Shift happens. Get yours.

Andrew Hill — №34 with Greg McKeown

The brain is always changing. It gets better at what you do, and continuously adapts to your habits, stressors, and experiences. Here are some ways to optimize those changes, and get a younger, more resilient, more performant brain.

Don’t just do something, sit there

Mindfulness shows accumulating research evidence. Benefits to the brain include improving attention and general executive function, and offsetting brain aging. What is mindfulness? Do you have to clear your mind and say a bunch of chants? You do not. The process is simply effortful attention, or paying attention to any aspect of awareness; from the breath to observing a moving belt in the supermarket checkout line. It can be done in many ways, and you can do it for minutes or days. Benefits seem accrue with regularity of practice, not with any particular type of meditation.

New to mindfulness?

Take a few minutes at the start of each day to pay attention, in a particular way, to something in the present moment. Spend 5 minutes attending to a single point - perhaps the sensation of breath crossing your upper lip. Then spend 10 minutes attending to some aspect of the present moment - perhaps awareness of your breath rising and falling in your body. Practice bare attention, without evaluation, or at least replace judgement with curiosity, and notice when you have drifted from the object of attention. Release the distraction (thought, memory, wish, plan, dream, sensation) and return to the object of attention. Then repeat. That’s it. Easy to learn and difficult to do, in some ways. A classic meditation instruction would suggest starting with regular long minutes a day. This author suggests 15 minutes. Simply be aware of what is happening, rooted in the stream of experience, without much reaction to it. Give it a week.

These attention practices (single point concentration and present time insight) quickly tune up “executive function” or the resources that both sustain attention and inhibit automatic or reactive behavior. Classic instructions are fine, but remember regularity - not style - of meditation appears to be the key. Find what works for you, in mindfulness or meditation, and then have fun discovering your internal landscape and resources.

You, better

There are other tools to optimize your brain including physical exercise, neurofeedback, and some supplements, nootropics, or other brain healthy foods and compounds (including moderate wine and coffee!). Sadly, cognitive “brain games” or online “intelligence” tests do not have demonstrated efficacy - and lots of failed attempts to find benefits in the research. The foundations of brain health are still adequate sleep and nutrition. There is no substitute in both acute and long term performance. These resources are key, balanced against challenges and stressors to keep yourself in the sweet spot of stress - engaged but not overwhelmed.

So how can we perform better in modern information rich work and play environments? We often don’t. Most of us make two common mistakes - multitasking and poor sleep.

Intention, not Momentum

Why not multitask? Humans are quite bad at paying attention to more than one thing and at switching between things. Productive people are systematic, not reactive. There are many ways of decreasing mental clutter, but start with deciding what is important to be doing in the moment - including if that is being productive or not. Mindfulness can give you additional resources to bring to bear and bring those resources under your control. Adding that to better time structuring by making lists or using next-task segment management hacks like GTD or next-time segment management hacks like Pomodoro sprints can dramatically improve performance.

To sleep, perchance to FOMO

Why not just burn that mental candle, both ends be dammed? Because performance wanes over time. Humans are also pretty bad at evaluating our ongoing performance. We are especially adaptive trees-for-forest creatures when it comes to stressors. And increasing hours we spend striving while cutting into sleep may feel like a noble sacrifice, but it’s more likely just a performance sacrifice. Before you know it, stress builds, resources drop, and restorative sleep is a distant memory

Sleep is necessary for long term memory formation, clearing out metabolic byproducts of daily activity, and optimal information processing. Lack of sleep quickly takes a toll in reaction time and judgement. Chronic sleep deprivation (think college students and entrepreneurs) can look a lot like depression on brain scans.

Shift happens. Get yours.

Brains change, and aspects of your brain function are dynamic. Executive function is an emergent property of many transient and continuous brain resources that combine to produce our sensory and mental grappling with what is. These resources can be improved, with good habits. Get regular sleep, start your day with 15 minutes of mindfulness, and hack your productivity so you are planning and acting, instead of alerting and reacting.

Photo: Flickr / Infomaster CC BY 2.0

Andrew hill

Andrew Hill

Dr. Andrew Hill is one of the top peak performance coaches in the country. He holds a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from UCLA’s department of Psychology and continues to do research on attention and cognitive performance. Dr. Hill is the founder of Peak Brain Institute, host of the Head First Podcast with Dr. Hill, Lead Neuroscientist at truBrain, and lectures at UCLA, teaching courses in psychology, neuroscience, and gerontology.

Visit Dr. Hill's website