Guest posted by Elijah Vieau
There have been some major waves in the last decade around the topic of hacking your brain for optimal neurological performance. Some doctors and scientists even claim that brain hacking is at the frontier of mental illness treatment, with recent connections being made between certain mental disorders and specific brain circuits.
Yay science, right?
But what about those of us (myself included) who can feel overwhelmed by the basic concept of being productive? Or those who can’t seem to focus for more than five minutes at a time without tapping that Instagram icon and scrolling aimlessly?
If you’ve been experiencing roadblocks with your productivity and focus, then this article is for you. Luckily, there are plenty of quick and easy ways to “hack” your brain to stay focused longer, allowing you to get more stuff done.
But first things first…
Multitasking is crushing your productivity
It’s confusing, I know. We’ve been bred into a chaotic culture of doing 32 things at once, so how in the world is someone supposed to survive without multitasking? Truth be told, researchers have suggested that regular task switching is actually hindering your productivity by as much as 40%. To fully grasp this concept, let’s take a look at the definition of multitasking:
“Multitasking can take place when someone tries to perform two tasks simultaneously, switch from one task to another, or perform two or more tasks in rapid succession.”
So anything more than two tasks at once is considered multitasking, and according to Miller’s law, the average human brain can hold a maximum of seven objects in working memory:
“The number seven constitutes a useful heuristic, reminding us that lists that are much longer than that become significantly harder to remember and process simultaneously.”
I realize the thought of mentally juggling seven things at once doesn’t seem that scary to a lot of people (e.g. parents with toddlers or startup employees), but there’s a limit to how much your brain can take before productivity starts to suffer. And acknowledging this is the first step in reversing the trend.
Understanding the role of working memory
Have you ever stood up to do something, taken 4 steps, and then completely forgotten what you were trying to do? This has to do with what’s referred to as your working memory.
Working memory consists of different types of memory (including short-term memory) that helps your brain process, prioritize, store, and recall information. It’s often referred to as the conductor of your brain, and has two primary functions which help you sort through the symphony of requests your brain receives on a daily basis:
- Working memory ensures you’re able to process information and prioritize what info is critical and what info can be left out.
- Working memory allows you to store the important information so you can recall it later.
Maintaining a healthy working memory is hugely influential on your ability to focus and be productive at home and at work. Having an unhealthy working memory can affect many of the everyday decisions you make, from what you want to eat to the relationships you have and your overall mood.
And guess what? Working memory impacts kids too, especially with their ability to follow directions and learn new things. Point being, hacking your brain to increase productivity isn’t just for grownups who work too much.
Everyone’s brain can use a tuneup now and then.
Time for a quick recap:
We know that multitasking isn’t always the best way to approach being productive. And we know that our brain has certain types of working memory that help us kick more butt, focus longer, and prioritize better. Now to address the question of the hour (whatever hour it is you’re reading this), here are 7 simple brain hacks to invigorate your productivity and focus, in no particular order.
Chunk your information
Psychologically, it has been shown that chunking or grouping information into smaller bites can improve your brain’s ability to process and prioritize said information. This is the same reason why phone numbers and bank account numbers have hyphens – it’s much easier to digest and remember smaller chunks. If you find yourself forgetting things often, especially when it comes to larger tasks, try some of these chunking techniques:
- Challenge yourself often to remember a list of things, like what you need from the grocery store or event dates.
- Make connections and associate information in meaningful ways. What do the items have in common?
- As your memory improves, try to remember larger bites of information. Practice makes perfect!
Try active reading
Reading instructions via email or a project brief? Ensure that you’re actively reading to absorb the information better. There are various active reading techniques you can try to help improve knowledge retention and recall, such as:
- Identifying pre-reading questions: what do you already know about the topic?
- Swapping your highlighter for a pen, and taking notes to summarize what you’ve read
- Reading sentences out loud, especially with the information you find challenging to comprehend.
With active reading, it comes down to going beyond just reading. Ask questions, take notes, teach someone what you’ve learned. The more you practice active reading, the more you’ll notice a huge improvement in your retention.
Use a mnemonic device
If you have something super important that you really want to commit to memory, consider creating a mnemonic device to help you remember. This isn’t a piece of hardware, but rather a unique way of organizing information to make recall easier. Some examples of popular mnemonic memory aids would be:
- “I before e except after c” this mnemonic device helps people when spelling to remember the order of “i” and “e” in words like receive and ceiling.
- “Rhythm helps your two hips move” is a mnemonic device that that helps people remember the spelling of rhythm. The first letter of each word spells it.
- Not all mnemonic devices are acronyms or quirky sayings. For example, if a logo design includes letters of the company name or a symbol (think McDonald’s golden arches), then this would be considered a mnemonic device.
Get in a morning workout
As cliche as this sounds, it has been proven time and time again that getting regular exercise is extremely helpful for your focus and overall productivity. This doesn’t mean you need to join a gym and start using hashtags like #WOD and #beastmode on Instagram. What it does mean is that the simple act of getting your blood flowing each morning before you start your day can do wonders for your overall memory.
- Aim for 20-30 minutes per day of physical activity, ideally first thing in the morning.
- If you’re not the gym type, utilize YouTube and the many, many free workout videos that are available.
- Use a third party app to track your progress. This is more psychological than anything, but it definitely helps in the long run.
Consider intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting traditionally means that for roughly 16 hours per day you eat nothing, saving all of your calorie consumption for a smaller 8-hour window. With regards to hacking your brain functionality, intermittent fasting helps you focus in the morning by freeing up energy that would otherwise have been spent digesting your food. This energy can be used towards other things – like tackling a monster project. It is important to note that you should not partake in intermittent fasting if you’re:
- Pregnant, because you need all available nutrients for your baby at all times
- Breastfeeding (same reason)
- Under 18 years of age, because teenagers eat like horses
- Underweight with a body mass index less than 18.5
Get your (head) space in order
Whether you have a messy desk or you have 22 documents that need to be sorted and made sense of, getting organized using your imagination, a.k.a visualizing yourself cleaning the mess before actually doing it, can produce incredible results. Mind hacking expert PJ Eby discusses this technique in a video titled “Bet you’ll clean your desk after watching this”:
Feed your brain
From surrounding yourself with positive-minded people to ensuring you’re getting enough B vitamins, feeding your brain what it needs will do wonders for your overall mental clarity and execution. Don’t get caught up in the hype around things like nootropics or cognitive enhancers; feeding your brain doesn’t have to be complicated and can be accomplished in the following ways:
- Make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, which are often lacking in the average diet. B vitamins have been shown to boost the production of neurotransmitters, while omega-3s (EPA and DHA) are essential building blocks of your brain.
- Get enough sleep. When you sleep, your brain consolidates your short- and long-term memories. Without enough sleep, your working memory literally stops working. Lack of sleep over the long term has been shown to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
- Be aware of tech addiction and ensure you’re getting enough downtime. While smartphones have become integral to everyday life, always remember to unplug and purposefully disconnect on a regular basis.
Since the dawn of time, people from all walks of life have wondered about the best ways to achieve mental and physical wellbeing. Like anything else that needs improvement, it takes repetition, practice, some experimentation, and a touch of determination.
Personally, I’ve found active reading and semi-regular teaching to do wonders for my overall ability to handle stressful tasks, prioritize my time, and not freak out when something doesn’t work out.
Are there any brain hacks that have worked for you over the years? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below.