Act Now: Stop Thinking and Start Writing

Try doing the following problem in your head:

Multiply 2 by 112, then add 1, then divide by 5, then add 4, then take the square root.

How did that feel? Do you have a handful of business issues on your mind that create a similar, but more intense, feeling? Now, take out a piece of paper and a pencil (no calculators!) and use them to do the following problem:

Divide 400 by 2, then add 31, then subtract 150, then take the square root, then add 1.

Notice a difference? Both problems are roughly similar in complexity, only the approach to the problem has changed.

Taking the first approach overloads our working memory (which can only hold about 7 ‘chunks’ of information) — we need to remember all the digits, the mathematical operations to be performed, and the order. In the second approach, we only need to keep 2 or 3 ‘items’ in our memory at any given time. Once we are done with those items we move on to the next few items, and so on. None of the steps in this process tax our resources.

Business problems tend to be more complex than the math problems we just encountered. So, if you are holding about 5 business problems in your head at any given time, the result is increased stress, reduced productivity and performance levels, and a lower level of satisfaction with your work. If this is the case, then you are taking the first approach noted above. And you are experiencing the negative outcomes this approach is bound to deliver, whether you realize it or not.

The good news is that the choice is yours as to which approach you take.

But beware! I have tutored hundreds of students in math and science, from primary school to university, and, in my experience, the tendency is to take the first approach. I won’t get into why I think this is so; for me, it is an empirical fact. To make matters worse, there is quite often a stubborn refusal to even try out the second approach, despite the demonstrable immediate benefit to the student. Business owners and employees exhibit similar traits.

It’s not easy, but if you are serious, you can create a habit out of approaching business problems in a more systematic and productive manner. Here are some initial steps to get you started:

1. Start on a Monday and block off an hour of distraction-free time.

2. Write down all the business problems/issues you have swirling around in your head.

3. For each problem, ask yourself why solving this is important to your business.

4. For each problem, ask yourself if you are the right person to tackle it.

5. For each problem, decide on what the next action is, who needs to take it, and by when.

6. Wipe the sweat from your brow and congratulate yourself on developing a concrete initial action plan to address your most pressing issues.

7. Each day for the rest of the week, take 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to review your progress against your initial action plan.

8. Repeat and adjust to fit your needs.

After two weeks, you should feel a noticeable improvement in clarity and productivity.

Please share your experiences with finding increased clarity and productivity at work or let me know if you agree or disagree with my advice, giving supporting or counterexamples.

If you would like to discuss in more detail how to implement this approach in your business so that it sticks, just send me an email. paul@thebusinesstherapist.com



Author: Mark Cassar
Great businesses solve problems really well. And solving problems is what physicists do best. Mark has spent the last 20 years helping people understand and solve problems, in business and academia.

1 Comment

  • Rafael

    Nice Article Mark. In the book Thinking fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explain that our Rational mind is lazy. People that are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task (as the ones you suggested) and by a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. In other words, if you don’t write your business problems down, you will probably ignore them every time you have something more tempting to do, or when immediate demands come up. Also, People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language and make superficial judgments in social situations. Therefore, writing things down won’t only help people to get things done but it should also help them to get better results.

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