How To Think

Thinking Skills


How to think effectively is especially relevant, at the time of writing, as the world slowly emerges from post Covid-19 lockdown and starts to come to terms with the societal, economic and financial consequences.

We are currently living in an age of unreason where:

  • Experts are denigrated and ignorance, bias and prejudice is celebrated;
  • Woke thinking takes precedence over reasoned debate;
  • Virtue signally takes precedence over private philanthropy;
  • Intelligent discussion and agreement to disagree and respect for other shades of opinion are denied in the current cancel culture;
  • Public debate is hijacked and taken over by group think and mob rule.

All of which provides another very powerful rationale and motivation for learning how to think effectively.

In this article [and the associated articles that follow] we are going to look at a number of ways of improving your cognitive capabilities and  provide you with a range of practical tools and resources to do this successfully.

We are going to start the process of understanding and learning how to think effectively with several key reference points:

  1. Focusing On How To Think Not What To Think
  2. Critical Thinking Skills
  3. The Strategic Mindset
  4. Metacognition
  5. Mental Models




How To Think: [1] Focusing On How To Think Not What To Think

In recent research into the neurology of creative brains, the lead author of the study [Roger E.Beaty] said:

People who are more creative can simultaneously engage brain networks that don’t typically work together.”

The evidence suggested 3 sub-networks:

  1. The default mode network involved in memory and mental simulation.
  2. The salience network which detects important information.
  3. The executive control network which plays key roles in creative thought.

“It’s the synchrony between these systems that seems to be important for creativity...”

Neuroscientist and Neuropsychiatrist Nancy Andreasen scanned the brains of 13 of the current most famous creative people across various domains and summarised key patterns in the minds of these creative geniuses:

# They have patience and persistence and allow the time

Creative work takes time, often a lot of time, and that requires patience and persistence.

"Isaac Newton's formulation of the concept of gravity took more than 20 years and included multiple components: preparation, incubation, inspiration — a version of the eureka experience — and production...”

[Nancy Andreasen]

# They are largely self-taught

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg were all self-learners preferring to figure things out for themselves.

“Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own...”

# They are good at making juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects

Many creative geniuses make connections between things that are unrelated to their main research. They can force relationships where there is none. They make connections where ordinary minds see opposites.

Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water, which enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something...” [Steve Jobs]

When presented with a problem, creative people will ask :

  • “How many different ways can I look at it?
  • “How can I rethink the way I see it?”
  • “How many different ways can I solve it?”

They tend to come up with many different responses, some of which are unconventional and possibly unique.

# They are open-minded.

Every problem — no matter how apparently simple it may be — comes with a long list of assumptions.

These assumptions must be tested expecially the most obvious and the "sacred cows".

They ask "Why!?"

# They are so good, we can’t ignore them

Cal Newport says:

“Until you become good, you don’t have leverage.”

Truly creative people are always seeking improvement:

  • Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents
  • Bach wrote a cantata every week
  • Picasso made 50,000 works of art in his life.
  • Mozart composed over 600 pieces in his lifetime.
  • Charles Schulzmade made 17,897 Charlie Brown strips before he died.
  • Aside from his paper on relativity, Einstein published 248 other papers.

“On average, creative geniuses aren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers, they simply produce a greater volume of work which gives them more variation and a higher chance of originality...”

[Prof. Dean Simonton]

In summary, patience, persistence life long learning and approaching things differently are the keys to high-level creative thinking.

For a fascinating insight into the thought processes of Bill Gates I do recommend the Netflix 3 film series for which this is the trailer:





How To Think: [2] Critical Thinking Skills


What Is Critical Thinking?

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” [The Foundation for Critical Thinking]



Critical thinking is just deliberately and systematically processing information so that you can make better decisions and generally understand things better.

Ways to critically think about information include:

  • Conceptualizing
  • Analyzing
  • Synthesizing
  • Evaluating

That information can come from sources such as:

  • Observation
  • Experience
  • Reflection
  • Reasoning
  • Communication

And all this is meant to guide:

  • Beliefs
  • Action

These notes are an extract from an excellent article by Ramson Patterson: 7 Ways to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

The Five Whys Technique is used to help determine the root cause of a problem by asking the question “Why” five times.




How To Think: [3] The Strategic Mindset

The strategic mindset is focused on the most efficient thinking process to achieve a result.

We are all familiar with that well-known quote from Thomas Edison, with reference to his 3,000 failures before he successfully invented the lightbulb, when he said that:

“Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.

However, usual interpretation of that story suggests dogged persistence and determination was the key to his eventual success. However there was far more to it than just that. Edison didn’t just randomly move from one failed design to another.

He was constantly adapting and refining his ideas:

“I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable... then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved.”

At each step of the process, he was making intelligent decisions that learnt from the failures and built on the small successes.

A recent study, at the National University of Singapore suggests we might all benefit from the strategic mindset.

While others diligently follow the same convoluted path, people with the strategic mindset are constantly looking for a more efficient route forwards.

“It helps them figure out how to direct their efforts more effectively,” says Patricia Chen who ran the study and the research shows that the strategic mindset may just spell the difference between success or failure.




How To Think: [4] Metacognition

Thinking about thinking: knowing how to apply the most appropriate cognitive processes to the task in hand.



Our brains process and organize information in a variety of ways. The core cognitive processes used for learning were first defined by Albert Upton [a professor at Whittier College] and later refined with David Hyerle. They include:

  • Defining: Listing the facts, details and key information you know about a topic or term.
  • Describing: Identifying the essential characteristics of something using adjectives.
  • Comparing and Contrasting: Analyzing how two things are similar or different from one another.
  • Classifying: Organizing information into groups or sets and listing the details, members or characteristics of each set. 
  • Whole-to-Part Relationships: Defining the parts and subparts of a system. 
  • Sequencing: Outlining the steps in a process or the sequence of events in a narrative. 
  • Cause and Effect: Analyzing the root causes and impacts of an event. 
  • Analogies and Relationships: Showing how things relate to one another using an analogy or relating factor. 

By deliberately activating and combining these 8 cognitive processes, and knowing which ones to apply for different tasks, we understand and interpret the world around us.

These thinking processes are built into our brains; we use them all the time and automatically. But we don’t always use them efficiently.

Effective thinkers have good metacognition, they know how to access these different modes of thinking deliberately and apply them to different kinds of tasks.




How To Think: [5] Mental Models

A mental model is a high level representation, or overview, of how something works.



Since it is impossible to keep all of the details of all of the information that you absorb in your brain, you use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organisable chunks.

Mental models shape how you reason and how you understand, and they also shape the connections and opportunities that you see, and also why you consider some things more relevant than others.

The quality of your thinking processes is proportional to the models in your head and their applicability to the situation under consideration.

The more models you have the better quality will be your thinking processes and decision making ability, however most people are specialists.

What we need is a latticework of mental models spanning many different domains of information and experience.

  • Many people know a little about a little.
  • Most people with training and skills in a particular discipline or scope of proficiency know a lot about a little.
  • The person with a latticework of mental models knows a little about a lot.
  • The serious thinker has a latticework of mental models that enable him/her to know a lot about a lot.
“You don’t have to know everything. A few really big ideas carry most of the freight.”

"It’s kind of fun to sit there and outthink people who are way smarter than you are because you’ve trained yourself to be more objective and more multidisciplinary. Furthermore, there is a lot of money in it, as I can testify from my own personal experience."

Charlie Munger

Charlie Munger: Adding Mental Tools to Your Toolbox




Try these blogs to stimulate your thinking:

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Sam Thomas Davies

Bernardo Kastrop

Farnam Street

Mark Manson

Scot Jeffrey




How To Think: Thinking Skills

Charlie Munger

First Principles Thinking

Second Order Thinking

Occams Razor




Download: The 3 Keys To How To Think

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