Last time, I shared five compelling reasons why you should rest your brain in order to "work smarter, not harder".
Today, let's talk strategies.
These 40 tricks fall into five categories that align with those five reasons we discussed last time...
Relax Your Brain for Breakthrough Thinking
Many of the strategies in this first category come from (or were inspired by) the research and ideas in Jonah Lehrer's fascinating book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
#1: Laugh. Good moods boost creative thinking. In one research study, people shown a Robin Williams standup routine solved about 20% more puzzles than those who watched boring or scary videos. Watch your own favorite funny video (here's one that always makes me laugh), joke with your colleagues, or try laughter yoga.
#2: See blue, not red. Expose yourself to the color blue (e.g., a blue room, a blue sky). In another study, people performing cognitive tasks on a blue background came up with far more creative ideas than those viewing the same tasks on a red background. Red, which tends to signal danger, is fine for the kind of thinking that requires vigilance and attention to detail, but it blocks creative, big-picture thinking.
#3: Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. They have a similar effect on your brain as the color red (see #2).
#4: Schedule unstructured time. Based on his research findings, one respected cognitive psychologist spends part of each work day walking on the beach. He never plans what he will think about but instead just lets his mind wander. He finds that his best ideas arise during these walks.
#5: Do your big thinking first thing. If you have a problem you're struggling with, write down the issue or question and leave it on your bed stand. Set your alarm a little early. Then, when it goes off, before you do anything else in the morning, pick up your question to contemplate it. You'll be impressed by your insights.
#6: Take a nap. If you can't squeeze in your thinking time first thing in the morning, try it instead after a catnap. Don't nap, though, if it interferes with your ability to sleep at night. And try to keep it to a half-hour or less; longer than that and you'll shift into "delta" sleep which is hard to wake from and will leave you feeling groggy.
#7: Take a warm shower. The relaxing effect of warm water massaging your body is what's responsible for the well-known phenomenon of great ideas coming when you're in the shower.
#8: Manufacture some alpha brainwaves. Get this: Using EEG, scientists can reliably predict when someone is about to solve a puzzle (about eight whole seconds before it happens!). The clue is a steady stream of alpha brainwaves coming from the brain's right hemisphere. One way to manipulate the brain into producing these alpha waves is through something called "binaural beats". By introducing sounds of slightly different frequencies into your right and left ears, you trick your brain into making up the difference, thus changing the frequency of your brainwaves. (You need to listen with earbuds or headphones, though, for this to work.) Some recordings (such as this one) have the added benefit of incorporating soothing nature sounds. Here's a selection of these recordings on Amazon. Or you can download some free ones here.
#9: Do something different. Banging your head against the problem is the worst thing you can do if you're looking for a breakthrough. Instead, switch things up. Change environments. Stop staring at that computer screen and immerse yourself in a completely different activity — take a walk, talk to your stakeholders, lay down and listen to music, look at art, play pinball — and the answer will come to you when you least expect it. (3M, the company famous for innovations like the Post-It Note, has a longstanding policy encouraging its employees to do just that.)
Unclutter Your Mental RAM
Productivity guru David Allen talks a lot about your "psychic RAM". And Douglas Merrill (author and former Google exec) applies cognitive psychology principles to the task of getting organized. Their writings are the inspiration behind a number of these ideas...
#10: Do a brain dump. We tend to hold all kinds of action items in our heads, but doing so clutters up your mental landscape and interferes with clear thinking. David Allen recommends doing a weekly "mind sweep" to get all the "open loops" out of your head and put them in writing. Merlin Mann of 43 Folders has a nice explanation of how to do a mind sweep, which includes a link to Allen's list of triggers to help bring some of the mental clutter (i.e., stuff you've been meaning to take action on) to the front of your awareness so you can get it out of your head.
#11: Use a system you trust. In order for your brain to really let go of the things you dump out of it, it has to trust that you'll look at this stuff again, and not two weeks after you should have looked at it. So whether it's a version of David Allen's GTD system, a Franklin-Covey system, or even just one comprehensive to-do list, the key is to put it all in one system and to use that system consistently.
#12: Stop relying on visual reminders. If you don't have a system you trust, you might find yourself using visual reminders to trigger you to think about the stuff you need to do. It may be post-its on the side of your computer, stacks of stuff on your desk, or an email inbox full of messages you've read but still need to take action on. And yes, they do the job of reminding you. But they're constantly there reminding you, which means unrelated thoughts are intruding into working memory when you're trying to focus on something else.
#13: Add 10 minutes to the end of every meeting. I'm not talking about making your meetings longer. I'm talking about breathing space afterward. Inevitably, you'll walk out with ideas and action items, and you need time to get those out of your head and into your system so you can bring your full attention to the next thing on your plate.
#14: Don't multitask. You might think you're doing multiple things at once, but you're actually very rapidly switching your attention back and forth. And when you do so, those different tasks are competing to use the same part of your brain, which means you're going to lose some things. It's actually far more efficient to just do one thing at a time.
#15: Make your notepad your best friend. Keep it right next to you whenever you're working on a task. When any unrelated thoughts (inevitably) pop into your mind, write them down so you can stay focused on what you're doing. Because the more often you switch focus (i.e., attempt to multitask), the more likely you are to lose focus, forget things, and slow down your thought processes.
#16: Write "morning pages". Julia Cameron, author of the bestselling book The Artist's Way, recommends writing three longhand pages first thing in the morning to clear your mind and bring what is unconscious into consciousness. (She compares it to poking a dust buster into the cobwebby crevices of your consciousness.) This practice is similar to a brain dump (#10), but it's less tasky. Here's a video of Julia describing the practice.
#17: Use your vacation time. And not just a couple days at a time. Take at least a week off (two is better), and put a little cushion in at each end so you're not rushing as you switch from work mode to vacation mode and back again. When you return to work, you'll find you have fresh ideas and a new sense of perspective.
#18: Take an exercise class. For those 30 or 45 minutes, you'll be focused on nothing but the class. And when it's over, your mind will feel clearer. Working Well Blog reader Tara Burch likes her Tae Kwon Do classes for that reason, finding that the different mental challenge helps her feel refreshed afterward.
As we noted last time, stress inhibits your working memory. And working memory is critical to "working smarter". Here are some tips I've accumulated over the years as a leadership consultant, psychologist, and curious web surfer...
#19: Address conflicts directly. Don't let them fester. While it may seem more stressful to address them, the reality is that the only way to put them behind you is to deal with them, openly and constructively. (The Center for Conflict Dynamics' blog has a lot of good tips on handling conflict effectively.)
#20: End unhealthy relationships. Is there a friend who's sapping your energy? Are you working for an abusive boss? Are you constantly battling with your partner? If you've tried repeatedly to fix it but it's still a consistent source of stress, then it's time to move on. You'll be a smarter, more productive person if you do.
#21: Practice self-compassion. We often increase our own stress by being harder on ourselves than we would ever be on others. Try to become aware of and change your negative self-talk. To help yourself, try these guided self-compassion meditations from psychologist and self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff.
#22: Recite the serenity prayer. There's a heap of stress-management wisdom packed into this one. (Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.)
#23: Breathe. Inhale slowly on a count of three, then exhale on a count of six. Repeat several times. This exercise, with its emphasis on the exhale, reduces activity in the sympathetic nervous system — the one that's responsible for your "fight or flight" responses.
#24: Use positive visualization. Working Well Blog reader Katie Wheeler offered this one for us. When she's feeling stressed, she closes her eyes, visualizes something lovely (for her, it's often a beautiful rainbow), and says to herself, "I can choose peace rather than this."
#25: Listen to birdsong. Sound consultant Julian Treasure explains in this fascinating TED Talk that birdsong makes us feel safe because it is a cue that no dangers are present. (As he notes, "It's when they stop that you need to be worried.") Here's a nice hour-long recording of birds in a forest that you can purchase on iTunes.
#26: Exercise. (Yes, again.) It will change your brain chemistry in ways that will reduce your stress and boost your mood. You've probably heard that it causes the release of endorphins, but we now also know that it affects the levels of certain neurotransmitters as well.
#27: Read "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff". It's full of many more really good strategies for reducing your stress levels.
Get Your REM Sleep
Recall that REM sleep is the stage in which your brain renews itself, so this is important stuff. Most of these tips come from James Maas' fascinating book, Power Sleep...
#28: Get the amount of sleep YOU need. For most adults, that's between 7 and 10 hours per night. Sadly, how much sleep you need is determined by heredity, so you can't "train" yourself to need less. For instructions on how to determine your own sleep needs, click here.
#29: Sleep in one continuous block. As I noted in my last post, for most of us, the majority of our REM sleep occurs between the 6th and 8th hour of sleep. So getting your sleep in little chunks here and there doesn't cut it.
#30: Repay sleep debts. Sleep loss is cumulative. For example, losing one hour of sleep every night for a week has the same mental effect on you as having pulled an all-nighter. So when you shortchange yourself, you can't just brush it off. If you want your optimal alertness levels to return, you need to make up what you lost (although not necessarily hour for hour). Don't expect to replace lost sleep all at once, though. You can increase your normal sleep duration by at most 2–4 hours per night. So if you're weeks behind on your sleep, it's going to take you a while to catch up.
#31: Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Here's what James Maas has to say about this:
Regularity is important for setting and stabilizing your internal sleep-wake biological clock. Within six weeks, the hours you spend in bed will begin to synchronize with the sleepy phase of your biological clock, and conversely the hours you spend out of bed will correspond to the time when you feel most alert and refreshed. Keeping a regular schedule will make you feel significantly more alert than sleeping for the same amount of time but at differing hours across the week and weekend.
#32: Reduce your stress. Not only does it mess with your working memory, it also interferes with sleep. So use tips #19-#27 to help you sleep better too! (Meanwhile, don't stress about getting enough sleep. That's the worst way to exacerbate insomnia. Instead, trust your body to sleep when it needs to. Or if you feel like you've got a sleep-related problem, consult Power Sleep or your doctor for some helpful solutions.)
#33: Avoid alcohol near bedtime. It suppresses REM sleep.
Manage Your Energy
Recall that switching up the types of energy you're using throughout the day — mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual — helps you stay energized and focused. (This is one of the major premises of Loehr & Schwartz's compelling book, The Power of Full Engagement.) For those of us in sitting-intensive professions, that especially means finding ways to engage our physical energy more often. Here are some tricks for doing so...
#34: Know your energy patterns. All of us have certain times of day when we can focus longer, think more clearly, and work more efficiently. Get to know your own mental energy patterns, and plan your work accordingly. Schedule your most mentally demanding tasks during your peak times, and plan a different kind of energy use (maybe filing, phone calls, or errands) during your low periods.
#35: Set a timer. It will help you remember to get up and move your body periodically. Since our concentration tends to fade after about 90 minutes anyway, so that's the perfect time to stop and stretch your body. (Try this simple online timer if you want a reminder while working at your computer.)
#36: Use a treadmill desk. Even moderate amounts of exercise can drive more blood and oxygen to your brain. Author and endocrinologist James Levine notes that a pace of one mile per hour is slow enough to allow you to do typical office tasks (write, type, talk on the phone) but will still improve your energy levels, efficiency, and physical health (including the possibility for dramatic weight loss if used daily over the course of a year). If you already own a treadmill, you may be able to create your own simple treadmill desk by simply placing a board across the arms of the machine.
#37: Work standing up. Even just doing this can help you burn 50 or more calories per hour while improving your concentration and mental clarity.
#38: Hold stand-up meetings. One research study found that stand-up meetings are on average 34% shorter with no reduction in the quality of decision making — and people tend to be more satisfied with these kinds of meetings. And of course there are the same benefits as cited in #37. Or you could try a "walk and talk" approach for one-on-one or small group meetings and get even more physical benefits.
#39: Exercise regularly. Are you sensing a theme here? The research evidence is very convincing. Multiple studies have demonstrated that people who are physically fit have higher levels of productivity, as well as improved concentration, memory, and complex decision-making.
#40: Sip ice water. Listen to what Robert Cooper says about this: By sipping extra water every 20–30 minutes during the day, you provide a clear, repeated signal to your metabolism to keep your energy and alertness levels higher. This effect may be even more pronounced when the water is ice-cold, because when ice-cold water reaches the stomach it stimulates increased energy-production throughout the body and raises alertness in the brain and senses. Cool, huh?
Unlike the above tips, this one not about resting and restoring your brain. Instead it's about feeding your brain...
#41: Eat blueberries and other darkly-colored fruits and vegetables. In one impressive study, when aging rats were fed a diet of blueberries and other fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants, their performance on motor skills and memory tests improved dramatically. They also had healthier brains, showing reduced inflammation and more effective use of the neurotransmitters that help the brain send and receive signals. Interestingly, the changes were most dramatic in those fed blueberries, but other antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables (e.g., strawberries, spinach, kale) also had a significant effect. Related human research suggests these findings hold true for us as well.
Your Next Steps
Phew! That's a long list, isn't it?
And the reality is, there are plenty more things we could add to it.
Don't let yourself get overwhelmed, though. If these aren't things you're already doing, don't try implementing them all at once. Instead, just pick one or two to start with. Even just doing a handful of these things can make you a healthier, calmer, better-rested, SMARTER you!
Meanwhile, if there are other people in your life who you think would benefit from this information, won't you share it with them? Use the buttons on the left side of your screen to email this post or to share it on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
(You can also email this to yourself. Then use Nudgemail to forward the message to yourself in the future — or to set up repeated reminders — so you remember to check the list periodically for tricks you want to try.)
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