Working smarter is actually pretty easy to do.
There are little changes that you can make throughout your day that push your brain to be the best it can be – and they’re backed by science!
You don’t have to change your schedule or pick up any new skills. The brain is a pretty flexible organ that is constantly developing and changing, even when you’re well into adulthood. This became especially apparent to many during the pandemic when mental health often became as important as physical health.
“Cognitive and behavioral flexibility are what allow us to adjust our thoughts and behaviors and switch our actions in response to the changing world around us,” writes UCLA behavioral science professor Lucina Q. Uddin. “Even during non-pandemic times, flexibility is associated with academic achievement, employment success, and other optimal life outcomes. Without flexibility, we would be unable to adapt to rapidly evolving public health and economic crises such as the ones we are currently facing.”
There are lots of ways to boost your brainpower. Some of them are pretty intensive, like learning a new language, but there are also plenty of sneaky ways to get more brain for your buck. Here are six:
1. Feeling stuck on a problem? Play classical music
The “Mozart Effect” essentially says that if young children or babies listen to music composed by Mozart, they’ll be smarter. The phrase was coined in 1991, but it’s been a phenomenon that has been around for much longer.
A small 1993 study looked at the hypothesis with three groups of students. One group listened to Mozart for 10 minutes before performing a series of tasks, another listened to a recording of relaxation instructions, and the other group sat in silence. The Mozart group performed better at the tasks, according to the study.
“For a short time the students were better at spatial tasks where they had to look at folded up pieces of paper with cuts in them and to predict how they would appear when unfolded,” the BBC explains. “But unfortunately, as the authors make clear at the time, this effect lasts for about fifteen minutes. So it’s hardly going to bring you a lifetime of enhanced intelligence.”
The good news is that listening to Mozart while you work might increase focus and help you work through problems a bit better.
2. Learn more thoroughly through writing
Perhaps one of the easiest switches you can make to your day to boost your brain is to replace typed notes with handwritten ones. Instead of focusing on getting every piece of information down like you do when you’re typing, your brain will work harder to make sure you understand the topic.
"When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can," Princeton University psychology researcher Pam A. Mueller tells NPR. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."
There are lots of types of note-taking strategies that can be beneficial. For example, you might want to create your own form of shorthand when discussing ideas or new information in big meetings. A one-on-one, by contrast, might be better served by recording themes, deadlines, and next steps.
3. Reduce stress with gum
Feeling a bit stressed? Try reaching for a stick of gum. A 2016 study found that chewing gum can improve aspects of cognitive function and mood. There are a host of other benefits, too.
In the UK study, 133 volunteers were given tasks measuring a range of cognitive functions (like memory, attention, and motor skills) and those that chewed gum were found to have lower cortisol levels (a good indicator of stress) and performed better in all tests except for the ones that involved memory.
The researchers acknowledged that more studies should be done to further suss out their claims, but overall concluded that, “chewing gum produces a number of benefits that are generally observed and not context-dependent.”
4. Work by a window
An easy work hack is to scout on a seat by a window. The benefits range from better sleep to better productivity.
Most notably, even just a little bit of sunlight will boost your mood. Some studies have successfully shown the brain’s production of serotonin when the body experiences sunlight. This is a common explanation of Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder, which typically takes off in darker winter months.
Another study that compared a group of workers with windows to those without found that exposure to natural light saw a trend “toward more physical activity and longer sleep duration.” Researchers even encouraged offices to emphasize sunlight exposure for better employee well-being.
5. Use your non-dominant hand
When you reach for the remote control or your hair brush, it’s typically with your dominant hand. Nearly 90% of people are right-handed and only one in one hundred are truly ambidextrous.
Practicing using your non-dominant may increase neuroplasticity and help create new neural pathways - which can help keep the brain healthy.
6. Take a walk
There are lots of benefits of walking, and many of them are related to the brain.
“It’s really amazing the amount of benefits you get for a relatively minor effort,” Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, the chair of the Division of Preventive Cardiology at the Mayo Clinic tells the New York Times.
Some studies have linked walking to lower rates of depression, researchers have pointed to increased memory, and psychologists even say “walk and talk” therapy sessions could be more beneficial for patients.
Luckily, you don’t need to take a long trek every single day to see the promises of walking. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends around 150 minutes of physical activity, including walking, per week. That’s about 21 minutes per day.
Written by Kara Mason.