How to choose the right thinking tool

This is a simple guide for choosing the right thinking tool here on Untools.

Start here: what do you need to do?

Alternatively, look at some prompt questions to point you to the right tool.

Problem-solving tools

Avoid worst scenarios

If you're working on a high-stakes problem, you might want to focus on specifically avoiding bad solutions.

Inversion is a tool to make you see the problem from a different angle and avoid possible mistakes or bad outcomes.

Break the problem down

It often helps to break big and complex problems into smaller, more manageable ones.

Issue trees allow you to do this in a systematic way. It's great to tackle the problem in a "divide and conquer fashion".

Then there are first principles which focus on identifying the fundamental principles underlying a given problem. You can then build an original solution from these principles rather than from the initial problem statement.

Frame the problem differently

Abstraction laddering will help you find alternative and innovative solutions by defining a the right problem (of which your initial problem might only be a subset of). You can get a worksheet to get started with this tool.

Decision-making tools

Figure out what kind of a decision you're making

Hard choice model is for you seeing the type of decision in front of you so that you can move forward with it more efficiently. If it's a no-brainer, you'll know to make the decision quickly rather than correctly. For hard or big decisions, you might need to dig deeper (tools below will help you).

Choose the best option

Decision matrix is great for weighing up different factors and identifying the best option. If you're looking for picking a clear winner based on various factors, this tool is for you.

Analyze before you commit

Second-order thinking will help you consider a specific option and what the deeper or long-term consequences of choosing it might be.

Ladder of inference is another tool to help you see if there's a gap in your thinking before you commit to a decision. With this tool, you'll avoid jumping to conclusions too early and make decisions based on reality.

There are worksheets for both of these tools.

Understand the situation before choosing a response

Sometimes, you need a little time to assess the situation so that you can choose the best response. Cynefin framework is an excellent tool for that.

It helps you to categorize a situation and point you to the most appropriate response.

Prioritize

This is really a subset of decision-making: "What should I be working on right now?"

A great prioritization tool is the Eisenhower matrix. It will enable you to prioritize your actions and tasks by importance and urgency. You can get the Eisenhower matrix as a worksheet too.

Systems-thinking tools

Understand a system

To learn more about a system, I recommend starting with the Connection circles.

It's a great tool to map different elements of a system or a story and the relationships between them. You can get started with a Connection circles worksheet.

The key benefit of connection circles is that they expose feedback loops (both balancing and reinforcing loops). You can then move on to learning about those loops to really understand what's going on in the system.

Uncover causes of events

If you're looking to uncover the root causes of some event, use the Iceberg model.

It's a four-level model that allows you to see beyond what's obvious and think about the patterns, structures and mental-models that really drive the surface-level events. There's also a handy Iceberg model worksheet to help you.


Prompt questions

When you find yourself in front of a problem, decision or a system, you can ask yourself these prompt questions. They will point you to the right tool for you.

QuestionRecommended tool
Am I only thinking of ideal solutions?Inversion
Can I break this problem down?Issue trees
Do I need an original solution to a complex problem?First principles
Am I solving the right problem?Abstraction laddering
What kind of a decision am I making?Hard choice model
Which option from these is the best one?Decision matrix
What would be the long-term consequences of this decision?Second-order thinking
Am I jumping to conclusions?Ladder of inference
How should I respond to this situation?Cynefin framework
What should I be working on right now?Eisenhower matrix
How does this system work?Connection circles
Why is X happening?Iceberg model