Maximizing Mental Agility

A participant in the most recent run of Dr. Art Markman’s HDO seminar, Maximizing Mental Agility, recounts lessons learned during the one-day course and explains how others can apply these lessons to their professional lives.

Pratik Mhatre, PhD, Data & Research Administrator, Texas GEAR UP State Grant, UT Austin’s Institute for Public School Initiatives
March 22, 2017

One of the advantages of working for a Tier 1 public university in the U.S. is the access to excellent (and inexpensive) professional development opportunities. I’ve been attending seminars offered by the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at UT Austin. I’m usually skeptical of any self-help seminars or talks but these are led by top UT faculty and all the material is backed by solid field-tested academic research.

Anyway, this post is mostly for my reference in transcribing and collating my handwritten notes from the latest seminar I attended, Maximizing Mental Agility led by Dr. Art Markman. This may be long, but here goes:

It’s surprising that given how many of us work in the knowledge economy and essentially work exclusively with our minds, we know so little about it. Research has shown that to be smarter, it helps to first know how your mind works. But being smart is unlike Nero plugging into the matrix to learn kung fu; in fact, getting there takes lots of time and effort. If you start with learning how thinking works, it will eventually make you better at knowledge building and thus, enable you to “maximize” your “mental agility.”

Rule of 3

The human mind often relies on the Rule of 3 to remember things. In summary, who did what to whom? We have a three-second auditory loop in our head that we use to remember things in the short term hence the seven-digit phone number format. Anything longer than that takes a greater deal of effort to remember. If you want to really remember something badly say, in an encounter or an experience, focus on three things. That said, although you can mostly remember three things but you can choose what those three things can be. Mentally organize what you want to remember from your experience and focus on the three takeaways that are important to you. It may be different for different people.

There are common things people struggle with remembering. For e.g., names of the people they meet. This is probably because a name almost always has nothing to do with how the person is (hence people use nicknames). First, it helps to pay attention when they introduce themselves. That’s a duh! But what helps to solidify the memory is to use their name as soon as possible in the conversation or even repeat it back to them to make sure you got it right.


You can mostly remember three things but you can choose what those three things can be.


Multitasking is not possible among humans. People may list it as one of their strengths but they’re lying. If people are doing two things at the same time, they’re doing both things worse than if they were just doing the one thing. It helps to cut off distractions when you want to focus on one task at hand. This may involve keeping away the things that distract e.g. smartphones with notifications or at least shut off your notifications (use the “Do Not Disturb” mode like you do in a theater). The worst kind of environmental distraction for those who work in coffee shops like me is the half-a-louge. That is, when you can overhear only one side of a phone conversation. You can tune out a conversation or even a uniform predictable noise but not a one-sided conversation.

Finally, to imbue the Rule of 3 in your life, organize your presentation on:

  1. Three things you want people to remember.
  2. Repeat those three things at the end of your presentation.
  3. It’s much easier to teach things when you know stuff.

It’s been proven that just the act of creating a summary even if you never go back to it has a greater impact than the summary itself. Finally, it’s not only easier to teach things when you know stuff but also to learn things when you know stuff.


Habit Forming

Habits are not necessarily bad things. They simply are things that we do subconsciously without active thinking. It’s like driving to work on a route that you’ve driven on hundreds of times before. Or even the act of driving. Two things primarily create a habit:

  • Repetition i.e. you just have to do something over and over again to get it to stick.
  • Consistent Mapping i.e. deliberately thinking about your actions on how you want things to be.

    If you want to learn from people, don’t ask them what or how they do things; just watch them.


    You’re always learning new habits and habit learning is always active. Just try changing the location of your Messages app on your phone homescreen and then notice how you gravitate toward the previous location for the first few dozen times until you get used to the new location. If you want to learn from people, don’t ask them what or how they do things; just watch them. Chances are that people often don’t know things about themselves or haven’t thought about it in a long time. Hence classroom observations are useful in seeing how teachers work.

    It turns out that you cannot break a habit. You just have to replace it with another habit. Perhaps the new habit is not as undesirable as the original one. You cannot decide to change a habit e.g. stop smoking but you have to block behavior that assists that habit i.e. don’t be around cigarettes or first don’t buy them.


    Finding Causes

    Humans are the only ones that ask ‘Why?’ because as a species we have evolved to seek causal explanations and constantly iterating to improve our behavior. Causal explanations are always nested i.e. the answer to one always leads to another ‘why?’ but other type of statements like ‘what?’ are not nested. But that’s a trait of smart people. Usually, people usually try a time-tested procedure first to fix a problem before moving on to other procedures even if they don’t understand that procedure hence people used to bang on the side of the TV to fix the picture or restart their computer when it acts up.


    Apple’s ‘Think Different’ should in fact have been ‘Think About Different Things’


    There is no gold standard for being smart even though the society thinks scientists like Einstein are smarter but “what you know” in a particular situation really defines if you are smart. Clearly, I don’t know if my data analysis skills may be useful in a zombie apocalypse or in a more relatable example, your car mechanic clearly knows more about your car even though you drive it every day. Just because you’re good at what you do doesn’t mean you’re good at what you don’t do or have never done. We see examples of this everyday on Twitter. Sure, you should have an opinion as long as you know you can be wrong about the facts. The structure of prior experience actually informs what you know and can thereby inform you more about the things you experience subsequently. We can use the comforts of existing knowledge to understand the world around us. That may be seen as lack of creativity but that’s not always a bad thing. Apple’s ‘Think Different’ should in fact have been ‘Think About Different Things’ but that’s not catchy.

    So how you do you build your knowledge of something? Well, the first thing is admitting that “I don’t know.” It’s going to be uncomfortable at first when you try to learn things until you hit the ah-ha! moment. Using visualization tools has been proven to help understand things better and faster. You have to also reclaim the question of “why?”; don’t assume you know how something works before you ask that question again and again. It may be perceived as being confrontational or argumentative in an office-setting but genuine curiosity is seen as such eventually.


    The best indicator of whether you understand something is to see if you can explain it to someone else who has no idea about it.


    The best indicator of whether you understand something is to see if you can explain it to someone else who has no idea about it. Many PhD programs could be made infinitely better just by offering courses on “how to teach” in addition to “what to teach.” Analogies work great in explaining things but be mindful that there can be differences in perception depending on what analogies you use. Also, from the perspective of a student (or even a manager), give people at least one chance to NOT know; let them go back and try to learn. But if they don’t know a second time then it’s time for an intervention.

    Most of the times, people and even you have no idea on what you need to know and what you already know. Rumsfeld put it inarticulately during his Iraq War justification ‘Known Unknowns’ and ‘Unknown Uknowns’ but he was basically right.


    Active Memory

    As described previously, you can choose what you want to remember about the experience you just had. What is known in behavioral economics and cognitive science, “encoding specificity” causes an overlap between existing information in your mind with the current information being processed. That can be a good thing and a bad thing depending if you want the new information being influenced by the one you already possess. With kids especially, if you want them to enjoy the activity (or homework) that needs practice, stop them from doing it when they’re doing great at it instead of when they’re struggling. That helps to enforce a positive memory of that activity and makes them want to return to it. For us, if you want to change what you remember, change what you are thinking about and better still, describe the problem you’re thinking about in a different way instead of “thinking outside the box.” The answers are more likely to be in another corner of the box that you rarely look at or it’s just a different box you have (you know that you don’t have just one, right?)


    If you want to change what you remember, change what you are thinking about.


    Finally, be deliberate in remembering information. Process deeply to remember better to retain quality information. Taking notes by hand is one way of doing it. Summarizing the events immediately is another.


    Fixing Brainstorming

    Brainstorming as it is practiced is extremely inefficient and incongruous to the decision-making process. First, defining the problem is the key. Heck, even asking if it is a problem worth solving may be the best way to start it. Remember that ideas diverge in an individual setting and converge in a group setting. So in fact, the way brainstorming is practiced today (getting all people in a room and seeking ideas), you end up with fewer ideas than if you did it individually. The best way to do it is to generate ideas individually, pass those ideas around anonymously to expand on them, and then converge together as a group to discuss, iterate, and decide on the best ones. By the end of the process, the final idea wouldn’t be the product of just one person but by constant expansion during the second step and iterating and converging during the third step, it would be completely different and even be a mix of two or more ideas ergo a better solution. That may even lead to a better adoption than imposing “one great idea” that a loudmouth boss insisted was the best one during the group brainstorming session.


    Ideas diverge in an individual setting and converge in a group setting.



    1. Remember that people often remember three things from an experience be it a 20-minute presentation or a week-long hiking trip.
    2. Habit forming is a good thing provided you learn to replace the undesirable ones with less undesirable ones and, eventually, with desirable ones.
    3. You have to actively involve yourself in learning and remembering things to be smarter.