To do our best in business, we need to be as smart as we can be.
Alas, I do not have any tremendous insight or magic elixir to make myself or anyone else be smarter. Sorry.
What I do have are several suggestions on how we can take fullest advantage of the intellectual capacities that we do have.
- Be Healthy and in Good Physical Shape: Being sick, out of shape or dealing with chronic pain makes it more difficult to be smart. We do not have a clear head and are often focused on what is ailing us.
- Realize Fatigue Limits and Get Rest: Too many of us consider ourselves to be a superman or superwoman, who can work at a high level for 12 hours a day or more. Study after study has shown the rapid deterioration in performance after 8 – 9 hours of solid work. Ironically in those studies, the subjects who insisted that their work level did not depreciate actually experienced the greatest decrease in performance.
- Realize Our Cognitive Limits: Likewise, we need to realize that there is only so much that we can process at one time. Our brains do become full. Additional studies have shown that for someone who is already running at a cognitive level of 95%, their intelligence for that last 5% can drop by as much as 30%. Think about it: we have a supervisor, plant manager, or construction superintendent who may be overseeing dozens of people and countless issues on a daily basis. When we ask them to come up with new insights (on top of all the other work that they are already doing), they will inevitably fail. They do not have the cognitive carrying capacity to do that one additional task. Neither would we!!
- Avoid Distractions: Of course, we are all experts at multi-tasking… WRONG!! TNS Research summarized a study on distractions as follows:
“Beware distractions; workers distracted by phone calls, E-Mails, and text messages suffer a greater loss of IQ than a person smoking marijuana.”
To do our best work, we need to be focused on one task for a dedicated period of time (up to 90 minutes at most) and avoid all interruptions (turn off the phone and all the pings on the computer). Otherwise, we are dumbing ourselves down. As Joseph Hallinan writes:
“Switching from task to task causes us to forget what we were working on in the first place; in some case, the forgetting rate can be as high as 40%.”
- Think (Consciously): Too many of us do not spend enough time thinking. A study by the research and consulting firm, Basex, reported the following results:
“30% of knowledge workers were trying to do so much, they had no time for thought at all, and 58% had only between fifteen and thirty minutes to think a day.”
By contrast, the best leaders spend sufficient time thinking. They step back from the daily grind, get away from distractions, and just think. How can we do this better? What is the best approach with this customer? What do we most need to do to improve our business? How can I do my job better? One of the most vital, if unheralded, parts of Toyota’s lean philosophy is hansei. Translated as reflection or self-reflection, it requires taking the time to think.
- Think (Subconsciously): In line with thinking consciously, we need to let our subconscious mind chew over a problem. We should consciously study or think about something upfront and then pause and go work on something else, go to sleep, or take the weekend off. Our subconscious mind will still be thinking about the problem. More often than not we will then come up with that great insight right as we go to sleep or while taking a shower.
- Read and Listen Widely: To be as smart as we can be, we need to entertain diverse thoughts and opinions. This means reading, listening to blogs and thinking about things outside our normal area of expertise and experience. What is obvious in another domain or area of experience may be of great and original insight in our area of expertise.
- Use Our Team: Finally, and most importantly, we need to let our whole team be our brain. This means that we need to listen to the insights and diverse thoughts of our team. And we need to have the humility to let the expert team member make the decision that he is best trained (and smartest) to make. As Satchel Paige said:
“None of us is as smart as all of us.”
By following these eight suggestions, we may not become the next Einstein or Steve Jobs. But, we will be as smart as we can be.