Have you noticed how you seem to observe more acutely when you travel to a foreign destination or even an unfamiliar neighborhood?
As a travel writer, I've been trained to pay attention to the details that many others miss. I'm aware that if I don't notice stains on a hotel carpet and threadbare sheets and if I recommend that hotel in a guidebook, I probably won't be asked to write any more guidebooks. If I don't note the different look and texture of green-lipped mussels in New Zealand, or the masses of black tulips in Holland, or the different tastes of the flavored beers in Belgium, I'm not doing my best.
You may not care that much about these kinds of things (except maybe the beers), but if you've ever kept a journal on a trip, you've probably recorded specific details that bring your experiences back to life when you later revisit your entries.
To increase your powers of observation, consider applying the observational skills that you use on the road to everyday life.
Take notes, even mentally. Try this as an exercise: Jot down details of what you may have heard or seen or learned, just as you would if you were traveling to a new place. At the end of one week, read the notes aloud. What piqued your interest? What are your strongest observations? Have you been listening well? Did you capture details or fall back on generalizations? What did you forget to note? What do you need to work on?
If you're not satisfied, try taking notes another week, and see if you can improve your focus and be more detailed in your observations. After that, keep taking mental notes to keep your observational skills sharp.
Use all your senses. Look around, up, down, not just ahead: Note the iron railing on the balcony, not just the fact that there is a balcony; the shiny, slippery cobblestones after the rain and not just the rainbow. Listen carefully and with your full attention. We often tend to half-listen, planning our responses rather than concentrating on what's being said. Smell deeply, touch slowly, savor. Slow down. Deliberate. Take in what the speaker is saying. Senses lead to sensible. Apply the "slow food movement" to life in general.
Prioritize. Traveling is broadening and stimulating. There's often almost too much to take in, which is why the experienced traveler learns to sort, to recognize that which is unique, special, or important as well as what's distracting or even dangerous.
To be better at thinking, we must become better at observing, weaving our way through the barrage of ideas, data, and distractions in our virtual and our real lives.