and task switching – on a daily basis, whether you are aware of them or not.  Critical thinking helps you to make better decisions – whether that’s deciding to go with one supplier or an alternative, considering whether or not to extend credit to a potentially valuable customer, making predictions about future cash flow or even agreeing to an employee’s request for unpaid leave. Critical thinking about even the most seemingly banal decisions is crucial to successful outcomes and business performance.

So how can you develop critical thinking skills? Research points to the positive effect of some really simple habits and routines.

Question Your Assumptions

critical thinkingAll decision-making is founded on assumptions – things we believe without proof or question. Many times, our assumptions are correct (and many successful entrepreneurs say they were guided by little more than gut feelings). Sticking to our assumptions provides a short-cut to making every one of the thousand or so decisions we have to make daily.  However, it’s important to remember that assumptions are based on past experiences and ideas formed in specific contexts and times. As times and environments change, so too must our assumptions. Questioning our assumptions, asking “what if…?” before your bigger decisions can get you out of your comfort zone and thinking more broadly. And broad thinkers make big waves.

Try Standing Instead of Sitting to Work

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence while standing, Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in the same position, and Leonardo Da Vinci rarely sat to sketch and design? Studies suggest that standing while working can produce a host of neurocognitive benefits (improved memory, recall, attention, and creativity) compared to long periods of uninterrupted sitting. Why might standing improve critical thinking? One suggestion is that standing produces a kind of positive stress which improves concentration, attention, and focus. Standing requires more effort than sitting: it is more physically demanding and requires the brain to manage more actions simultaneously – balancing, positioning one’s body, controlling muscle contractions and so on. This improved focus, all adds up to better cognitive performance.

Focus On One Thing at a Time

critical thinkingSmall business owners are known for multi-tasking. You might think that juggling multiple tasks at once is the only way you can get everything you need, done. But, research conducted at Stanford University suggests that not only is multitasking completely inefficient; it might actually damage your cognitive processes.

The brain is designed to focus on just one thing at a time. When you try to do too much at once, your performance at all those tasks is suboptimal. So, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, says you can improve your critical thinking skills by working deeply or focusing intensely on one single task. In the digital age, this is harder than it might seem. Newport advises training yourself to make sure that you integrate focused activity into your work schedule. This means avoiding distractions (like social media!) and setting aside specific times for work that doesn’t require critical thinking, such as responding to emails or scheduling meetings.

If you focus on one task, you will be in a better position to execute that task proficiently.


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