The brain, our most valuable resource. It is what makes us us. It enables us to achieve, to improve, to compete successfully, to problem solve. It enables us to love. Our brain is a pretty fantastic thing. What’s more, it can grow and expand beyond its current capabilities through something neuroscientists call neuroplasticity. But, in this modern age where our minds are receiving constant data from a thousand inputs all ironically designed to make us more efficient, you have to give your brain space to process and recalibrate to fully utilize and capture all of its amazing potential.
The following seven activities are proven ways to boost your brain power. The boost, the payoff, if you will, is going to come in the form of increased productivity, peace, happiness, improved relationships, greater empathy, and so much more. So, shall we dive in?
Let’s Get Moving Already
Psssssst. Exercise boosts brain power. I know I’ll be getting smiles here from all the gym rats, but for those of you who’d rather remove a toenail than engage in exercise, I’ve got good news for you. The type of exercise I’m talking about doesn’t have to be boot camp, or spin class or distance training.
A fairly recent study out of Stanford University measured the effect simply walking had on novel idea generation and problem solving. The researchers presented some theories on why walking increases a person’s creativity by an average of 60%, but the point I am making is that it is scientifically proven that getting moving gets the creative juices flowing. The next time you’re feeling stuck, take five or ten minutes to walk around and see what percolates. Take your brain out of executive function mode and allow your creative side to take over. As the study authors concluded, “If you want a problem solved, put legs on it.”
Turn Up the Tunes to Tune Into Creativity
Music is powerful. It can soothe and relax the mind. It can calm. It can also stimulate and energize. It can motivate. (Try jogging with some upbeat music!) Studies have shown that music activates creative parts within the mind, parts that can be suppressed by executive function brain activity. I personally love to listen to music to energize or relax, depending on my mood, while I am driving. But, I also know that sometimes the only quiet time I can get is when I am alone in the car. Which brings me to my next brain booster….
This one truly is like magic. Just stilling your mind and allowing it to turn off distractions for a few minutes enables the brain to problem solve and ideate much better day in and day out. This is not a new thing. Meditation is an ancient practice. But, don’t let a visual of a monk sitting on a cold floor fasting in a white cotton robe cause you to make the concept something it doesn’t have to be.
Noted happiness researcher and author Shawn Achor has been known to tout the benefits of homemade glitter jars (glitter and water, that simple). He suggests focusing one’s gaze into the floating glitter for personal meditation time. Glitter not your thing? There are apps out there many find useful for guided meditations. You might check out Headspace or Calm. Truth be told, you need nothing more than the determination to rest your mind for a few minutes, free of distraction, to gain the benefits of this brain hack.
Forward thinking companies are focusing in on this concept, too. In his book Big Potential, Achor discusses Aetna, a large healthcare company that has successfully applied strategies in the workplace to improve productivity with a training program designed to teach employees how to center themselves. Implementing their strategies, Aetna found an average weekly employee productivity gain of over an hour. And, this was over and above other important company gains, including reduction in turnover and improved customer service. Hello boost to the bottom line!
Attitude of Gratitude
There is a TON of research and lots of conversation around this concept. Just Google “Power of Gratitude” and see what comes up. Among its many benefits, an attitude of gratitude can increase productivity, bolster determination, improve relationships, contribute to overall
happiness, and support a sense of calm. Yes, please!
A gratitude journal is a great way to build an attitude of gratitude. So is making it a practice to thank someone for something daily. Setting aside one moment as part of your daily routine to conjure up a few things you are thankful for is going to make a real difference. Maybe this can happen when you are dressing for the day, or when you get in bed each night. The point is to find what works for you and do it.
Far From Phone
Oh boy, this one stirs up emotions; but I’m going there. Smart phones may be killing our smart. Our brains are not designed to have constant, overlapping, unrelenting data points coming at us. It is not just a call coming in. Our phones interrupt us with beeps, vibrations, alerts and light ups.
Simply putting the phone face down doesn’t stop the distraction. And, even turning it off is not always enough. A recent study found that having your phone in view reduces cognitive capacity. A friend of mine who works from home has taken to putting her phone in a
completely different part of her house when she is working.
I hear ya. “People need to reach me.” “Something may be happening with my child.” I’m just showing you the facts. You have to determine what works for you. I’m certainly not advocating we banish smartphones, but I think a commitment to healthy boundaries is in order. Bottom line, being prudent about your smart phone use is going to pay off in brain capacity.
Only a slight shift off topic, we have to talk social media here, as well. How many of us are guilty of hopping onto Facebook or Instagram to take a break? Newsflash: It is not a break. You’re going to find you start drawing comparisons between yourself and others. And/or, you’ll
be considering the quantities of likes/dislikes on a post. And, someone is going to take you on an emotional ride with a story you’d be better off not hearing. I’m not writing here to jump into the pros and cons of social media. I’m sticking to the topic of brain boosts and social media
is NOT a brain boost or break in its general sense.
Short and Sweet Zzzzzzs Pack Power
A little shut eye can take you a long way. Research has shown that a short nap (around 15 minutes) can significantly improve performance and reduce mistakes. Some research has shown that a 10 minute nap can actually make up for an hour of lost nighttime sleep. I’m not
sure where the stereotype of a napper being lazy came from, but I can tell you it didn’t come from scientific research. Bring on the power nap.
Related here, caffeine, another known brain boost, can take you only so far when you’re feeling tired. Try a short nap next time you can and see what happens. Some find they can time an afternoon cup of coffee right before a brief nap. The caffeine will hit you in about 20 minutes.
Assuming you can get to sleep within 5 minutes or so, when your 10 or 15 minute alarm goes off, you’ll have the added benefit of the caffeine as you wake up from your nap.
This brain booster comes out of the psychology field and is a key component of emotional intelligence. Having the ability to identify one’s emotions is the starting point to the management of emotions. You diminish some of the tension of a negative emotion by calling it out. It is that simple. Just acknowledging – simply naming – an uncomfortable emotion takes power out of the emotional punch.
For example, let’s say you’ve had a tough morning. You woke up late. Then, trying to get out of the door, you became frustrated with your child. Maybe you raised your voice as you pushed him through the last of the morning routine. Now you’re sitting at your desk feeling flustered. Take a moment to check in. What are you feeling? Guilty for raising your voice? Frustrated for sleeping through your alarm? Anxious from all the rushing around? Name them.
Now, take a few deep breaths and begin anew. Is there a new thought that will help you release the emotions and move forward? Allow it. Find the opportunity in your rough morning. Maybe it is modeling how to apologize by making an apology to your child. Maybe it is brainstorming on a better morning process. Zero in on what your next steps will be in order to transition to a better state of mind.
Give it a Try
In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina states, "Brain research still cannot without equivocation tell us how to become better teachers, parents, business leaders or students. There are not prescriptions, but hypotheses on brain research. You will be doing your own
research project to see whether they work for you." So, I encourage you to pick one or two of these brain boosters to try for a week. Then, when you’re reaping those rewards, try another! You are going to get results when you give your brain the space it needs to do its fabulous work. Try it. You’ll see. I’d love to hear where your boost takes you! Come back and let me know with a comment or call!
Are you reaching your full potential? Could you or your team members benefit from greater self-awareness and customized plans for growth? Kathy Walter has been helping teams and individuals become their best through individual coaching, team development and assessments like the Energy Leadership Index and the EQ-I 2.0. Contact Brain Basics to learn more.