How can you train your brain?

How can you train your brain?

Optimize it in every way: from giving it what it needs first thing in the morning, to knowing when to let it do its deep work, to challenging it with enough brain food so that it can work smarter, faster, and better.

Here are 12 tips to train and optimize your brain.

Optimize your brain with a workout.

Doing physical exercise, even if it is targeted and short, can do wonders for your brain. Exercise improves your brain’s cognitive performance, increases its problem solving ability, and even boosts long-term memory.

Make your mornings count by doing a short 15-30 minute workout to energize you and prepare you for the day. Here are some examples:

Feed your brain with the right nutrients.

  • Start your day with a balanced breakfast, for example with a combination of protein, fruits, and healthy fats (such as nuts): it can be oatmeal or yogurt with granola, fresh fruit, walnuts and almonds.
  • Have an egg! Eggs are a powerful mix of B vitamins (they help nerve cells to burn glucose), antioxidants (they protect neurons against damage), and omega-3 fatty acids (they keep nerve cells functioning at optimal speed).
  • Have a beet and berry smoothie. Did you know that the natural nitrates in beets can increase blood flow to your brain which improves mental performance? In a blender, combine 1/2 cup of orange juice, 1 cup frozen berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries), 1/2 cup diced beets (raw or roasted), 1 tablespoon granola, 2–3 dates, 1/4 cup coconut water or plain low-fat yogurt, and 3 ice cubes. Blend for one minute.
  • Did you know that some excellent brain food includes sardines, beets, spinach, and lentils? Try to incorporate these and other foods into your daily meals to boost your brain power

Focus your mind by asking yourself this question first thing each morning: What is the ONE THING I am committed to completing today?

There are many benefits to this technique: it keeps things simple, it helps your brain focus better, makes you prioritize your goals, and streamlines your work so you don’t feel overwhelmed with having to accomplish too many things in a single day. Here’s how:

  • Write this question 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.
  • Keep your answer top of mind as you go through your work for the day, so that you don’t get distracted by other things that you come across.

Do your hard work EARLY in the day.

  • What is deep work? It is the work your brain does that is mainly focused on analytical thinking and that that requires the most concentration. For example, deep work can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
  • How early is “early”? Many scientists say that the brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after we wake up. If, for example, you wake up at 6, your peak times are between 8 and 10 a.m. You can extend this time to the rest of the morning to maximize your peak time.
  • Why is this important? Doing your deep work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you’ve gained from a restful night. It’s the exact opposite of what can happen if you leave your hardest work for nighttime, when you are exhausted from the day.

Avoid one distraction that may lower your IQ: checking your email frequently.

This habit doesn’t only keep you distracted; according to the Harvard Business Review it can lower your IQ by up to 10 points. Unless you’re waiting for an email that will change the course of your life (and these are rare), leave checking your inbox for later in the day, instead of doing it first thing in the morning when your brain is well rested and can perform more complex problem-solving.

Don’t waste your time!

How can you focus if you believe you’ll be spending hours studying with no end in sight? Try a different approach to your work. When you’re ready to begin, use a timer to divide up your time into manageable increments that will allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way.

  • For reviewing study material, set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, you can also try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
  • For preparing for exams, use the review questions provided either in your textbook or given by your professor (and if you have neither, create your own questions based on the most important concepts from each chapter). Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to give yourself only a short time to answer each question. Use each 25-minute block of time to cover several questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered them all.
  • Tip: as you’re answering each question, write an outline of the basic points and then talk it through out loud. This helps you review, recall, and retain what you’ve learned in a much better way than just silently looking over the material and writing it out.
  • 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: take a 5-minute walk to get some fresh air, stretch your body for a few minutes, grab a cup of coffee or tea.

Schedule in a workout for LATER to retain what you’ve learned.

Exercise is definitely important to boost memory, but timing of it is key.

  • Scientists found that people who exercised four hours after their study session retained the information better a few days later than those who exercised either immediately after studying or those who didn’t exercise at all.
  • Why is this important? Brain scans from the study show that exercising with a delay affects the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for learning and memory. Challenge your mind in a creative way.

Do crossword puzzles, put together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, learn chess, play cards, or read books on strategic thinking. These activities keep your brain active and challenged, help delay memory loss, and promote learning new things every day.

Use the memory palace technique.

What is a memory palace? Also known as ‘the method of loci‘, a technique that dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, this mnemonic device represents a place or series of places you can create in your mind to store information that you need to remember. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Read books.

What’s the benefit? It will help you increase your focus. Here’s how to make it a brain-boosting habit:

  • If you don’t have one already, get a library membership at your local library.
  • Make it a ritual. Set aside one hour every evening when you turn off the TV, get away from the computer and your phone, make yourself a cup of tea, get some good chocolate to go with it, pick some relaxing music to listen to.
  • Start with Quora: check out recommendations on the best books of all time.
  • Download the Goodreads app to discover new books and authors and check out book lists, view book summaries, and get recommendations based on your preferences by genre, author, or topic.

Train your mind with meditation.

Meditating can declutter your brain of thoughts that distract you from the brilliant work you could be doing. This small practice doesn’t require a lot of time, is simple to follow, and has many benefits, including better focus throughout the day, more concentration, improved ability to cope with the day’s events, and a greater sense of calm. Try the Headspace app to start with just 10 minutes; it’s fun and easy to use.

Reboot your brain with sleep.

What’s the big deal about sleeping? You don’t want to miss it. Chronic sleep deprivation can reduce your cognitive abilities, negatively impact your concentration, and can even reduce your IQ. Train your brain to wind down at the same time each evening by:

  • setting a bedtime alarm to go off 30 minutes before going to sleep
  • staying away from electronics (mainly your computer and TV screens)
  • stretching your legs with a short walk after dinner for about 20-30 minutes to boost digestion and give your brain some extra oxygen
  • doing something relaxing before bedtime: read a book, listen to music, or just close your eyes and breathe deeply for 10 counts before you brush your teeth and get ready for bed.

A final note:

People often see the words smart and intelligent as interchangeable, but there is a difference between them.

Being smart (about something) or getting smarter (at something) implies something has been learned. It’s also a quality that is earned over time: we become book smart when we read and learn from many books; we become street smart when we know how to survive by navigating real world challenges in daily life.

Intelligence, by contrast, is often associated with IQ as a measure of our ability to learn, not how much we have learned. In most definitions it indicates it is something we are born with, that is inherent, and therefore originates from our genetic makeup. It can also imply either the capacity to obtain, or the possession of a degree of higher education.

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