10 ways to challenge your brain

In this day and age, we’re all a bit numbed by ever-present news, social media, tapping incessantly on our phones and so on. So it comes with no surprise that we need to find a way to protect ourselves and get our brains to tick as they should.Here is a list of 10 things I have incorporated in my daily routine to make sure my brain is always working to its max. Including a nice infographic for you to download and share.

In this day and age, we’re all a bit numbed by ever-present news, social media, tapping incessantly on our phones and so on. So it comes with no surprise that we need to find a way to protect ourselves and get our brains to tick as they should.

Below is a list of 10 things I have incorporated in my daily routine to make sure my brain is always working to its max.

Scroll to the bottom to view an infographic about the subject.

1. Read two chapters a day

Reading has been shown to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, which by itself is already a good enough reason to do it.
Other than that, it will help you relax and shift your focus away from the everyday’s issues that you might encounter in your life.

I read mostly non-fiction, focusing on those books that will teach me something about a work-related topic or anything leading to a better life.

Reading a book written by a person you admire, is like having the chance to meet that person and let him/her be your mentor, without actually having to reach out and beg for their attention.

Why two chapters a day? I’d say the average book has between 20 to 40 chapters, so by reading two chapters a day you’ll end up reading 20 books a year, which is easily attainable and will give you the chance to have 20 different mentors each year.

I know chapters are a very loose guidance, so feel free to change this to 20-30 pages a day. You’d still be reading roughly the same amount.
Oh, and BTW, it only takes half an hour or so depending on how fast you read, so you could easily integrate this habit in your morning ritual.

2. Read about something you don’t know anything about for 15 minutes a day

Actually, the first thing you should do is ditch all mind-numbing reading: news, social media random browsing and throw in watching the TV, too. This way you’ll have much more free time.
And don’t worry: you won’t miss anything by not reading/watching the news; if something’s important, it will reach you anyway.

Now that you have some more free time, you might as well read about something you don’t know anything about and which kind of intrigues you. It could be science, history, or really anything that gets your mind going.

Our brains are incredibly complicated machines and they need to be used and stimulated often in order for them to work flawlessly. So throwing new stuff at it is incredibly beneficial as it creates new connections and keep our brains in tip-top shape.

Two sources which I use to find great content are: The Browser and Brain Pickings.

3. Write 10 ideas everyday

This is a tip I got from one of my mentors — look at tip #1: James Altucher. He is a big proponent of becoming an Idea machine and even wrote a book about it with his wife, Claudia, which I suggest you read.

What does it mean to become an idea machine? It means the ability to come up with new ideas is like a muscle. If you don’t exercise your muscles, they shrink and become useless.
The same goes with your idea muscle: if you don’t exercise it, you won’t be able to come up with new ideas.

You don’t have to come up with 10 good ideas a day, you just have to come up with 10 ideas, even bad ones. At first you’ll probably have 10 bad ideas, but after a while you’ll start generating more of the good ones. And in no time you’ll become an Idea machine and you’ll experience the amazing benefits which come with it.

What should you do with your 10 ideas? Nothing! Throw them away, if you feel so. Their purpose is to exercise your idea muscle, not to be acted upon. And if anything good was on the list, it will probably pop up again at a later time.

So go on, write about 10 things you’re grateful for. Then write 10 things you could improve at your workplace. Now, 10 ways to eat healthier. You get the idea!

4. Journal

Probably not everyone will believe it, but journaling everyday is an incredibly powerful tool and I challenge you to try it for a month. It will take just 10-15 minutes, but in the end you’ll be much better.

First of all, journaling helps us clarify our thoughts, gives us a better focus on our everyday life and is a very powerful way to know ourselves better.

Another added benefit is that journaling activates our right brain, which is the one linked to creativity and intuition. Why should you care? Because it might help you solve problems which you thought were unsolvable before, simply because you are switching from the analytical to the creative part of your brain.

My suggestion is to go pen and paper because it will allow you to really get into the flow of writing without distractions. Plus, there’s nothing like putting pen to paper, but that’s me!

5. Suppress negative thoughts

How many times a day do you find yourself saying: “I hate this!”, “I’m not good enough…” or “Why is this happening to me?”?

Most of us struggle everyday with negative thoughts. Either towards another person, something happening in our life or simply bashing on our dreams. The thing is you could easily turn around your life by eliminating those thoughts and switching to a positive mindset.

Mind you, I’m not turning full force new age, I’m really not into that stuff. I’m simply saying that most negative thoughts could be made into positive ones.

If something bad happens to you, try looking at the positive side of it (e.g. miss a flight? Great chance to pick up a book!).

If you’re stressing over something, ask yourself: “Have I any control over the outcome?”. If the answer is no, no need to stress about it! And in any case, just start working on your plans B, C and D.

Hating somebody? Why is it? Could it be that you’re just being envious about them? Envy is not worth your time, just start working on becoming the person you’d like to be. On that topic…

Are you thinking you’re not good enough to achieve your dream? Stop it! How dare you say such a thing. Just roll up your sleeves and start working toward achieving it. Who cares if you get there or not? At least you tried and you might as well find out half-way in that you don’t really care about that dream.

Once you’ll become mostly negativity-free, your brain will thank you for it!

6. Fast

Intermittent fasting — fasting for 16 hours a day and eating only in the 8-hour window left — might do wonders for your brain:

  1. Improve memory
  2. Promote growth of new neurons
  3. Ease recovery after brain injury
  4. Reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases (i.e. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease)
  5. Regulate your mood and reduce anxiety

This should be enough to convince you to fast. But on top of that it will help improve your metabolic health by regulating your insulin sensitivity and thus keeping your blood sugar under control.

You might think fasting is difficult, which kind of is in and on itself, unless you’re “trained” to do it, but I’m talking about intermittent fasting, which is much easier.

First of all, nobody said we should eat three square meals a day: I don’t think our hunter-gatherer ancestors had breakfast, lunch and dinner scheduled in their planners. Instead, they would eat when there was food around.
So it must come as no surprise that our bodies are evolutionally-tuned for intermittent fasting.

On top of this, I’m not talking about reducing calories either. You just have to eat your regular amount of food in that 8-hour window.

I’ve been fasting intermittently for the past year — it led to reducing my body fat from 22% to 13%, but that will be a matter for another post — and I can assure you that it’s fairly easy. The only thing which is important to achieve it consistently is to make sure you eat a diet rich in whole nutrients which will fill you up and not make you crave for snacks and junk food. Basically, I only have coffee for breakfast — coffee won’t break your fast — and then have lunch and dinner as usual.

My advice? Try to limit carbs — or at least grains and sugar — as much as possible, eat good proteins (i.e. beef, poultry, fish, etc.) and load up on healthy fats (i.e. monounsaturated fats like avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, almonds, etc.) which will keep you full throughout the day while regulating your blood sugar levels, thus reducing your cravings for carbs. I’d even go as far as saying that you should also add saturated fats like cheese, butter, ghee, tallow, etc., but I don’t want to go into the science here, so feel free to do it if you want — I certainly do!

Finally, don’t stress too much over the 16 hours figure, it’s just a guidance you should aim for. There are days I might fast for 14 hours while on other days I’ll go for 24, it just depends on what I’m doing.

7. No sugar

While there’s a lot of controversy surrounding different diets, I’ve yet to find one saying you should eat lots of sugars.
Sugar is pretty much useless and our bodies certainly didn’t evolve to eat candies, drink soda and binge on sugary foods.

Sugar will impede your capacity to learn and reduce your memory. All of this while doing nothing good for your health.

Really, there’s not much to say here, since there’s plenty you can read online. Just take out all refined sugars and if possible fruits, too. I know we were brought up thinking we should eat our fruits, but actually it’s enough if you eat your vegetables and choosing them so that you have a nice variety of colours.

It might be very hard at first, especially if you have a sweet tooth, but it’s well worth it. Your brain will thank you and your waistline will, too.

I go overboard here and read all labels on the food I buy so that I’m sure they don’t contain sugar. Just try to do it, you’ll be amazed as to how many foods have some sugar added.

8. Learn a new skill

Our brains craves for novelty, it just gets high on new stuff being thrown at it and if you don’t feed it new stuff, it will slowly atrophy and become more sluggish.

So guess what we should do? Learn new skills! It might be a new language, a new game (chess, anyone?), or a new hobby (e.g. photography, carving, painting, you name it!)
Our brains just thrive when learning something new and it will promote the creation of new connections in your brain, which will help all other aspects of your thinking.

My advice is to pick a skill — let’s say learn French or learn how to play Chess — and go with it by practicing it at least 30 to 60 minutes a day.

9. Talk to strangers

By now you should know that our brains love new things and what better way to feed it than talking to a stranger?

When we meet a stranger we tend to be our happier selves and leave our worries aside which by itself would be enough.
On top of this, we listen to what the other person is saying, learning new things in the process. And once it’s our turn to talk, our brain has to work hard to provide ourselves with some interesting topics.

If you try to talk to as many new people as possible, you’ll learn a whole lot of new things, because most people just love to talk about themselves, their jobs, their families, etc.
You’ll be making new connections which my prove very useful in the future: the more people you know, the more people you can reach out to when you need help.
And possibly you’ll be making new friends which might turn into long-lasting and enriching relationships.

All in all the risks are low: if you meet somebody you don’t really get along with, just wait for the conversation to end and you’ll be quite sure you’ll never see them again. If instead you enjoy the conversation, just share email addresses or phone numbers and keep it going at a later moment.

I have to admit I’m still not great with this: I’m an introvert and kind of dislike to small talk, so it’s really difficult for me to start a conversation with a stranger, but I’m slowly getting there. They say: “Practice makes perfect!”

10. Meditate

You might have heard this before, often probably, then tried to start meditating and soon gave up because it’s too difficult. Nothing could be further from the truth, though.

Meditating is easy, you just need to have an idea of how it works and of course have reasonable expectations (i.e. don’t think you can meditate for a straight hour the first time you try it).

To begin you need to commit: tell yourself you’re going to meditate every single day for the next couple of months.
The first time, sit for five minutes, eyes closed and count your breath — in 1, out 2, in 3, out 4, and so on. When you get to 10, start again. Repeat it for 5 minutes.
The focus should be on your breath, if a thought comes, just acknowledge it, let it go and start counting from 1 again.
If 5 minutes is too hard, start with 2 minutes. After a few days, you’ll feel more comfortable and you’ll be able to add a few minutes to your practice. If it suddenly becomes harder again, shave a few minutes away.

You might want to try a guided meditation tool like Headspace to make it easier.

After a while, you’ll reap the benefits: reduced stress, increased happiness, increased focus and better creativity.
At first it might sound harder than it actually is, just stick there!

Two good resources to start your meditation practice are the book Mindfulness in Plain English and the fine blog Buddhaimonia by Matt Valentine.

Infographic

I made a nice infographic about this so you can share it with your friends.

10 ways to challenge your brains [INFOGRAPHIC].
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