Thinking is a messy process. But, if you were to create a checklist to make it more organized and thorough, what would that look like?
A good place to start would be to make sure your basic analytical thinking is in order. That’s the part where you gather information and data and then examine it carefully to make sure that you understand the component parts of something and how all the pieces fit together into the bigger picture.
This would help ensure that you can answer basic questions accurately, and that always makes a good foundation for further thought.
That further thought will probably involve critical thinking in order to make some sort of judgement or evaluation of a situation. This is the part where you go deeper, sifting through information in order to determine what is useful and what is not. You separate the signal from the noise. Next you would consider how those useful items interrelate and influence each other. And ultimately, you would reach conclusions in order to solve a problem or make decisions. When you are doing this type of thinking, there is no obvious right or wrong answer. Instead, you are landing on what you believe is the best solution or course of action.
Next on your checklist would probably be thinking about your thinking. In other words, how would you check your work in order to gain confidence that you did a good job?
Here you might consider the boundaries of your knowledge and experience and how that might have led you to poor conclusions. Or you might evaluate whether you trusted the right sources of information, followed a good process, and drew reasonable conclusions.
If you were to put these three ideas into a checklist, it might look something like this:
The Basics – Analytical Thinking
- Do I understand the basic facts, see the component parts and how they fit together?
- How can I identify and fill in any gaps? Could I do a little research? Where would talking to an expert help? Should I get some first-hand reports from people involved in the details?
- How can I validate that what I know is true? Should I question any parameters or assumptions? What is the best way to test my understanding? (Hint: if you can explain it well to someone else, then you probably have a good understanding.)
My Evaluation – Critical Thinking
- What is my opinion about the thing I am talking about? What do I think is good/bad, weak/strong, critical/unimportant?
- Where do I see the pain points or opportunities for leverage? What do I see as obstacles or limitations controlling the parameters?
- How would I do things differently now, and in the future? How would those changes play out over time? What would need to be true for my ideas to work?
- How can I test my ideas about this? What thought experiments could I run through to help me evaluate this more effectively?
The Thought Process – Metacognition
- How good was my thinking process? Did I make mistakes by rushing, jumping to conclusions, or using improper metaphors or models?
- Where would my blind spots be in thinking about this thing? How could I gain confidence that I didn’t miss anything or misinterpret something?
- Did I allow my thinking to occupy the space and time necessary to do a thorough job? Did I work on this intermittently? Did I think about it during different times of day, at various energy levels, and while in different thinking moods?
- Did I write things down or do all of this in my head? Did I make notes, sketches, or diagrams? Did I attempt to synthesize my thinking with prose or by explaining my ideas and process to others?
Thinking is a messy process behind the scenes. Neat, clean, organized ideas only come to life after the confusing, frustrating, scattered work is done. It’s not the type of routine process that lends itself to a checklist, but a checklist of open questions can help to guide your efforts through the disorganized chaotic part in order to help gain confidence in your conclusions.
Thinking is high value work, so it’s not supposed to be super efficient. Don’t worry about wasting time. Instead, worry about not giving it enough time and iteration. Hopefully this quick checklist can help you to find out where there is more work to be done and help you to identify when you can confidently come to a conclusion.