Your executive text you to say they are stuck in traffic on the way to the airport and will miss their flight. You immediately jump into action and jump online to see what other flight options are available. Even though your airline page is loading instantly, you are thinking about their special meal order, the hotel check-in, the car service to pick them up, and the dinner with the client. You instantly know what needs to be taken care of, and instead of methodically thinking about one thing at a time, you start writing notes and thinking about not just the flight they are about to miss but the full implications of missing that flight, all while waiting for the page to load (less than one second).
That’s cognitive flexibility, the ability to juggle multiple concepts at once or the ability to appropriately adjust your behavior according to your changing environment.
CTT: Are you as flexible as you need to be for 2023?
Are you as flexible as you need to be for 2023? Do you adjust easily, without frustration, without needing time to think about it? Does the constant change of direction, the ever “new” normal, and the juggling of priorities exhaust you or invigorate you? You wouldn’t be an administrative professional if you weren’t flexible, but do you have cognitive flexibility?
We know we need to be flexible, and as administrative professionals, it does qualify as an essential skill, but cognitive flexibility is a step above flexibility. It involves being able to think about multiple things at once and adjust on the fly. Similar to multitasking, it is known as task switching.
Top-level administrative professionals need to not only be flexible but possess cognitive flexibility. Sometimes my ability to do that drives Warren crazy. He will say, “One thing at a time. We will get to it, but let’s just do one thing at a time!” Instead, I wonder why we must do only one thing when there are clearly many things that need to be taken care of simultaneously!
When you are in the grocery store, do you have your list and follow it as per the aisles in the store? If you realize you forget to get butter and go back to get butter, does your brain tell you to head down the pasta lane to get to the butter so that you can pick up the spaghetti on the way there, or does it tell you to get the butter first and then see what is next on the list? One of those is flexibility; one is cognitive flexibility.
CTT: To future proof your career as an admin, you must master cognitive flexibility
To future-proof your career as an admin, you must master cognitive flexibility. It allows you to solve problems creatively, adjust to situations accordingly (think curveballs), and still maintain your professionalism without flustering. You must have the ability to think about situations, people, and problems from many different perspectives, all at the same time.
Here are my top tips to improve your cognitive flexibility:
- Start small but do new things.
Force yourself to drive a different way home from work two days next week. Maybe that means taking a different exit even. Use the GPS if you need to. Yes, this might take a little longer, but do it anyway.
When at your favorite restaurant, ask yourself what your top three meals are from the menu. Rank them. Then ask your dinner partner to pick a number from one to three and pick that meal. Be okay with whatever option you get.
Do something new at work. Go to YouTube, find one of my Top 10 videos, and watch it. Pick at least one of the top ten tips and make yourself try it (do a tech one like inbox management, Word, or Teams).
- Force your flexibility/empathy muscle.
Watch a television show or news program you usually avoid. Force yourself to read/listen past the headline and see what the story is trying to share. Politics is hard to do that with, so pick something less divisive, like Hollywood sensationalism. Instead of thinking, “That Kanye is one messed up man” (just an example of the initial reactions to his latest White Lives Matter shirts), listen to the entire story and see what it really is about. Often, we stop listening when the headline annoys us or is against how we think intuitively.
Don’t ignore a colleague when they say something you disagree with. Force yourself to actively listen to what they are saying to see if there is anything you can agree with or understand better. Find out why they think a certain way instead of just blocking their words and thoughts. Force yourself to see their perspective, even if you disagree with it. Force the understanding, flexibility, and empathy that goes with it.
- Set some learning goals.
Anytime we learn something new, we are learning to expand our thinking in different areas. Maybe you need to learn an entirely new set of skills and see how they can apply at work.
I love those paint-and-sip parties. I love them because a) there is wine, b) they are highly social and encourage getting to know new people, and c) they are far outside my comfort zone.
I am a terrible painter. But I have fun, and I learn new skills. If you’ve ever done one, you have probably put something on the canvas that initially looked terrible. But then you learn what to do to make it look much nicer, and sometimes it ends up being your favorite part of the painting.
I was at an event last year where paint-and-sip was one of the optional events I signed up for. We were painting a picture of fireflies at night. One of my blobs of paint for the light the firefly created was much too large and looked horrible. That is, until the instructor came along and taught me how to fix it. She gave me an entirely different perspective on what to do with my “mistake,” and it turned out quite nice (my opinion, that is!).
In my project management workshops, I teach risk assessment. While the module is specific about project management, I share a really handy process that applies to any risk management. It is quite handy to use for various things, personally or professionally. You have to ask yourself questions like, “Where else can I use this?” instead of filing it away for the specific situation you learned it for.
By learning new things, you can adapt new learning to other aspects of your life, allowing you to show your ability to task switch and apply learning from one area to another.
We have always needed to be flexible; however now, we need to do, even more, we need to do it faster, and we need to be able to think from multiple perspectives as we do it. Think like the admin, think like the boss, think like the customer, and think like the company.
If you are looking for a new job, be sure to list this on your resume, understand completely what it is, and be able to give examples of how you do this and what benefit it provides.
If you realize you aren’t as cognitively flexible as you should be, follow the steps above and make it a constant focus until it becomes natural.