Fisheries, coral reefs, productive farmland, planetary climate, neural activity in the brain, and financial markets are all complex systems that can be susceptible to sudden changes leading to drastic re-organization or collapse. A variety of signals based on analysis of time-series data have been proposed that would provide warning of these so-called critical transitions. We propose a new method for calculating early warning signals that is complementary to existing approaches. The key step is to incorporate other available information about the system through the framework of a so-called generalized model. Our new approach may help to anticipate future catastrophic regime shifts in nature and society, allowing humankind to avert or to mitigate the consequences of the impending change.