By Laura Hale Brockway,
I recently attended a presentation called “Maximizing Mental Agility” by Dr. Art Markman, UT professor, cognitive scientist, and author of the book “Smart Thinking.” Markman describes “smart thinking” as the content of what you know and how you use it. This differs from intelligence, which is typically measured by testing abstract reasoning skills, “independent of your specific knowledge.” He explains that by developing “smart habits,” you can improve your work performance, decision making, and creativity. An example of a “smart habit” is to avoid multitasking. It seems we do not function optimally when we multitask; the brain is better at time sharing.
When you sit down to do your “smart” work — tasks that require focus and concentration, such as writing and editing for me — eliminate distractions and stop multitasking. Because email is one of the biggest distractions in the modern workplace, one of Markman’s “smart habits” is not answering emails immediately. For example, I am a morning person, and I do my best work when I first arrive at the office. I often put off more complicated editing or writing assignments until the next morning when possible. So, why do I spend the first hour of my morning answering email?
Markman advises that during your optimal work time (are you a morning or afternoon person) you triage email, answering only the most important. Then you close your email program and answer all the other email during your non-optimal time. Sounds easy, right?
Like most AMA members, I am besieged with email. For years, I’ve been in the habit of answering those emails immediately just so I can clear my inbox. Even worse, I also have my personal email open, so that’s double the distraction. Then there are phone calls, internal and external chat programs — you get the idea. Another issue — and I hope I’m not the only one who does this — I tend to procrastinate when I am not particularly enthused about my writing assignment. Sometimes I use the interruptions as an excuse not to write, secretly hoping I’ll get an email that will take priority over completing my assignment.
Putting all this aside, I decided to follow Markman’s advice. I arrived at the office early. I answered my urgent emails, and then I closed Outlook (and Gmail). I started editing an article from a colleague and I was moving through it fairly quickly. After about 20 minutes, my boss appeared at my door and asked, “Laura, did you get that email I sent you?”
So it seems the “smarter” habit would be to triage your email and tell your team that you are doing so.
Laura Hale Brockway is an Austin-based writer and editor. She works for Texas Medical Liability Trust. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com .