Thinking critically supports our wellbeing, our decision-making amidst ambiguous and constantly changing information and our understanding of complex situations. Yet tapping into this skill can be tremendously challenging in times of crisis.
I would say that most of us are living with chronic stress related to the pandemic, even if we did not suffer with any anxiety or stress issues before. That means that our brains will naturally want to go to the “fight or flight” response. When we worry, we deplete our attentional resources, making it harder to concentrate and fully observe our environment. At the same time, we may be more distractible, jumping from one thing to the next, unknowingly searching for signs of threat.
Some incoming information will be missed, creating little holes in our everyday memory. We may make errors in decision-making or become stuck in old thought patterns. In short, many of us are struggling with a distracted mind-set that naturally impedes our ability to think critically and focus on what matters most.
So, for me – being able to think critically in the time of COVID-19 is the following:
Being able to handle huge amounts of data
This also means limiting data and being forensic and discerning about sources of data and information. Using news, statistics and all the dizzying sources of information connected with the pandemic is a great place to start and can be part of a tutorial, study group or assignment.
Discerning between fact, fiction and opinion
Our brains are amazing but when we have so much information at our fingertips, we become less able to do this. When we are anxious, we will gravitate towards anything that helps to confirm what we are worrying about – hence brain fog.
Taking TIME to absorb information
This is key and means having more space and time in our day and not flitting around from social media to news to email to discussions and debates. Our brains need time to process change but because we dislike change so much, we try to distract ourselves.
Being super aware of our news sources
And also being more aware of how often we are absorbing news in the background. Once a day is sufficient but when there is massive uncertainty and constant change, we are drawn towards the negative as a protective mechanism.
Understanding our own natural barriers to thinking critically
There are many! From confirmation bias to trusting hearsay, our use of language to describe events and simply believing things without evidence. The first step is to become more aware of our brain’s natural barriers and develop strategies for overcoming these. A great topic for discussion groups!
Asking A LOT more questions!
Getting into the regular habit of asking just one more question reveals so much more yet we don’t do it. We don’t do it because we are rushing, because we react too fast and don’t make space. That makes ripe ground for our natural barriers to rear their little heads!
Not being swayed by every new tidbit of info
Oh how easy this is to do! Remember, we are highly distractible right now because we are unknowingly searching for signs of threat – there is no shortage of info and social media is the worst for this. Use mindfulness and boundaries to help with this.
Taking time to truly reflect
Because we need to process change – so schedule thinking time into your week whether that’s achieved by making time for walking (how about socially distanced walking tutorials, if feasible?). If you are walking by yourself it’s quiet time, space to think and come up with new ideas. It also gives you a change to absorb things and for your brain to be resourceful.
Not wasting time on pointless arguments
Using critical thinking for debating is one thing but getting into pointless arguments over current government guidelines or whether someone agrees with mask wearing or not just drains energy. Your brain will get depleted fast if you do this. Choose not to.
Engaging in good debate
On the other hand, debate is GREAT and what better environment to practice this skill than at university! Engage in debates on different topics and ideas, including scenario planning, engaging in fluid thinking and innovation. This kind of debate can happen both on and off-line.
Reading from multiple sources
I can't encourage this enough. I force myself to read the New Yorker magazine every week. Mainly because there are insanely long articles in there, superbly written, on subjects I know nothing about. It stretches my brain and challenges my attentional filters.
Able to manage distraction
Distraction comes served up to us in two ways: INTERNAL – worry about the future, mind wandering, ruminating about the fast. We are rarely in the present so mindfulness techniques are a fantastic way to help with internal distraction. EXTERNAL – all those notifications, interruptions, smart phone technologies competing for our attention. We must create boundaries, manage notifications and have time away from technology.
The pandemic is pushing governments, businesses, educational institutions and students to their limits. As individuals we are dealing with so much but let’s also remember that times of crisis often spur incredible innovation and creativity too. This too is part of thinking critically and right now may be just the time to do that.
This content has been created by the author in their personal capacity. Any views, thoughts and opinions expressed belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pearson.