How to Develop Critical Thinking

Andrew is planning to build a house on a small plot near his home. It’s on a traditional street with old houses, and he wanted the new house to be respectful of what is already there.

But when he got the architects’ plans, he found the design was for a modern property. When he asked the architects about it, they said the house was low energy, and conformed to modern building regulations. It was what people wanted. Making it look old would cost money, so he would lose money on the sale.

At this point, what would you do? Accept what the experts say? Or challenge them? And if so, how? This is where critical thinking comes in.

People will try and manage you. They do it in advertising, with fad products that make false claims about weight loss or health pills. Politicians come up with comments that sound plausible, but are they? Colleagues will give you facts, but are they cherry picking? And social media is littered with misinformation about social and political issues.

You can end up confused and not knowing what to think. And the problem gets worse when you’re confronted with people who sound as though they know what they’re talking about. Maybe they’re using clever devices to persuade you to adopt their way of thinking, or make you agree with what they’re saying? It can leave you controlled by other people.  

This is especially important if you’re trying to make a change in your life, because some people will try to talk you out of it. And while you’re exploring how to change, others will want you to adopt their solution. Say you decide to emigrate. People and websites will tell you which country is best, how to apply for a visa, and where to buy or rent a house.

But are they a ‘disinterested party’? That’s unlikely. They may want to sell you something. And if they don’t, their views may be biased or lack complete knowledge. Maybe they live in one of the places you’re thinking of emigrating to, such as Australia. Perhaps they’re only familiar with a particular part of Australia, but not the whole country? And maybe they have a relationship with a particular car dealership, but not others. 

You don’t need to follow the crowd. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right for you.

Armed with critical thinking skills, you can boost your self confidence, make better decisions, and lead your life the way you want to.

How to think more critically

Ask simple questions.

  • Why are they saying this?
  • What are they trying to prove?
  • Do they have a vested interest in the outcome?
  • Are they trying to dissuade me from a particular goal?

Question their assertions

  • Is this true? How sure are we?
  • What’s the evidence?
  • What might go wrong?
  • Are there alternatives?
  • What are the drawbacks?

Be aware of your biases

  • Avoid wishful thinking. Are your hopes blinding you to reality? If something is too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Are you taken in by someone’s apparent honesty and professionalism (aka slickness)?
  • Is ‘confirmation bias’ making you see only those things that support your hopes or beliefs?

Beware of misleading statistics and statements

  • Because X and Y are similar doesn’t mean that one causes the other. It could be the other way around. Or there might be no correlation at all. Here are some fun spurious correlations.
  • People can take a small sample and extrapolate it to the world. A bigger sample might prove the opposite. Here is an interesting link.
  • Graphs sometimes have axes that exaggerate quite small trends.
  • ‘Up to 70% off’ could mean that only one item is reduced by that amount. Everything else could be full price or reduced by only 5%.
  • Beware of exaggeration and extreme language. Words like ‘original, ‘fresh’, ‘new’, exceptional value’ are meaningless.
  • Beware of being bumped into a decision by scarcity. If a deal is available for only today, it’s probably a sale technique. The deal will doubtless be available in a week’s time if you were to ask then. The same applies to ‘limited quantity’

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

Get the Pro Mindset

When it comes to making change, there are two types of people: the amateur and the pro.

The professional shows up on time, and does the work. It may not be totally excellent, but the job gets done. It’s workmanlike.

The amateur says they don’t feel in the mood today. They have an achy neck. The weather is too nice. When on the job, the pro barely notices the weather.

The amateur writer says they don’t feel inspired to work, whereas the professional says, as William Faulkner did: “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired every day at nine o’clock.”

You tell your mind that you’re a pro. It’s as simple as that. You take your challenge – your One Big Change – seriously.

As a professional you deal with setbacks as they happen, and fix the problems. You don’t give up.

There are no excuses. Not tiredness: you work through the night if you have to. Not aches and pains: you disregard them. Not lack of resources: everyone lacks resources. And not fear: everyone has fears, but the professionals accept them and push past them.

Excellence versus sloppy I generally leave my work colleagues to get on with their work, because they know best and they don’t need me to micro manage. But there are a few exceptions. We send out boxes of course material. And the label has to be on straight. It tells the recipient that we’re professionals. The contents will be of a high standard. The label is a proxy for excellence. Similarly, the label shouldn’t be creased. If you slap it carelessly on to the box, it doesn’t stick down perfectly and is liable to get crumpled. That’s another sign of amateurism. And any letters that go into the box shouldn’t be creased. They should be as pure as when they came from the paper manufacturer. If you hold paper by the corner, you get a crease. It’s like opening a new book and finding someone has already flipped though it, and creased the spine.  It may sound like nit-picking. But it’s about dong a job properly, because we’re professionals.  

The pro mindset has come from sport and athletics, where the most successful are the committed. They’re purpose-driven and focussed. And that’s what you need to be. You’re self-disciplined, resilient, and competitive. You’re ready to accept suggestions for improvement (what amateurs call ‘criticism’). You’re a pro, not an amateur.

And why is this important? Because it’s hard to create change. It’s difficult. That’s why you need to flip your mind, and say I’m not going to do this as amateur. I’m not going to cave in. I’m a pro.

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

Counselling can be a trap. There are other solutions

Miriam has been seeing a therapist for two years. Why? She isn’t depressed. She has a job most people would die for, and it isn’t overly demanding. Her boyfriend is a bit self interested, and she thinks she should dump him. She even has a plan to get a job in another, distant city, which would put space between them.

So, why spend two years with the therapist? What is she getting out of it? Most importantly, how is it moving her forward?

Therapy is great if you need someone to say, ‘You aren’t crazy. What you tell me is not uncommon.” It validates you, and tells you you’re making sense.

But there’s a risk that you keep going over the same ground and not move forward. Some people use a therapist like a crutch, something that gives them security. Others use therapist like a friend, someone to chat to about their day-to-day issues.

After two years, Miriam isn’t making headway. She doesn’t have Agency. She isn’t being decisive. If she needs to separate from her boyfriend she should do so. At the very least they could have a trial separation.

Does therapy work? Well, mostly it doesn’t fail. You’ll rarely find example of bad things things happening because of someone going to a therapist.

Here’s the big problem: therapists focus on the problem. They don’t like to talk about solutions. They’ve been taught not to recommend actions, because clients don’t take advice. It’s Catch 22. They don’t discuss solutions, so the client doesn’t know how to move forward.

So if you go to a therapist, they’ll encourage you to keep talking about what’s on your mind. It can go on forever – as long as you keep paying. Therapists believe that by surfacing the problem the you’ll reach a solution of your own accord. But if you’re still talking after a year, it’s not working.

If you have a mental health problem, you could try other options, such as dance, volunteering, helping others, getting involved in the community, finding friends, or self hypnosis.

Want to hear more? Are you sitting down? Some critics see therapy as self-indulgent narcissism for rich Westerners. That’s a slightly extreme view because some of us genuinely need to get things off their chest, and we don’t have anyone we can trust. Nevertheless, taken to extreme it can look like self-absorption rather than self-care.

And therapists have a guilty secret: as long as there’s no solution, you’ll keep coming back to them.

Are you asking permission?

One reason people go to therapy is to ask permission. That’s right. You may be going to therapy just to ask permission to live your own life the way you want.

Most therapists withhold permission. They don’t do so intentionally. It’s just that they’re taught not to give advice. So, mostly, they just say ‘uh huh’ to whatever you say. They re-phrase what you’ve said (‘So you feel your parents didn’t love you?’). It’s like having a non-committal parent.

Some therapists do recognise this issue, and explicitly give their clients permission. That’s a little known trade secret, by the way.

Here are some permissions that a therapist, like a priest, will bestow on a client who comes to their confessional.

  1. Permission to exist. The counsellor says to the client, ‘Yes, you exist; and you have the  right to exist’.
  2. Permission to think their own thoughts and feelings, rather than what others say or think they should do.
  3. Permission to be a grown up. The client is free to grow and develop as they choose, and be the gender and sexual orientation they want. They can choose their own purpose, lifestyle and work.
  4. Permission to have emotions. The client is entitled to show their feelings. They don’t have to keep them cooped up.
  5. Permission to be close to other people. The client is entitled to love and be loved.

But do you really need a therapist to tell you this, and to validate you? And mostly they won’t. Isn’t the issue you’re wrestling with obvious? It’s the thing you keep talking about. Life has dealt you some bad cards. Now is the time to saddle up, get on your horse, and get moving. Everything else is just talk.

And sure, talk to your significant other. It helps to hear yourself say the words. But don’t pay a counsellor to listen to you.

Three solutions that might be better than therapy

Three alternatives to conventional therapy come to mind.

1. The first is so-called Solutions Focused Therapy (SFT). Hurray! Therapists who aim for a resolution! But the methodology they use doesn’t seem to be practical. SFT therapists follow a specific routine, asking you their so-called ‘Miracle Question: “Assume your problem is gone. What does this mean to you?” To me that sounds a bit theoretical. It looks like the promise of SFT doesn’t really deliver.

2. The second solution is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This definitely focuses on solutions. CBT is ideal for people with anxiety or depression. It gets the client to agree that the terrible outcomes they fear are unlikely to happen. It seeks to remove negative thoughts by pointing out that those negative thoughts will impede your progress. But CBT is less useful for people who just lack agency.

3. And that brings us to the third option, which is coaching. A coach can be brutal, requiring you to list what steps you will take next week, and then checking whether you’ve done that. So coaching is aligned with the principle of agency. However, the coach will only get you to do what you should be doing anyway – taking action.

Let’s summarise this:

If you have a mental health problem, seeing a counsellor makes sense. But if you do that for more than two months, you’re not reaching for a solution, you’re just navel gazing.

CBT is good for people with depression or anxiety. If that’s you, CBT might help. A coach could help you take action. But you could save money by just following the steps outlined in this book, and developing ag

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

Kick the clutter

Most of us have stuff we don’t need. Possessions make us feel secure, but too many of them clutter our lives.

This is where Agency comes into play. Work out what you have too much of, and you don’t use, and get rid of it.

Like everything else in the Agency playbook, de-cluttering hurts. I have books from my university days. Seeing them on a shelf tells me I’m intelligent and cultured. It’s a different me, but it’s a small but nevertheless important part of my persona.

I’ve also got some antique furniture. The pieces didn’t cost much: I bought most of them from a run-down shop that rented space to stall holders. The house no longer has space for my two beautiful corner cupboards and a 17th century table. I’ve asked a local auction house to take them away, preferably when I’m away so I can’t see them go.

You may have old football programmes, or china inherited from your parents. Can you photograph the items and keep only the digital version? That way you’ll have the best of both worlds – having it without the clutter.

Can you store it better? Thanks to RightMove and other house move websites you can see into people’s homes, and all too often people have failed to put up shelves, or get cheap storage units. Storage bins solve many problems, because they are interchangeable, help you sort items, and some are stackable. Consider also trays, jars and hooks.

Where to get rid of stuff

  • Sell it on eBay
  • Give it to charity shops
  • Leave it outside your house, with a note saying ‘Free to a good home’.
  • Post an offer on, or

Once the stuff has gone, you’ll don’t miss it. You’ll find it’s hard to even remember what you once owned.

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

To survive the 21st century you need 21st century skills.

Marjorie, a senior manager, recently asked me how to insert photos into Gmail, and how to align images in Microsoft Word. Credit to her for asking, but it’s something she could have found the answers on Google if she’d asked.

Without skills, you’ll be forever sitting on the sidelines while others make decisions for you.

My later mother in law said she had never learnt to drive because ‘there were three others in the house who could drive’. But because of that she was vulnerable. When she was left on her own, she was dependent on the rural buses which were infrequent and dropped her with her shopping bags 100m away from her house.   

When in Alicante I saw piles of British newspapers in the newsagents, and heard ex-pat Brits speaking English to the locals, not bothering to learn the language.

It’s not just tech skills you need. Some of the most valuable skills include:

How to search. This means knowing how to ask Google the right questions, and how to re-phrase a question so the stupid machine understands you.

If you don’t use a computer much, you need to engage with them.

The required skills keep changing, especially as technology gives us new ways of doing things. Once you fall too far behind, it’s easy to give up. But that’s a dangerous situation.

At time of writing, voice activated controls are becoming more common. You can switch on lights in your house by commanding the house to do so. I that important, when you can use a light switch? Not vital. But the time will come when the office door or ATM is voice activated. Staying up with technology keeps you up to date. 

What skills do you need?

  • Thinking skills: Critical thinking
  • Creativity. Problem solving. Innovation skills.
  • Perseverance. Self-direction.
  • Social skills. Collaboration. Communication skills. Emotional intelligence.
  • Information literacy. Technology skills and digital literacy
  • Basic maths ad literacy
  • Citizenship. Civic literacy. Social responsibility. Global awareness. Media literacy.

Six ways to acquire skills

1. Online articles. There are articles about everything under the sun. Often they’re from an individual’s experience, which can be a good or a bad thing.  

2. Youtube. Ideal for step-by-step skills, notably through demonstration.

3. Free online courses. These vary in quality, and are sometimes but not always designed to lure you into paid content. Sometimes they tell you the What but not the How. In other words, they will explain what you should do but not how to do it.

4. Paid online courses. They’re liable to be of better quality and bigger content than free ones. 

5. Local courses. Your local college is likely to offer all manner of courses, from learning Spanish to basket weaving. Some are more useful than others, but any form of learning is challenging and makes you stronger.

6. Friends and family. Children are sometimes more skilled than their parents, and a lot more skilled than their grandparents. It’s not uncommon to hear someone saying, ‘I got my son to fix my phone’. But be careful not to become reliant on them. It’s more important to take ownership of a problem. That means using the phrase: ‘Show me how to do that. What did you do?’

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

Decisions don’t have to be forever

Weirdly, this is one of the most powerful tools I use.

Why? Because it makes every decision less challenging.

I say to myself, ‘It doesn’t have to be forever. If it turns out to be the wrong decision, what will I do?’

I usually find there is a way back, or a different route to follow.

Knowing that ‘it isn’t forever’ lessens the importance of each decision. You can usually make a second or third decision afterwards. That lessens the fear.

Here’s what it looks like in a table:

The decision I have to make  What to do if it’s the wrong choice?
What happens if I leave my partner, and I regret it?  I could go back to them and say I was wrong. It won’t be easy, but people do it.

Now fill in this table with the decisions you have to make.

The decision I have to makeWhat to do if it’s the wrong choice?

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

Are you talking or hearing?

Do you ever find that people are jabbering away, talking a load of lightweight nonsense? It happens in a pub, and when friends or relatives come round to your house.

There are two kinds of people those who talk a lot, and those who listen.

It’s sometimes called Transmit and Receive mode, from the days of walkie-talkies. If you’re in transmit mode, you aren’t listening. You can miss what people are saying.

In part, it’s the difference between the extrovert and the introvert. But it goes deeper than that. Listeners come in three forms: the Cowed, the Co-operator and the Command mode.

The Cowed is someone who doesn’t have an opinion. They feel that others know more than they do. It’s not their place to intervene or have an opinion.

The Cooperator listens and obeys. That’s what they see as their role. They see it as the natural way of things. They may also be an introvert who simply doesn’t want to engage. They’d rather let others talk.

In Commander mode you engage in what I call ‘boss behaviour’.  Senior bosses watch and listen, albeit briefly. Then they tell you what’s going to happen. You get a feeling that their time is valuable. They don’t mess around.

I was in a taxi in Glasgow with a senior management consultant and several colleagues. Some were chatting to the taxi driver about football results. The consultant was silent. After we got out, I remarked to him that he hadn’t said anything. He turned to me and said curtly but not unkindly, ‘I don’t waste my time on trivia.’ It’s a lesson we can take to heart.

And to make change you have to be in Commander mode. Once you start to create change, you’ll be busier, you’ll need information (because you’ll be in an unfamiliar situation), and you need to be decisive. That’s three reasons to move into in chieftain mode.

Needless to say, there are bad bosses, people who talk a lot and don’t listen. They’re dangerous because their decisions don’t take into account anyone else’s input. So they often miss important news and ideas. They think being a boss means giving instructions – but not gathering information before they get to that point.

You need to engage in active listening. Most people don’t listen. They’re usually just waiting for a gap in the conversation so they can start speaking again. By contrast, an active listener pays close attention to the other person, understands what they’re saying, reflects on what has been said, and responds. They also watch the other person’s body language, to judge their emotion and behaviour; and they provide visual clues, by leaning forward to show engagement, and by nodding or raising an eyebrow. 

And they’re critical. As Jeremy Paxman, BBC TV interviewer, once said: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’

Quantity of talkMaximumMinimalMinimal
Quantity of listeningNot listeningListens for instructionsListens preparatory to making a decision
Conversation styleValues their own opinionsSubordinateBoss
Attitude to timeTime is of no consequence.It’s the boss’ time, so it doesn’t matterTime is precious
ModeTransmitReceiveReceive and Transmit

How to move to Commander mode

  1. Listen closely.
  2. Withhold judgement. Don’t make assumptions. Wait until you have gathered the information before coming to a conclusion.
  3. Reflect and clarify on what has been said. Probe for more information if necessary. Challenge the other person if you think they may be biased or have failed to take relevant information into account. Ask questions if you lack information.
  4. Summarise the conversation. You might say: ‘So we think that XYZ should happen?’ This ensures that you have understood correctly what the other person is saying, and that the other person is in agreement about the way forward.
  5. Take action. Now is the time to commit to a plan. Communicate that clearly to those around you.

In summary: Listen actively. Hear people out. But then decide.

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

How to Focus on the One Big Thing

Marlene runs a successful online business, selling baby items on eBay.

But she never quite finishes anything, leaving behind a trail of incomplete projects, mostly relating to her website. “I’m an ideas person,” she says, “so when I need a new technique I like to try it out.” Recently she’s tried affiliate marketing, a mentoring group and TikTok videos. Prior to that, she was paying bloggers to write articles about her site, and before that it was PR.

Bill’s failing lies in launching new products. His desk is littered with half finished projects.

Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS) happens when you hop from one new activity to the next. If you have subordinates, you’ll hand them incomplete work, and ask them to finish them. They’ll have only a hazy notion of what is involved, and if they’ve experienced this from you before, they will ‘bottom drawer it’, which means putting it to one side and waiting for you to ask about it.

The disadvantages of SOS are clear. You don’t push anything through to completion, which means you don’t see the end result.

However there are good reasons why we engage in SOS. If we’re working on something and it isn’t succeeding, we’re inclined to put it aside, and try something different.

In fact successful people in the arts have this trait – they try different types of activity until they hit on something that works, and then focus on it.

Creatives are particularly susceptible to Shiny Object Syndrome. If you constantly have good ideas and love setting up new projects, you’re a creative – whether you knew it or not.

Managing Shiny Object Syndrome

But all of us have to curb our enthusiasm, or we’ll never get anything done. Here’s a solution, and it’s one that we won’t enjoy, because it limits us and spoils our fun. But it’s necessary. Think of it as a stern school teacher at the front of the class.

1. Make a list of your projects.

2. Decide which are the two most important.

3. Do the ones you listed in #2. Put the rest on hold.  

Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.

Getting in control of your life.

You must have watched a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie. Or maybe seen Brian Mills (Lim Neeson) in Taken.

The heroes are focussed and alert. They have one objective, which makes them single minded, almost robotic. And we have to accept that to achieve their aims they are somewhat cold-blooded, a sociopath.

And that is something we can all learn from. Too many of us allow ourselves to be controlled by others, waste time, 

So you don’t have to be a trained assassin or have a haunted past. But the other traits are essential. Because both the killer spy and you are fighting to achieve your aims, in your case to get control of your life.

Develop a positive attitude. Don’t allow yourself to give up or get dejected. When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Stay focused on doing what needs to be done. Act with intent. Don’t get sidetracked into anything that doesn’t contribute towards your goal.

Take stock of where you’ve got to. Measure your progress. You need to write down your goal, and the steps to be taken to achieve it. Otherwise you’ll be like a ship without a compass or rudder.

Make your body language reflect your aims. Don’t look cowed or vague. Your stance will affect your mind.

Be emotionally consistent: don’t get angry, get even. When an action hero faces a bad guy, they don’t lose their temper.

Be on time for meetings. And be prepared. I spoke to a recruiter who was frustrated that an applicant for a senior financial job didn’t know anything about the business or the role. He hadn’t done any research, and assumed he could bluff his way through the meeting.

Don’t waste people’s time. This includes excessive amounts of idle chatter.

Do more than is asked of you. It impresses people. As a child, I won an encyclopedia in a competition about Australia because I drew a map of the continent and marked the cities on it.

Don’t take on more tasks than you can handle. Be aware of how much time you have. Are you keen to please? Stop saying Yes to everything. Saying No lets you complete more jobs, and doing them well.

Work out where your time is wasted, and eliminate it. If you can’t avoid it, such as commuting time, use it to learn something.

Now take this quiz to find out if you meet the action hero requirements, albeit without the shooting and knife throwing skills. 

Action Hero Quiz
Are you clear about your goal? 
Are you taking action to fulfil it? 
Are you observant? Do you notice things? 
Are you precise? 
Can you improvise when unexpected problems arise? 
Are you determined? 
Are you always outwardly calm? 
Do you avoid wasting time? 
Do you get to the point quickly with other people? 
Do you avoid being side tracked into less important activities? 
Total out of 10 


7-10: Like an action hero you will definitely attain your goal.

5-6: To succeed you’ll need to sharpen up.

0-4: This book is what you need get started as an action hero!


Do you want help with achieving change in your life? We have a coaching programme that could help you. Learn more.