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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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The premise behind Smart Thinking by Art Markman is using the principles of cognitive science to better your life by improving your thinking. I was very impressed by this book because it offers practical advice backed by the latest research. For example, in the chapter on smart habits, the basic premise was that the brain is designed to think as little as possible. This explains why habits are so powerful--they are shortcuts and substitutes for thinking. Stopping habits, therefore, is highly unlikely. His advice is to figure out what need a particular habit satisfies and replace it with a more acceptable one or, better still, a habit that actually makes you more effective. The first step is to inhibit that original habit, such as by avoiding the mappings that lead to it. (If you find yourself overeating, then get rid of all your snacks or shop at a new grocery store so that you have to really think about what you're buying.) The second step is to replace it with a different one.

I've gotten into the habit of checking and reading email constantly, whether on my desktop or my phone. This is generally a waste of time since either there's nothing new there or there's no expectation of immediate response. It is often disruptive to whatever tasks I'm undertaking so it's a great candidate to disrupt and replace. What I did a week or two ago was start quitting my desktop email client when I was done checking it. I also replaced the default Mail app on the iPhone with an app called Sparrow. These environmental changes meant that I wouldn't get the "ding" indicating that there was a new email and that these programs weren't always running (thus readily available). My goal was to only check for email periodically and, more importantly, intentionally. Now I check and process email when I'm wanting to check email. It's definitely made me more productive in this regard.

Another useful tidbit from Markman's book is the power of self-explanation to further knowledge and make it higher quality. His point is that people often traffic in concepts and ideas that they don't fully understand. Poorly grasped knowledge is barely better than no knowledge at all. His recommendation is to probe when you notice that you might not really know what you think you know and to explain new concepts to yourself after you've learned them. In so doing, you will get a richer understanding then you would have otherwise. For example, my MINI Cooper S is turbo-charged. I have never bothered to figure out what that means beyond "it uses hot exhaust gases to make the engine more powerful." That's true as far as it goes, but I really have no idea how exhaust gases can be re-used for a boost in performance. Markman suggests that I should do some more digging until I am comfortable that I know what's going on.

Where this technique becomes useful in the workplace is to develop the practice in your peers and employees. As Markman says, "the best way to do that is to get people to justify or explain their conclusions in meetings and learning situations." I have started doing this with myself and my team whenever we're confronted with a bug or other problem. Far too often we just listen to people's assertions without delving deeper. In failing to do that, we either allow them to be shallow in their thinking or we are shallow in ours for not fully trying to grok the basis for their ideas. (As a side note, this didactic side effect of challenging people's assertions is a great parenting or educational tool for raising inquiring minds.)

There were many other great tips and techniques in the book, and I'd encourage you to get it for yourself to find them. (And if cognitive science is an interest, you simply must get Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School. It's my favorite book of the last five years and is rich with pregnant ideas—it took me months to finish it because every page compelled me to ponder its ideas.)

[UPDATE (4/30/2012): Along those lines, Peter Bregman agrees that limiting email processing to three times a day is a great boon to productivity.]