When it comes to brain fitness, simple changes can yield superior results
By Anne-Frances Hutchinson
Remember those resolutions we all made a few weeks back when the year was brand-spanking new? If many of your “this is the year that I’ll …” promises have already plummeted over the inevitable resolution cliff, you’re not alone. The world seems to be spinning on its axis faster, with blink-and-you’ll miss it transformations in markets, technologies, geopolitics, and social systems continually impacting the way we live and work. Breaking through the distractions that come with change demands that we do more than think faster – we must think better.
At any age, the rock-bottom basics of good brain health can be mastered: Get aerobic exercise at least twice a week, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and get at least seven hours of sleep every night, but that’s just baseline. Strengthening the brain to meet new challenges and cope with higher stress levels requires the ability to flex. Staying focused, in the moment, and ready for anything life throws at us depends on our mental agility.
Just as with developing physical prowess, mental flexibility requires training. Getting your brain in its best shape enables you to think more clearly and strategically, improves decision-making, boosts creativity, and is the platform for reaching your dreams despite the chaos and uncertainty of the world around you. Not only does mental agility help keep your mind open, it helps you respond better to stress, enhances your ability to reason, and to spot and resolve problems faster and more effectively. Here are some effective ways to change your mindset and get started on your agility journey.
Don’t fear the reaper
To fail is to be human, and running from it closes off pathways to innovation and reinvention. Flopping is essential to growing; having the flexibility to accept unexpected results and the discipline not to repeat the same mistakes is essential to mental agility. Don’t take the same approach to problem solving every time. Change up your formula and look at the situation from a new direction no matter how improbable it may seem because every dead end is a challenge to find a way to new, positive results.
Dare to do difficult things
Taking on challenging projects has abundant benefits for your mental agility. Even if you don’t achieve the pinnacle of success, you’re learning a lot more than if you’d passed on the opportunity. Testing your limits helps with building your internal resilience and brain power. Stepping out of your comfort zone helps strengthen your critical and analytical thinking skills. Seek out people in your circle who have taken on similar tough tasks and learn from them.
Face reality when it bites
The fastest way to process and move through change is to confront reality, no matter how painful. Ditch the happy talk and hand waving and get comfortable with the ugly truth. Wallowing in discomfort keeps you attached to unhelpful thinking patterns, so resist the urge. Dealing with uncomfortable realities head-on will help you move to a more productive state of mind much quicker.
Plan for the worst and work for the best
Disaster management has a place at the table when it comes to making any kind of decision. Ignoring or minimizing negative consequences of an action can sink an idea or project fast. Take the time to look at everything that could possibly go wrong, and give it the same energy and focus that you give when working towards the best possible results. When you’ve exhausted all the possibilities on both the positive and negative sides of the equation you’ll be much better prepared to respond to every outcome, and will have added significant flexibility to your thought processes.
Make play part of your strategy
Building gaming skills is a fun way to up your thinking game. From word puzzles and math teasers to world building, find games that appeal to your imagination. Look for games that challenge your ability to make complex choices as opposed to easy ones while giving you opportunities to be creative. Memory games help to strengthen concentration and focus. Classic games such as chess, crossword, and jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, and matching games are great for bolstering strategic, analytical, and critical thinking skills. Simulation games such as City Builders, Minecraft, and The Sims are great risk-free learning environments for honing decision-making skills.
Tune in to mindfulness
Awareness is central to developing a more agile mind. Alacrity isn’t about cramming as many tasks as we can in an hour or a day, it’s about the quality of our daily interactions. In fact, research shows that multitasking causes us to make more mistakes, not fewer. Mindfulness takes practice, and while you may choose to attend a mindfulness retreat or seminar, or to begin a meditation practice to enhance your learning, it’s easier than you think to get started.
Before starting work, take a minute or two to check in with your senses. Notice the details of your environment and what’s going on around you, take a breath, and move on. Give your full attention to one thing at a time. Whether in a meeting or having a one-on-one conversation, listen actively by paying attention to body language and tone of voice along with what’s being said. Carve out time to immerse yourself in work without distractions. If your mind wanders – and it will – instead of berating yourself for losing concentration, let your mind ramble where it wants to go for a few moments and return to the present.
Focusing on the present keeps you engaged, deters distractions, sharpens your perceptions, and is one of the best things you can do to keep your mind strong and ready for to accept and make the most of the changes to come.