“A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.” — Ovid, ancient Roman poet.
“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” — Wyatt Earp, Old West gunfighter and lawman.
As a professional speaker, I’m frequently faced with questions I haven’t been asked before and must think quickly on my feet. Or suppose you’re the team expert on Boxlets, your company’s proprietary spreadsheet program. If your boss needs a quick fact or a doubtful customer starts grilling you on why he should buy Boxlets and not Lotus 1-2-3, you’ll require the capacity to think fast and produce accurate answers. If you feel like your brain doesn’t move as quickly as you need it to, here’s what I’ve found has helped me make it THINK faster:
1. Take care of yourself. This should always come first, but when time grows short, what takes the hit? Rest, diet, and exercise, almost inevitably. How can you do your job well if you’re dragging around on five hours of sleep or feeling sluggish from those 20 extra pounds? Well, stop holding yourself back! Get the right amount of sleep, eat decently, and exercise regularly, so your brain will function at its best. Last week’s sales figures will be at the tip of your tongue!
2. Hone your memory. While rote memorization will never beat true learning, you do need to keep your facts immediately accessible; and in any case, a good memory helps in traditional learning too. So study the important things repeatedly until you’ve internalized them. How many fields can Boxlets 3.0 handle? How many types of charts can it produce? How many megabytes of memory storage does it require? If you have memory problems, you can train yourself using myriad memory enhancement techniques, from Dale Carnegie to the latest memory aid software. Keep trying them until you find something that fits your learning style.
3. Improve your focus. As I write this, I can hear the thudding bass of a car down the street, driven by someone who thinks the whole world wants to hear his playlist. The standard open-plan office can prove even more challenging, with its hallway conversations, ringing phones, clattering keyboards, and photocopier whirs. Even if you try to ignore it, such distractions subconsciously demand a piece of your attention and therefore slow your thinking. When you need to get in the zone, seek solitude in an empty conference room or work from home. Or wear headphones and listen to classical music. Turn off your email, phone, and cell. How else can you beta-test Boxlets 4.0 undisturbed?
4. Nourish your brain. All Boxlets and no play makes you a dull expert. Almost everything you read teaches you something. So give your mind the “food” it needs. Read a lot. Learn new facts. Study a foreign language. Play Sudoku and sharpen your intellect with New York Times crosswords. Keep your mind active, and you’ll be able to jumpstart the synapses with minimal effort the next time someone asks you, “What version of Boxlets do you recommend for Ubuntu 13.47 on an IBM enterprise server?”
5. Knowledge = Power. It may sound like a cliché, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Learn every bit of lore you can about your specialty and associated topics, so you can reply with authority. But broaden your knowledge outside your own expertise as well. I used to call my dad, the “Jack of all trades and master of none,” which wasn’t true because he has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and literally “wrote the book” the cadets at the Air Force Academy studied from. But I meant he could talk about virtually ANYTHING. He was so well studied and knowledgeable about so many things, he could talk intelligently to anyone about just about everything.
Fast, Furious, and Functional
If you put the THINK formula into action, you may not have to consciously think when someone asks you a question: the answer will be right there on the tip of your tongue. Even in a situation outside your immediate expertise, THINK holds you in good stead, because it keeps you mentally agile, flexible, and resilient—which puts you light years ahead of most people.