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Build a smarter life, one small habit at a time.

Welcome to Nela’s blog! I am a productivity hacker, writer, and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. My blog is a collection of ideas on how to implement small habits that can help you build a smarter life so that you can be more productive, work smarter instead of harder, and maximize each day. Each blog post is a response to an answer posted on the Q&A website Quora. I write on a variety of topics including motivation and willpower, developing a growth mindset, goal setting, focus and concentration, deep work, mastery, productivity tips and hacks, morning routines, and positive psychology.

What’s new in 2017?

A new podcast

You can listen to my podcast where I talk more in depth about these topics, provide examples, and give pro tips on how you can incorporate these ideas into your busy schedule.

More tips and ideas

I created an e-book for students who want to study smarter and maximize brain power while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Where else can you find me?

Find me on Quora. I’ve also been published in The Huffington Post, Inc.com, Slate.com, Medical Daily, Business Insider, and TIME.

 

What keeps you motivated to learn things?

 

In two words: endless curiosity.

Because that’s what my mind is like. I am curious to know how and why things work, in what ways they can be useful to me, and what potential they have to open up new questions for me to contemplate.

But I don’t turn this into an abstract concept. In fact, I’ve narrowed the motivation thing down to almost a science. I start with the basics: first I figure out the why, then narrow down the what, I create a ritual around the where andwhen, I master my how, and finally I remind myself to stay curious.

When you cover the basics, you can boost your motivation to learn new things much more effectively.

Here are 5 steps to get you there.

#1. Ask your WHY.

Find out what is your purpose and goal to learn a new thing. When you make this connection, you’re more likely to stay motivated to keep learning. Why is that important? Because you should always make sure you’re learning something because you want to, and not because someone else thinks it is important. It is your personal development you should be focused on, not the development of anyone else. To narrow down your why, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why is learning about this topic important to me?
  • Is this something I’ve been interested in for a long time?
  • Am I looking to become an expert in a certain field?
  • Do I want to use this knowledge to better my education or career?
  • Am I looking to develop a skill I will need to live a higher quality of life?

#2. Narrow down the WHAT.

When you find out your why, narrow down what you’re learning. Make sure you identify one field, area, or subject matter so that your learning becomes more focused and targeted. When you do, you’re on the path to becoming a master in that area, as opposed to just dabbling in things here and there, without going in-depth on any particular topic.

  • Why is this important to the learning process in the long run?Identifying one thing means you don’t run the risk of getting distracted and demotivated because you want to achieve too much at the same time. When it comes to absorbing new material, think quality instead of quantity.
  • How does this impact your daily life? It makes absorbing new things easier. When you target one area at a time, you create a daily habit of learning that is simple and straightforward to follow, so that you can be consistent with it for longer periods of time.

#3. Create a ritual around the WHERE and WHEN.

Don’t wait for nighttime to begin learning something entirely new. If your goal is to absorb new information more effectively, especially if that information is dense, unfamiliar, and includes concepts that will require your analytical mind to take over, read the new material early in the day.

  • Why is it important to learn new things early? Because that’s when your analytical brain is more likely to perform the most complex tasks (in the case of learning new things, these tasks can be reading, comprehension, application, repetition).
  • When should you study? Your brain’s peak performance time is around 2-4 hours after you wake up. So, for example, if you wake up at 6, your peak times for review are between 8 and 10 a.m. To maximize your focus time, extend studying until midday to cover the most important concepts by lunchtime.
  • Where should you study? Create a peaceful and calm space to sit and work undisturbed. It could be your bedroom or a quiet corner at home. But if you live in a noisy environment, you might need to get creative. Try investing in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones to block out noise, or get a pair of soft silicone ear plugs like these so that you can study in silence. Music can help you improve your focus: it can be classical music such as Mozart, Chopin, or Bach, or a playlist of chillout tunes.

#4. Master your HOW.

Now that you’ve dedicated the time and space to learning something new, think how you can best optimize the time. If you think that you should be sitting in one place reading for hours, that’s the wrong approach. Why? Because you’re more likely to lose focus and your motivation, not to mention you’ll get tired fast. Here’s what can help:

  • Use a timer to divide up your study sessions into 30–60 minute increments that will allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. If you don’t have a lot of time, though, try the Pomodoro technique: study only in 25 minute increments, with a 5 minute break.
  • When you’ve completed one study session, get up and do something completely unrelated to work to give your brain a chance to rest. The benefit? You take advantage of the Zeigarnik effect: it’s a concept developed in psychology that suggests that students who take breaks during which they perform unrelated activities (studying other unrelated subjects, reading a book, working out or performing other physical activities, for example) will remember material better than students who go through longer study sessions without taking a break. So go ahead: get some fresh air, make yourself a sandwich, write a short list of other things you need to do later in the day, make yourself a cup of coffee or tea.

#5. STAY curious by befriending your inner child.

Staying curious is a combination of thinking like a detective, being open to new experiences, and learning new things. It’s very similar to how you processed the world when you were a child. And just because you are now all grown up with adult responsibilities doesn’t mean you should ignore the child that is still in you. Acknowledge it and ask what it wants to find out about the world and why. This will give you some time to explore the things that made you happy and excited before all this grown-up stuff happened. And in turn, it can help you to process and see the world around you differently today. Here’s what you can do:

  • Write down 5 things that your inner child loved to do. It can be anything from playing a game to practicing a sport to spending time vacationing at a favorite destination with your family.
  • From your list, pick items that still speak to you that you may have forgotten. In the rush of finishing school, going through your turbulent teen years, or studying for tough exams at college, what was left behind? Did you have big plans to be a writer, a painter, or a basketball player? When was the last time you did any of those things? How did you feel when you were doing them?
  • Make a plan for the following month to practice one of the items from the list. The key is to start with one so it’s easier to do; you can always try something different later and see how it goes. Start with an hour, maybe two times a week. If it’s painting that you miss doing, buy a sketch pad along with a few brushes and some watercolors, and get creative. If you picked a sport, go to the gym or the nearby park and work on getting more strong and fit.

How do I motivate myself when I am failing at every stage of my life?

I’ll let you in on a secret about failure: no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape it. You may think you have a lot of things going for you, or that you’re on a winning streak, or things just feel really good. And then it happens. Sometimes you get a warning signal, or a bunch of red flags flapping in the wind, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes it quietly creeps up on you, and by the time you feel it, it’s too late to change course.

Or is it?

Maybe the solution is in how you train your brain to think about failure.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s not what happens to you in your life that matters, but rather how you react to it that will determine the course of your life.

So how do you train your brain to stay motivated despite all the failures you experienced?

Start with these 7 tips and follow up questions to ask yourself so that you can gain a fresh perspective on what to do differently.

Tip 1. Congratulate yourself for making it this far.

Yes, if you hadn’t failed, by now you’d be celebrating the big win. But whatever happened to all the effort you put into it? That doesn’t just disappear. It’s really important to give yourself kudos for every small step you put into it. Why is this important? Your brain doesn’t know the difference between progress and perceived progress, so you’re better off giving praise for the small steps you’ve taken. Watch this TEDx Talk featuring B.J. Fogg, the Director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, to see why the secret is not in the big wins but in the small ones.

Question to ask yourself:

  • What is one thing I’ve done successfully in the past month: did I finish a big chunk of a project, meet a deadline, learn how to use a tool to do my job better, or finish a semester at school?

Tip 2. Resist getting emotional about it.

Sometimes it’s that voice that you hear saying, I can’t do it! It’s too hard! I’m going to give up! If it is, just chalk it up to the fixed mindset talking. What’s a fixed mindset? It’s your belief that your personality, skill set, and strengths are “fixed” i.e. you have them from birth, and that that’s just how it is. What’s better? Adopting a growth mindset: believing that you can cultivate strengths and skills through your efforts. That is hugely empowering! Read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success to better understand how you can make lasting change with continuous effort.

Question to ask yourself:

  • Do I say something is difficult because I’ve always found it challenging to do, and how would I change this if I could start all over again?

Tip 3. Tap into the bigger picture.

Ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Whatever you are working on, zoom out of your current situation and connect with the initial reason you started doing it. This will remind you that your actions are directly linked to your personal or professional goals. Maybe you started working on acquiring a new skill such as playing an instrument to fulfill a lifelong dream. Or, you are studying for exams, so that you can get a degree that will open doors for you to embark on an exciting career and gain financial independence. Or maybe you’re looking for a job that is a better fit for your skill set and your career path than the last one you had.

Question to ask yourself:

  • Why is this challenge so important to me? What is at the core? What will I gain from solving it? What will this mean to my life in the long run?

Tip 4. Consider that you could be a victim of self-sabotage.

Maybe it’s not external factors that are making a task impossible, even though you’d like to think so (My manager hates me! or The professor is deliberately making this exam difficult to pass!). Maybe the real reason is you and what you’re doing (or not!) to make it difficult to reach your goal. Is that entirely impossible? Not really. It’s more common than you may think. Check out this article to find out how changing your environment or adhering to the 2-minute rule can break this bad habit.

Question to ask yourself:

  • What is really behind my negative self-talk, am I scared to do something or is there one thing that’s blocking me?

Tip 5. Start anticipating obstacles and prepare for them.

When we are faced with an obstacle, we tend to stop what we’re doing and start reacting: we get emotional, we complain. It’s not fair! It’s impossible to fix! But complaining won’t change a thing. What will make a difference is getting proactive. How? First, start anticipating that there will be obstacles you will encounter on your path. If you prepare yourself psychologically for them, they won’t feel so devastating when they actually do happen. Second, use the opportunity to learn something new, to take a different approach to the problem, to think it through, and to try something different that can yield better results. And third, take advantage of the tough times to achieve mastery in one area so that you can become an expert at it. That way you proactively take advantage of your full potential, and you use your strengths to accomplish what you want to do with your life.

Question to ask yourself:

  • What are 3 things I can do when I am faced with an obstacle? Which solutions can I brainstorm so that I have them ready in case I need them?

Tip 6. Create a peaceful place in your mind.

More important than tidying up your apartment or house, it will benefit you greatly if you regularly work on keeping your mind clean and uncluttered. Why? When it’s not full of jumbled thoughts, confusion and worry, it can work its real magic. And how do you do that? By practicing mindfulness through meditation. This small practice doesn’t require a lot of time, it’s simple to follow, and it has many benefits, including better focus and more concentration. You can try it early in the day so that you prepare your brain for the day ahead, or you can practice it at night so you have more restful and calm sleep. Download the Headspace app to start with a simple 10-minute session.

Question to ask yourself:

  • When can I set aside 10 minutes today to practice mindfulness?

Tip 7. Make the time to take a well-deserved break.

We tend to feel bad about the decisions we made or the things that happened to us when we’re tired and our brain is exhausted from trying so hard to do things successfully. Maybe you’ve spent hours sitting at your desk or working on a challenging task, and your brain needs a break. What are some things you can do? If you don’t have a deadline later in the day, take a few hours off and go outside for a walk or a bike ride. You can take a power nap to get energized to work more later. Or you can find other ways to relax, such as listening to music or reading a chapter or two from a good book.

Question to ask yourself:

  • What is an activity that relaxes me that I can treat myself to doing today?

What are some of the best life-changing books?

 

Here are 7 books that have made a big impact on my life most recently, along with a few details on why I think they’re important:

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca.

There’s so much timeless wisdom in this book! A collection of letters written by Seneca, it’s a dense read but be warned—you’ll be taking notes from every letter because each one is full of practical advice we can incorporate into our lives. And maybe it’s an even better idea to read it through once, then go back and take notes the second time—you’ll be glad you did. The letters cover quite a large selection of topics. You’ll get to the bottom of what is the importance of true friendship, to why you should exercise your mind daily, to specific ways of reducing anxiety about all the different events that are happening in your life, Seneca’s ideas are a blueprint for living a high quality of life every single day.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

Written by two decorated, former Navy SEALs who fought during the war in Iraq, this book is a glimpse into what happens on the battlefield, and even more how a leader makes (or breaks) the success of a team. It’s a fascinating read about the importance of setting a strategy, how to prioritize what needs to be done first, how critical it is to check your ego, and why taking full responsibility when things go wrong promotes good leadership and success. At times the book reads like a thriller, and then you realize all the scenarios that are described are based on real events and experiences we can learn from and apply to our daily lives.

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, PhD.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to acquire a growth mindset, this book is an informative and excellent read. Written by a psychologist PhD who teaches at Harvard Medical School, the book introduces the concept of emotional agility—being flexible with our thoughts and feelings (the equivalent of having a growth mindset), instead of being rigid and holding on to beliefs from our past (the equivalent of having a fixed mindset). There are four key concepts of emotional agility: showing up (facing your thoughts and feelings), stepping out (detaching from them), walking your why (focusing on your core values), and moving on (getting proactive in changing your habits and mindset).

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport.

The title comes from advice that the comedian Steve Martin gave a while back to aspiring entertainers: be so good they can’t ignore you! Newport challenges the advice we often hear that we should follow our passion, and says that going down this path can be dangerous, invoke anxiety, and feed into a constant need to reinvent ourselves. Instead, Newport argues that matching our dream job to a preexisting passion doesn’t matter, but that passion comes after we put in the hard work to excel at something that provides value to others. This is a must read for anyone who feels they don’t really have any specific passion and are not sure how to choose their career path or move forward with their life.

Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss.

This book looks and reads like an encyclopedia: there’s so much information included and it’s best if you read it in small chunks! In essence, the material is divided into three sections (Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise), and consists of a comprehensive collection of life experiences, tools, and hands-on tactics compiled from a series of interviews Ferriss conducted with world-class leaders in diverse fields of expertise. These leaders range from top athletes to best-selling authors to Special Ops commanders. It’s like drinking from a very concentrated cup of wisdom!

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic is almost like a workbook: it offers 366 days of quotes of Stoic philosophers as well as practical applications of their wisdom through exercises. The philosophers mentioned include Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Zeno, and Cleanthes. Here are two examples of powerful quotes: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality” (Seneca), and “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own” (Marcus Aurelius). In other words, everyone can find something here they can relate to! There’s also a ton of commentary to accompany each quote, and a super useful glossary of Greek terms.

Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story by Jewel.

The artist provides a blueprint on how we can build strength and resilience in order to become a stronger, better balanced, and happier person. Instead of being impatient with ourselves, we should be more like hard wood that grows slowly: not look for quick fixes, but focus more on who we want to become in the long run. Jewel suggests this is possible to do by making decisions that aren’t focused on only the present, getting to the root of the problem we’re facing, and giving ourselves the permission to grow so that we can become the architect of our dreams.

How do I avoid losing focus on my goals after waking up?

Oh, you’re not the only one who loses focus after waking up.

All of us have experienced this many times. Maybe we start the day with great ideas or big plans of what we want to do. Maybe we get a rush of energy just thinking about these things. And then something happens: we find ourselves rushing in the morning, we are running late on our way to work or school, we forget to bring things along with us, we start feeling overwhelmed with the volume of tasks on our ever-growing list. Or maybe none of those things happen, but we find ourselves procrastinating about getting started with the day, and next thing we know, it’s lunchtime and our focus is just gone—plain and simple.

Sounds familiar, right?

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between having an idea and acting on the idea, just as there’s a big difference between beginning the day with good intentions and actually making things happen.

And that, right there, is how you can get out of this situation.

Start making things happen.

Here are 5 ideas that can help you get there.

Idea #1. Confront your procrastination by replacing the words “I can’t do this!” with “Why not try it?”

Hey, we’re all guilty of procrastinating at some point in our life. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, and it’s almost a default reaction to something challenging.

How do you do it?

  • First, ask yourself if there is something else hiding behind procrastination. Maybe it is fear of not being able to do something successfully, not being able to be better at it than other people, or maybe not even understanding why we are doing something to begin with.
  • Next time you feel like procrastinating, rather than immediately reacting with “I can’t do it”, ask yourself where the resistance is coming from. Be honest with yourself. Start with providing an explanation, for example by saying, “I can’t because….” Then you’ll know the source of your resistance.
  • Think of what you gain when you say “Why not?” You win over fear and you start thinking beyond obstacles. There is something powerful when you leave a door open to explore possibilities, instead of shutting that same door in your own face. It’s a subtle change in your attitude that can have a big impact in your life.

Idea #2. Train your brain to focus by asking yourself this question every morning: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”

It’s a simple brain training technique that makes it easy for your brain to focus on goals that are important to you right now. It also boosts your critical thinking skills because it forces you to prioritize what’s most relevant.

How do you do it?

  • Put it in writing. Write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall.
  • Read it out loud as you start your day, and come up with an answer on the spot.
  • Follow up by taking action and by reminding yourself throughout the day about the commitment you made.

Idea #3. Get your brain on board.

Before you start doing anything new, get your brain on board with what you’re about to do. It helps you get motivated to take action and become fully absorbed in whatever is in front of you.

How do you do it?

  • Instead of approaching something as a chore, turn it into a choice. Tell yourself, “This is something I really want to learn more about!” The benefit? It gives you a greater sense of control about what you’re doing. That’s much better than feeling like you’re reacting to things or you’re obligated to do things that are not your idea.
  • Remind yourself of the reason for action with this question: “Why am I doing this?” Make the connection with the initial reasons for working on something to begin with. It can be to learn a new skill, research a topic you’re interested in, study for an exam so you can graduate and start your career, explore a business opportunity, solve a specific problem at work, etc.
  • Visualize what you’re about to do. This is a technique called building a mental model, where you imagine all the steps you’ll be taking. For example, if you are researching something new, visualize covering a certain amount of material, taking notes on important concepts, and writing down what you’ll need to follow up on later. By telling yourself a story, you map out the entire learning process so it’s easier for your brain to understand it.

Idea #4. Make your personal goals a top priority.

Whether you’re a student, working full-time, or taking time off to be a parent or start your own business, you should do whatever is possible to work on your personal development. If you don’t, it will eventually catch up with you and may leave you feeling unhappy or overwhelmed with ordinary daily activities.

How do you do it?

  • Start thinking about the big picture. Ask yourself—where do you want to be 5 or 10 years from now? Who do you want to become? What is a dream scenario for you: a life in a specific city, having a partner to share your life journey with, being surrounded by smart and interesting people who contribute to your personal growth, being fluent in another language? Get specific with the description of your ideal life.
  • Second, narrow it down. Set aside an hour or two one evening to do the following:
    • Write down your top 3 personal goals.
    • Under each, write down 3 things you would need to do on a consistent basis to get you closer to each goal.
    • Then, make a plan for the week ahead so that you can devote blocks of time to making progress in the areas you’ve identified.

Idea #5. Keep learning, keep improving, keep hacking your life.

Now that you’ve started to incorporate some changes into your life to remain focused on things that are your top priority, all you need to do is continue moving forward. Life is not static, and your efforts should also not be static. Think about ways to improve what you’re doing each day.

How do you do it?

  • Measure your progress. Find ways to measure how you’re moving forward. Maybe you’ll set aside 30 minutes each day to focus on learning a new skill. If so, add up the hours at the end of the week and see if you can add more time each day, even if it’s just a few more minutes. Then see how many hours you’ve devoted to it in a month.
  • Evaluate how you’re doing. Ask yourself a few questions to understand how you’re keeping up with the goals you’ve set for yourself. For example, did some activities you started doing take more time than you anticipated? What could you have done better? Where can you make adjustments to stay on track?
  • Take time to appreciate the change. Yes, it’s important to make progress, to stay focused, to reach that important goal. But every step of the way in getting there is super important too. So find the time each evening to pause and reflect on what you’re doing, and give yourself some well-deserved praise for all those efforts. It really does feel good to be aware that you’re on the right track!

What is the most effective way to enhance working memory?

You may not be aware of it, but you use your working memory (aka short-term memory) on a daily basis. So it’s no wonder you want to keep it in optimal shape!

There are 2 types of working memory: auditory (everything you hear) and visual-spatial (everything you see). And even though it sounds scientific, the bottom line is this:

Working memory is a thinking skill that helps you to

  • process new information
  • understand what this new information means
  • remember it when you need it
  • recall it (or play it back) immediately after you’ve processed it

A few real-life examples of when you use your working memory are:

  • whenever you learn a new sport
  • when you’re taking an exam
  • when you’re writing a shopping list or packing a bag for vacation
  • every time you follow a set of instructions or directions

So what’s an effective way to enhance this useful skill?

Here’s one: whenever you learn something new, teach it to someone else.

What are the benefits of teaching what you’ve learned?

This technique is easy to practice, gives you confidence by strengthening your knowledge of the newly-learned material, and boosts your memorization. You can review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned better and more effectively than just passively keeping it to yourself without taking any action.

How do you actually teach what you’ve learned?

Start with these tips:

  • Get an audience, real or imaginary. A real audience can be a close friend, study partner or family member. But if you’re too shy to speak to anyone about what you learned, you can pretend that you have a few invisible students who really need to learn the same thing, and talk to them. Even better: grab the family dog or cat and talk to it. Pets can be excellent listeners and a captive audience!
  • Create your own classroom. If you’re going to teach someone something, you need to create the space in which to do it. Take a large sheet of white paper (or tape together several sheets for a bigger writing surface), then tape it to your bedroom wall at eye level. Be sure you have some leg room to stand in front of it. Have a pen handy, and a thick black marker or different colored highlighters to underline important concepts. Now you have all the tools to begin.
  • Get to work. Here’s where you’ll have the opportunity to apply what you’ve just learned. Start with this simple sequence of steps:
    • Stand in front of the large sheet of paper you’ve taped to the wall, and write an outline of the most important points or concepts of what you just learned. It can be a set of simple directions on how to do something, or a few key concepts you’ve learned from a chapter in your textbook.
    • Then, go over each of the steps or concepts aloud one by one. As you’re talking, make you “lecture” more interactive by drawing diagrams on the side, small illustrations or even short lists of examples. You can also tell a short story or joke to add a touch of humor to what you’re teaching.
    • At the end, summarize the key parts of what you covered by going over the main parts of your outline once again, and highlight these sections with your thick marker or highlighter. This visual tip helps you recall details better and can solidify what you’ve learned.
  • Keep it top of mind. You’re already done teaching what you learned, so you completed the lecture part of the learning process. But it will help you if you keep what you learned top of mind the rest of the day. Whenever you find yourself on a long commute home, or doing a workout at the gym or nearby park, or as you’re running errands, ask yourself to repeat the key concepts again. This is a perfect time to go over them, remembering how you wrote your outline on the paper, talked about each point, and highlighted the main sections using different colors. Repeating newly learned material will reinforce your knowledge of it even more, and you’ll be optimizing your working memory in a way that’s useful to you, regardless of what you’re working on!

How do you keep your mind focused?

 

Short answer: with small daily habits.

In my experience, being consistent is much easier if I practice small habits that are simple and easy to incorporate into the day. Rather than overanalyze, evaluate, and question what’s better to do, my goal is to keep things as simple as possible.

Because when you simplify habits, especially new habits, you’re much more likely to make them stick.

Here are 7 small habits that can keep your mind focused on what is important to you.

Small habit #1. Train your mind to focus early in the day with one question: What is the ONE THING I am committed to completing today? It keeps things simple, helps your brain focus better, makes you prioritize your goals, and streamlines the work you need to do on that particular day so you don’t feel overwhelmed with making too many choices. To do this, just write it in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Read it out loud as you start each day, and come up with an answer on the spot. Then, devote your time to completing what’s most important to you on that day.

Small habit #2. Give your body a chance to get energized with a short workout.

Doing physical exercise, even if it is targeted and short, can do wonders not just for your muscles but also for your brain. Exercise improves your brain’s cognitive performance, increases its problem solving ability, and even boosts long-term memory. You don’t need 2 hours at the gym, though. The goal is to be consistent, so even a short 30 minute workout will energize you and prepare you for the day. For example, you can try a morning yoga routine, a 20-minute power walk, or a 15 minute bootcamp session.

Small habit #3. Manage your time in short increments.

When you’re ready to start working, use a timer to divide up your workday into manageable increments that will allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. Try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks. When you’re done with one segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work to give your brain a chance to rest: get some fresh air, stretch your body, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

Small habit #4. Avoid distractions as much as possible.

Daily habits such as checking emails frequently are part of the norm these days. But these habits don’t just keep you distracted; according to the Harvard Business Review checking emails and multitasking can lower your IQ by up to 10 points. Scary, right? So unless you’re waiting for an urgent email for a project due on the same day, or an email that will change the course of your life, leave checking your inbox for later (during lunch or in the afternoon). Instead of checking emails first thing in the morning, use your well-rested brain to perform more complex problem-solving tasks.

Small habit #5. Get into the habit of writing stuff down.

The simple act of writing has a chemical effect on your brain by increasing blood flow to areas of your brain responsible for your memories. So, even though it’s easier for most of us to just type everything on our laptops or phones, we won’t get the same effect. How can you create a writing ritual? You can start a journal, write letters to friends by hand, create a detailed plan for the week or month, or draft a couple of ideas to post on your blog. The best part about writing regularly is that it can boost your memory and help you recall information when you need it.

Small habit #6. Harness your mind with a little meditation.

There’s a lot of information and even more advice on meditation, which can be a little overwhelming. You may think it’s an advanced practice that only certain personality types or professionals can do successfully. It’s actually easier than you think. The best part about meditating is that it can declutter your brain of thoughts that distract you, allow you to focus better throughout the day, and even help you cope more successfully with the day’s events. Start by downloading the Headspace app: the beginner level takes only 10 minutes, it’s fun and super easy.

Small habit #7. Empower your brain with plenty of sleep.

So what’s the big deal about sleeping? Here’s the thing—you don’t want to miss it. It’s okay to miss out on a full night’s rest due to upcoming exams or a big project at work; just don’t turn it into a bad habit. Chronic sleep deprivation can reduce your cognitive abilities, negatively impact your concentration, and even impact long-term memory and recall. If you find it difficult to wind down from your busy day, there are a few simple ways to do it right. For example, you can set a bedtime alarm on your phone about 30 minutes before bedtime, and you can practice a simple nighttime routine each evening to get you to bed on time.

If you can give me only one tip to improve my life, what would it be?

Excellent question!

I think the best tip that’s worked for me is to develop a growth mindset.

Why is this even important?

Because mindset = attitude towards yourself = believing what you can do.

And that, in a nutshell, is the single most important tool that you can have that will help you accomplish personal goals, overcome obstacles, and ultimately lead a higher quality of life.

What is a growth mindset?

There are 2 types of mindsets we can identify with:

  • Fixed mindset: when we believe that our qualities are set in stone (either at birth or in early childhood), and that we can only have a certain level of intelligence, a certain type of personality, or a certain moral character. If we consider ourselves intelligent, we expect success at every step, and when we encounter an obstacle, we withdraw or give up entirely.
  • Growth mindset: when we believe that our genetic structure and our early years are merely the starting point in our development, and that we can improve on our qualities through continuous efforts. If we understand that there is always room for growth, we approach life as a continuum of learning and we treat obstacles as opportunities to better ourselves and improve our skills further.

Which examples show this difference?

  • Examples of fixed mindset: When you were a child and did something well, maybe your parents praised you with statements such as, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re a genius!” or “You’re a natural!” or “You were just born that way!”
  • Examples of growth mindset: If your parents or teachers praised you with words such as, “You passed the test because you worked so hard!” or “You were struggling at first, but then you were persistent, and look at you now!” or “You can do this if you spend some time working a little bit each day to get better at it!”

How can your mindset affect your future?

A fixed or growth mindset goes a long way towards shaping your life, either positively or negatively. It can influence your day-to-day behavior, the types of goals you set for yourself, what you succeed or fail in, the relationships you pick (friends, partners, even pets), the skills you choose to work on for your personal as well as your professional development.

What are some ways to develop a growth mindset?

  • Always stay curious. Learn something new every day, whether it’s about the history of the world, how things work, which foods and activities keep you healthy, which habits can help you become a better person, or which books you can read that will teach you something valuable.
  • Don’t limit your learning experience. Just because it’s not taught in school doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time learning about it. Go to the library and pick up books on a topic that is interesting to you. Take an online class in the evening, or watch free tutorials on YouTube on how to develop a skill you think would be empowering to you. Ask someone who’s an expert and who has achieved mastery in a field or a skill you want to have.
  • Change the way you look at success. Instead of thinking that success is being the best, think of success as doing your best, always improving the way you do your work and manage your personal development. For example, take ownership of your day by planning it out so you have time to accomplish what you need to. When you’re working, remove all distractions and focus on what’s in front of you. Make a connection between what you’re doing right now and why you’re doing it, so that you always keep your goals top of mind.
  • Change the way you view failure. Instead of seeing your failures as confirmation of your inability to do something, see a failure as a setback: it can be motivating, informative, even a wake-up call. It isn’t an excuse to give up entirely on something; it can even build character. For example, if you fail an exam, take stock of how you did and think of how to improve next time. If you get criticized at work, instead of getting emotional, be rational and closely examine what is the core of the message (did you overlook an important detail, miss a deadline, or just forget to do something?) so you can correct things and move on.
  • Try your best to not get frustrated with yourself. This can happen, and does happen often to us all. For example, you’re not making progress as quickly as you’d like, so it’s best to make an assessment of the path you’re on and see what needs to be fixed. Maybe there is someone more experienced you can ask to advise you and give you shortcuts, or maybe you’re not using your resources wisely or not using the ones that are more practical, or maybe you just need to carve out more time in your day to devote to your work.
  • Surround yourself with people who demonstrate a growth mindset. They are the ones with a can-do attitude, who exhibit positive and optimistic behavior, and who are working hard every day on making themselves better people. Conversely, stay away from those who are constantly negative, critical in always pointing out what they or others are lacking, and who spend too much time talking about others and not enough time on themselves.
  • Keep your mind open to possibilities. When you’re not sure how to proceed with handling or trying something different, start by asking, “what if?” What if you conquer something important that you thought you’d never be able to do a year ago? What if, in the process, you open doors that will take your life in a new direction, that will fill you with optimism and energy? What if that new energy makes you limitless? By developing a growth mindset, you can change your view of yourself and your abilities, which can determine your entire future.

Finally, if the topic of growth mindset sounds interesting to you, get the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. It’s the best way to learn from examples, some of which you will most likely identify with your own life experiences, and to find practical suggestions that can help you become more successful in your studies, your professional life, your relationships, and your personal growth.