Critical thinking is an effective tool for any profession or task. It forces you to analyze things objectively, filtering out your biases, and allowing you to see things from different perspectives, which can improve your creativity. Whether you're trying to brainstorm a new idea, creatively solve an existing problem, or just analyze how and why something went wrong, critical thinking can lead you to better resolutions.

However, it's hard to learn how to think critically the same way you learn how to drive a car or fly a kite. There isn't a step-by-step guide you can follow to reach peak critical thinking. Instead, you need to exercise your critical thinking, the same way you would a muscle, until it gets stronger over time.

Critical Thinking Exercises

These exercises and practices can turn anyone into a better critical thinker:

1. Express yourself in multiple mediums. Different people have different styles of thinking and different styles of learning. You may have a strong preference toward visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning, which is fine, but if you want to think in new directions, it's important for you to try thinking (or at least expressing yourself) in different mediums. For example, if you've been talking about a problem out loud, try to diagram it. If you've been staring at charts all day, try to write down your interpretations of them. The new perspective can be quite enlightening.

2. Talk to a 6-year-old. Einstein is sometimes credited with saying, "if you can't explain it to a 6-year-old, you don't understand it yourself," though the exact attribution is in question. The point of the quote, regardless of who said it, is relevant; being able to explain an abstract concept in simple terms is both an indication that you have a full understanding of a problem and a way to see it in a new light. Try talking to a 6-year-old about the issue (real or imaginary). You'll quickly discover elements of the subject you don't fully understand, and may start thinking about the problem in a new way.

3. Understand and challenge your biases. Each of us is affected by numerous cognitive biases, some of which affect how we value things and some of which affect how we think. Identifying and challenging these cognitive biases can allow us to work around them. For example, if you know you're affected by confirmation biases, you can specifically look for evidence that contradicts your main assumption.

4. Work backward. Working on a problem backward can help you see things you might otherwise ignore. As a simple example, proofreading a document sentence by sentence backward can help you more easily identify spelling and grammatical mistakes. Reconstructing a failure from end to beginning, rather than beginning to end, can help you address the true impact of each phase in the sequence.

5. Ask other people to explain their thought processes. Talk to other people about whatever problem you're trying to solve. It's helpful to get other opinions on solutions to use, but the bigger purpose is to understand their thought processes. Different people have different approaches to the same problem, and understanding those processes can help you refine and expand yours.

6. Expose yourself to new content and new creators. Similarly, it's good to break out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to new types of content and new creators. Every new author, speaker, or thinker you encounter can teach you something new about the way you think--and introduce you to new facts and ideas you can integrate into your own critical thinking.

7. Experiment with brain teasers and ethical dilemmas. Real ethical dilemmas will always be a problem for professionals, but you can use hypothetical ethical dilemmas (and some brain teasers) to employ and strengthen your critical thinking skills. For example, the classic trolley problem requires you to think about the value of lives and the impact of action in decision making and in culpability. Many brain teasers require you to think "outside of the box" to solve them adequately. They pose a good challenge.

Surrounding Yourself With Critical Thinkers

One of the best things you can do to improve your critical thinking isn't really an exercise; it's an environmental change. If you're surrounded with critical thinkers who freely express their thoughts and share their opinions, you'll be exposed to more sources of knowledge and perspective, and will have access to much better ideas--whether they're yours or someone else's. If you're in a position to hire or build a team, look for people who show strong signs of critical thinking. If not, try to seek critical thinkers elsewhere, in a peer group or in a class outside of work.

Published on: May 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.