An increasing current through a superconductor can result in a discontinuous increase in the differential resistance at the critical current. This critical current is typically associated either with breaking of Cooper-pairs or with the onset of collective motion of vortices. Here we measure the current-voltage characteristics of superconducting films at low temperatures and high magnetic fields. Using heat-balance considerations we demonstrate that the current-voltage characteristics are well explained by electron overheating enhanced by the thermal decoupling of the electrons from the host phonons. By solving the heat-balance equation we are able to accurately predict the critical currents in a variety of experimental conditions. The heat-balance approach is universal and applies to diverse situations from critical currents to climate change. One disadvantage of the universality of this approach is its insensitivity to the details of the system, which limits our ability to draw conclusions regarding the initial departure from equilibrium.