RSNA 2017: Unclutter your mind and get stuff done

When most people think about productivity, they think about how to do more. When Puneet Bhargava, MD, thinks about that subject, he cogitates on how he can use his time and energy more efficiently in order to find more time and energy to do things he couldn’t do before on account of being disorganized.

“That, to me, is productivity,” said Bhargava, a professor of radiology at the University of Washington in Seattle and editor-in-chief of Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology, in a Nov. 26 RSNA workshop on “getting stuff done” and enhancing personal productivity.

While some of Bhargava’s material was radiology-specific, much of it was broadly applicable beyond the profession and, in fact, medicine.

“I like to think of the human brain as a supercomputer,” he said before describing how a brand new, state-of-the-art computer can be rendered as slow as an old and overburdened one just by loading it, the new one, with the old computer’s contents.

“Subconsciously we’re doing the same thing with our brain,” Bhargava said. “We have a supercomputer, and it works really well. Otherwise we wouldn’t be radiologists. But each day we are overloading our supercomputer with lots of different things that have no business being in our head.”

These include emails awaiting a response, items on to-do lists awaiting a check mark and other needling tasks that could be managed by note-taking apps. (Bhargava is partial to Evernote.)

“We do not need to store all this stuff in our head. Our brain should be free to perceive new ideas, to think. But if you overload your brain with a lot of unnecessary tasks, you slow your brain down.”

Write it down, process it out

To begin “processing out” such mental clutter, Bhargava recommended “regurgitating” every thought nagging one’s mind onto a piece of paper. This sounds simple, but it took him a week to completely freshen his own mind in this way, he said.

“Once you write these things down, you will find that a lot of things on your mind are not really actionable,” he explained, adding that the actionable items tend to fall into quick and easy on the one hand and more involved on the other. He recommended doing the small stuff ASAP and, where possible, scheduling or delegating the rest.

“Some of these tasks that are sitting on our plate we have very little skill for,” he said, offering as an example the help he needs conducting research that requires high statistical skills, which he lacks.

“If I have an Excel spreadsheet sitting in my email that needs a statistical test, I will delegate that to a statistician,” Bhargava said. “We agree to a timeline, and I follow up with him” until the task is completed. “That’s not a task that I need to handle.”

“So it’s important not only to delegate but also to follow up,” Bhargava said. “It’s also important to understand that, if you have a big task sitting on your email—you’re not going to do it today, but you are going to do it next week or next year—coming to work every day and looking at it is actually slowing you down. You look at it and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much to do.’ That’s how you’re beginning your day.”

And it’s not helping you get stuff done.

The complete delete

Turning to email overload, Bhargava noted that there is no one right way to deal with this most common of time-sappers.

Some people come back from vacation and have so many emails, they feel their best move is to delete them all, start over and rely on the senders to re-send if anything was extremely important, he said.

“What works for me is, as soon as I see an email, in literally five seconds, I decide if it can be deleted. And if it can be deleted, it is mercilessly deleted.”

Bhargava closed by expressing his hope attendees would not go away saying, Time management is great. I just don’t have the time to learn it.

“If you want to get any better and go to the next level, you have to be open to leaving the method that is working for you moderately well and try something new,” he said. “There will be a place in the middle where you’ve left your old method but haven’t yet mastered the new method. It’s going to be messy, and your default may be to go back to your baseline. But if you keep at it, I can assure you that it’s going to be worth it in the end.”