Our bodies are outliving our brains. We feel the aches and pains of physical losses, but what about indications of mental decline? Life expectancy in the United States is now about 80 years old. Girls born today have a one-in-three chance of living to 100, while boys have a one-in-four chance. Yet our cognitive performance peaks in our early 40s. That means mental functions like memory, speed of thinking, problem-solving, reasoning and decision-making deteriorate in our last 30 or 40 years of life.
Two prevailing myths impede our ability to reach our full brain potential.
Harnessing the power of our frontal lobe – the part of our brain responsible for planning, reasoning, novel thinking, decision-making, judgment and managing emotions – will increase creativity, energy and focus as well as support mental independence throughout our lifespan.
Just as we’ve come to realise that we can improve our physical health through diet and workouts, so too can we improve our cognitive health and performance. It’s a matter of committing to adopt healthy brain habits, eliminating toxic mental routines and engaging in the right mental exercises.
The truth is our brain adapts from moment to moment, depending on how we use it; it either declines or improves. The direction our brain health goes depends on us and the way we challenge it – at home, work, and play.
It’s not just our work environment that drains our brains. Because the path our brains take can be good or bad, our personal habits must be overhauled as well to boost brain health.
Tethered to technology
The need to respond instantly to every email, phone call, text or social media post as quickly as possible is rewiring our brain to be addicted to distraction. We literally crave the next ping, making it virtually impossible to go for any stretch without checking our technology. In this ADHD-like state, we struggle to focus for long periods of time and think deeply about one thought, idea or task.
Multitasking is like asbestos to the brain. Our brain is not wired to do more than one task at a time. When you believe you are multitasking, your brain is actually switching quickly from one task to another. Multitasking causes brain fatigue and reduces productivity and accuracy. It also causes a build-up of the stress hormone cortisol. Long-term increases in cortisol can lead to:
• Worsened memory
• Increased brain cell death
• Decreased neuronal activity
• Weakened immune system
• Poorer cognitive functioning
• Greater brain atrophy
Research shows that higher-performing minds are not more efficient at knowing what to pay attention to, but rather, what to block out. Our brain is exposed to an unrelenting stream of information via various sources of technology and media as well as an overabundance of input from family and social responsibilities. This constant state of information overload degrades the brain’s natural ability to block out irrelevant information, decreasing efficiency and performance.
Overly focused on memorization
A brain too occupied with remembering every detail, name, date or statistic is less likely to work efficiently. Focusing on a perfect memory depletes limited brain resources better used for functions that promote independence throughout life, such as problem-solving, decision-making and critical reasoning. In some ways, “forgetting” is good, and if you’re worried, write down critical information that you want to and should remember.
Cruising on automatic pilot
Life moves fast, and we often compensate by falling into routines, sticking to the path of least resistance and letting our thoughts, conversations and activities become stagnant. Rote memorisation and regurgitation of information at the lowest level fails to challenge our brain to do what it loves best: innovate. Allowing your brain to function at this low level weakens the cerebral connections. Your brain is changing, but in an unwanted negative direction.
Constant mental work
Just like unrelenting and constant physical exercise causes overexertion and bodily injury, constant mental work is harmful to the brain. Not giving the brain the downtime it needs depletes its overall health, productivity and ability to innovate.
Unhealthy habits have dire consequences for long-term brain health, function and cognitive performance. But the repercussions of brain burnout also extend past the detrimental effects to our personal health and quality of life. Failing to maximise our cognitive performance carries a high personal and professional economic burden as well.
I coined the term “brainomics” in an attempt to capture the connection between cognitive potential and economic performance. A healthy brain can make you richer, both emotionally and financially. Most people, however, don’t consider their brain health until they’re faced with injury, disease or advancing age.
In the workplace, failing to be a good steward of brain potential foretells decreased productivity, more sick days, stunted advances in innovation and shortened career spans. The personal toll leads to a premature decline in cognitive functioning, greater brain atrophy and the missed opportunity for a life made infinitely more fulfilling and exciting by a vibrant, creative and resourceful mind.
The good news is that, according to brainomics theory, incremental increases in brainpower have an exponential impact on your bottom line.
Just like physical health, investing in your brain health as early and as long as possible will increase your ability to build resilience and regenerate cognitive losses. Each life stage presents rich potential and areas of vulnerability ripe for improvement.
Ensuring optimum brain performance at every stage of life requires understanding the basic needs of each one. Given the unique aspects of our current culture, the following describes your brain for the age range you’re in.
Our work at the Centre for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas is dedicated to improving brain performance in individuals of all ages and stages.
Our research has shown that making our brains stronger, healthier and more productive – at home and in the office – requires changing the way we use them every day. Our scientific team has developed and proven a brain training program called Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART).
SMART employs nine strategies to boost neuroplasticity, our brain’s inherent ability to be rewired and retrained across the lifespan. The strategies are defined by three core thinking capacities that work together to produce benefits to overall cognitive integrity.
Our ability to block out and filter irrelevant details and distraction to focus on the most important information.
Our ability to synthesise ideas, which means taking in facts, filtering them and combining them with existing knowledge to transform them into broad concepts.
Our ability to generate and exploit new ideas to solve problems; to seek, devise and employ improved ways of dealing with unknown and unfamiliar contexts; or to create something that is original and valuable.
Give your brain necessary downtime. Your brain can reboot after a few minutes of rest. Quieting your mind helps improve decisionmaking, problem-solving and productivity.
Practice the Brainpower of None. Make brain downtime a priority by using the 5x5 principle: step away and disengage for five minutes at least five times a day to free your mind for your next “aha” moment.
Stop multitasking. On average, we work for three minutes with laser focus. Once interrupted it takes an average of 20 minutes to return to the original task. A task that would normally take 25 minutes to complete without interruption takes more than two hours when multitasking or allowing disruptions.
Practice the Brainpower of One. Perform tasks sequentially for optimum brain performance, productivity and accuracy. When working on a task of substance, give it your full attention. Turn off phone and email alerts and find a quiet place to complete the task at hand.
Organising your to-do list strategically will boost your productivity, quality of work and efficiency. As T. Boone Pickens says, “When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.”
Practice the Brainpower of Two. Prioritise! Identify the two most critical items on your to-do list each day. Dedicate uninterrupted, prime brain time to accomplishing them before moving on to less significant items on the list.
Rise above rote thinking. Synthesised thinking takes advantage of rich repertoires of knowledge, experience and expertise. It also strengthens the connections between different areas of your brain. Your brain is quickly jaded by routine, because it was built to dynamically shift between details and the big picture. It hates information downloading.
Practice the Brainpower of Deep and Wide. Translate your world by thinking like a reporter and working your brain to construct provocative thought-filled ideas. When taking in large amounts of information, try to explain it in a few sentences. Kick off meetings with provocative big ideas. Encourage individuals to synthesise and succinctly articulate one or two ideas. Power your important email messages with simple but thought-evoking subject lines.
Say no to status quo. Our brain was wired to be inspired. It thrives when facing new challenges. Everyone has the potential to break new ground and be more inventive at any age. Brain plasticity studies indicate that declining brain capacity can be positively altered in the healthy brain by exercising innovative thinking.
Practice the Brainpower of Innovation. Instead of doing things the same way, constantly strive to ratchet up and revitalise your thoughts and behaviours in the spirit of novelty. After your next meeting, take time to reflect and re-evaluate the party line to envision a unique outcome. Ask yourself questions such as “What were the three take-home messages? How can we respond differently to an issue discussed? What are the next best steps to follow up?”
Although complex thinking is the most critical and robust way to create and maintain a positive brain health trajectory, your mind cannot thrive on thoughts alone. Build a solid foundation for your cognitive well-being with the following pro-brain choices.
All too often, we start our day mentally overwhelmed and exhausted. We sigh, pondering how in the world we can possibly make a dent in our out-of-control to-do list while also juggling other life commitments. A brain already zapped of energy is not the best way to start the day. It is not just about reframing your day with a positive attitude; the reality is you do have more to accomplish in a single day than is humanly possible.
To thrive from 9 to 5, you may need to drastically change the way you engage your brain. Use these guidelines to embrace and venture into your day’s opportunities with renewed mental vigour.
Your brain is the most intricate machine, capable of immense positive change throughout life. Do not be passive about your brain’s health. Choose to dynamically engage your brain to the highest level every day on a few tasks and free it up to replenish its efficiency and power. Use your mental resources wisely. Challenge your mind to think outside of its comfort zone, and calm your mind to be a strategic responder on a regular basis.
Adopting a healthy-brain lifestyle will not only boost your professional productivity but also help you thrive in and out of the office. You would not go through life sitting on the couch or running a marathon every day and still expect to remain in perfect physical health. Nor can you expect your brain to remain in prime condition if you leave it on autopilot, exempt from new challenges, or keep it constantly exhausted with nonstop work.
Make a commitment to change your brain habits today and every day. As you do, you will ensure that your best brain years are ahead of you – not behind you.