The Importance of Practical Thinking Tools

June 2, 2021 | Peter Cronin

A guy thinking and looking worried


Our world is currently awash with ideas on how to think and how to improve thinking.

Among the reasons why; a strong driver is that more people are in more and more knowledge-based jobs. They must think for a living. And this trend will only get stronger due to two drivers.

Firstly, there is a growing trend to transition away from the hierarchical structures of the industry as people have the power to work for themselves as part of the gig economy. This means that large groups of people are less necessary to achieve things.

Secondly, businesses that do remain are increasingly incorporating IT into all their roles. As we replace manual workers with machines, and with machines building machines, software engineers and people using software will become a greater part of work. This inherently requires more thinking.

As well as this we have more access to information than ever before. In fact, more information than ever before is being forced on us. This information is not necessarily true, and even when it is, it is not always relevant. We are left with a requirement to make more decisions and solve more problems faster, based on increased information of dubious quality.

Now more than ever the requirement to be able to think clearly and think differently is a critical skill in the average person’s life.

This has led to many businesses directly serving this need. For example, businesses that offer abstract logic training through apps and software (often designed as games). Unfortunately, this is like a school teaching you calculus rather than how to budget – it has a specific application but it is not deployable where most needed.

We then have the logic of ancient philosophers being shared and clarified for modern life. I’m a big fan of these, however, they also are not directly useful to many, instead serving more like tertiary institutions which set you up with a base knowledge of topics but often no way to practically use them.

What’s most useful are practical thinking tools. Tools that are a kind of formulae or templates for problem-solving and decision-making. With the right tools, we don’t have to be masterful thinkers to solve problems. Tools which in structure allow us to drill in the use of them, like doing drills in martial arts, this ingrains the skills into our mind and we can use the logic when not using the tools. Tools which allow us to help others, if we have an innate skill it is difficult to teach it to others or even to identify how we think to ourselves, these tools allow us to pass on thinking techniques.

Solving problems

“All his life, Klaus had believed that if you read enough books, you could solve any problem, but now he wasn’t so sure.” ― Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Like anything, solving problems for specific scenarios is difficult, or even impossible, if you don’t have any real-life experience with the scenario.

Where do you start? What do you do?

We fall back on adapting the approaches we have used in the past solve other problems. These tried and true approaches, when combined with our natural thinking abilities, don’t appear to be an issue; they have got us this far at least!

BUT, imagine instead if you had a mental toolbox, where you could choose the right tool for the job, a hammer for a nail; a screwdriver for a screw. As you become more comfortable with the basic tools you find yourself reaching for more specialised tools, eventually developing a large toolbox with tools specialised to tackle any scenario – a mechanic’s rolling toolbox.

We already have these in some parts of our lives. If quick maths is too tough or the outcome important we pull out a calculator. If finances are too difficult to plan mentally, we pull out a budget. Practical thinking tools are the same. They are, in many cases, templates that we can use to prompt our minds on how to see the situation more clearly. They work as a checklist ensuring we have the whole situation clear, not just a part of it. Practical thinking tools then focus us on where to solve the problem and often include prompts to think differently. If we are blocked on our ideas a tool may serve to reverse our ideas or force us to think outside our current frame of mind.

The critical attribute is that such thinking tools are specific and reliable. Tools that are practical will work provided you follow the steps, this means you can be confident to deploy them in tough situations. They are also designed to solve a problem in a tailored fashion, meaning you can understand which tool is right to use for which problem.

Developing the skill

Trying to build a skill without a structure or training regime is difficult.

If you are looking to develop your skill in a sport you can buy a training program from a top coach. Even though the coach is not there to actually coach you, following the program will give you a far better outcome than winging it, and will provide a guide to remove the feeling of ‘where do I start?’ or ‘what to do next?’

A martial arts instructor (or student) will tell you it is hard to unlearn how to throw an effective punch. Once you have gone from the wild swing to an effective and targeted movement you can’t unlearn it. The muscle memory takes over and you just do the right things. As you develop a skill your body adapts to it.

How does this happen? In our brain neurons connect to each other via branch-like axons.

We learn new things via these connections, and we can also strengthen our understanding by adding more of these connections. Once the initial connections have been formed, they get stronger by having the connection insulated. The connections we use frequently become stronger and stronger, as our brain applies more insulation to them.

This insulation is a fatty tissue called myelin, and it accelerates the brain’s signal along those connections that are insulated. A well-myelinated axon will transfer a signal 15 times faster than an un-myelinated axon.

A structured way of thinking about things is necessary because we need to be myelinating the right connections in our brains. We want to ensure that we are doing the same process over and over to ensure we are getting it ingrained. Further, we want to be solving harder and harder problems similar to training with heavier weights. Our body will add more myelin when we struggle and thereby accelerate the connection.

Let’s go back to the calculator example. There is a level of mental maths we can do without a calculator, and if we always pull out the calculator we will become rusty. Having a relevant equation or method we know will solve the maths problem makes it simple to practice and enhance the skill. We become better at it.

When we apply this to general thinking and problem-solving the same thing happens. Your mind develops a default for identifying the critical information you need to put into the thinking tool. Subconsciously your mind becomes more focused, and you find the information faster because your brain knows what to look for. You can quickly fill in the gaps or notice the gaps in the logic.

If you use the structure of the thinking tools loosely in your head you will quickly notice that you make more rational decisions, you’re asking better questions in meetings, and you’re finding people coming to you for advice more often, as you can solve their problems. Of course, once others come to you, you will need a structured way to help them with their problems.

Sharing/helping others

How often have you gone to share an approach you have with others and found that it is a lot harder to explain than just do?

The importance of steps and templates to be able to share useful tools is critical. We need tools that are tangible in order to help us get others to use the tools. This becomes even more imperative when you have a team of people looking to solve problems together. Having a common ground to collaborate around a tool will focus the efforts, and the clear structure of such a tool allows newbies to get involved too.

The framework can also be used to easily review what the person has done, you can see their thinking and whether they have approached it how you would have or differently. The structure brings a physical aspect to their thoughts that you couldn’t have seen or understood before.

The most effective way to change the way you think, improve your problem-solving, and make better decisions is to use practical thinking tools. Seek out practical tools which utilise templates, checklists, and steps. Where this is not possible, distill esoteric advice into the most tangible steps you can and test those. Courses such as our Black Belt in Thinking course teach these tools.