In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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My Best Brain Hack

This is my fourth entry in a series of posts about things I do to improve – or at least preserve – brain function. Until I started writing these posts, I didn’t realize how much I actually had to say on the topic! And still do, apparently. This post was supposed to contain random “leftover” tips and tricks, but one element in particular grew into a post of its own. So there are still two posts left after this one: a summary of other odds ends that I do (post 1) or won’t do (post 2) for my brain.

Here is my big secret, and probably the single most important thing I do now for brain function. Yes, more than exercising and supplements and sleep. (Although sleep and exercise have benefits beyond just brain function.) I say “now” because I only started it recently, and the results have been amazing. Not only is my brain working better, but I know exactly how well it is performing.

It’s simple. I write down every creative idea I have.

It doesn’t have to be a good idea, but if it has any creativity, problem solving, or new idea-ness (to me anyway) at all, I grab a piece of paper and jot it down.

Why so old-fashioned? I write faster on paper than on my phone, and if I pick up my phone AT ALL I will get derailed by social media notifications; or seeing my grocery list app will remind me of something I need to add to the list; and heaven help me if I accidentally open Pinterest – the rest of the day will be lost! That creative idea will vanish in a puff of smoke and disappear into the recesses of my mind. I periodically transfer the ideas from paper to Evernote where they can be searched or organized into related notes and notebooks as needed. Some may need more research and definition before I can act on them and some may be complete dead ends, but at least they are all there.

This leads to two amazing outcomes. One: I can see just how many ideas I actually come up with over time. Some days are full of creativity, and others not so much … or not at all! But recording them means I can watch them pile up and realize just how much creativity still bubbles around in my noggin.

The second outcome is even more important. By getting the ideas onto the paper, they get out of my head, and new ideas pop into my head.

Crazy right? Who knew it could be so simple?

Oh, right. A lot of people, actually. I am building on a lot of other ideas from authors I have been exposed to over the years. When I thought back on how many years in fact, I was mildly horrified. If you would like to read on, I will go into detail about the different techniques I’ve learned which have lead up to this new compulsion to write everything down. If you don’t care so much about the backstory, grab a pen and paper and prepare to be amazed.

This creative approach has several key components that make it so effective (at least for me): writing down everything as it comes, without judging; exercising your brain’s creative and problem solving capacity; and deliberate daydreaming.

Writing Down Everything

The first time I was exposed to the idea of always having a way to write down ideas was in Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, by Gerald M. Weinberg.  I read this book (mumble) years ago. Mind you, I didn’t actually start carrying writing tools with me all the time at that stage – although I probably should have, who knows how many more ideas I would have collected by now! In Weinberg’s methodology, these flittering thoughts I capture are the “fieldstones” in his method. The approach, in brief, is to collect these fieldstones (ideas) as you find them, regardless of whether or not they pertain to whatever writing project you are working on. You then store them where you can easily retrieve them, and then when you have enough fieldstones that fit together, you can build a wall… er, write an article or a book. This is actually the approach I’ve used to write many of my recent blog posts – I just keep capturing ideas until I have enough related ideas to string together into an actual post. While this is taking longer – because I am waiting on ideas instead of forcing words onto a computer screen – I have NO shortage of future blog post topics because they gush into my brain faster than I can keep up with writing them.

Popular productivity management approaches such as Getting Things Done and Zen to Done also advocate being able to get ideas out of your head onto a piece of paper, but those are more focused on to do lists and projects rather than creativity.

The most recent time I found this advice was in Get It Done, by Sam Bennett, which I listened to a few months ago. (Yes, I have started reading/listening to self-help books again… don’t judge!)

She calls it “Nearly Miraculous Daily Habit 2: Find an Idea Catcher” (aka somewhere to capture ideas as they come to us). She uses index cards, similar to Weinberg’s approach, to write down the ideas as they come and then sort them into envelopes. I always have a paper to-do list with me, and jot my ideas on the corners or back of the paper. It’s not fancy, but it still works!

Without Judging

This technique works so well for me, in part, because it gets the old ideas out of my head. I can’t generate new ideas because the current ideas play on endless repeat – even when they don’t appear to be useful or relevant to any of my creative endeavors.

This aspect is similar to the techniques of freewriting and brainstorming. I don’t remember the original book I read on freewriting, but the idea is just to get everything out without regard for complete sentences, grammar or punctuation. Usually freewriting is done for a specific amount of time, and helps overcome writer’s block. I often use the technique as a way to get “unstuck” when struggling with various issues. Once I start getting the endless-playback-words out of my head, additional ideas start flowing out as well. (In my case, this may be more like “freejournaling” rather than true freewriting.) Since I cannot share the specific book title, here is a Wikipedia article about it.

This is also related to classic brainstorming, which has the goal of generating as much content as possible, usually as a problem solving technique. For example I don’t always judge the ideas that pop into my head, I just diligently capture them to store for future analysis. Brainstorming is generally done as a group, whereas I am just dreaming up ideas on my own… although maybe there are multiple people in here. It sure feels like it sometimes anyway! Here is the Wikipedia article, if you somehow have never heard of brainstorming.

Exercising the Brain

Another reason this technique works is by exercising your brain’s creativity and problem-solving capabilities. I first saw this idea articulated about a year ago, when I read (most of) Tools of the Titans, by Tim Ferriss. One of the “titans”, James Altucher, suggested the habit of writing down ten ideas every morning, to strengthen your “idea muscle”. Even coming up with bad ideas, says Altucher, exercises the brain’s capabilities.

I wrote “ten daily” lists for about a month after reading those pages, before my attention was hijacked by something else. While I don’t write down strictly ten ideas every day, I definitely experience how writing them down – whenever they come to me – reinforces the capacity to come up with more ideas.

(Altucher also describes a second part of this habit: writing down a “first step” for the idea, which is something I need to start doing myself. I am wayyyyy to inclined to just dream up ideas which is OK when they are ideas about things to write, but not sufficient for things to do.)

Deliberate Daydreaming

With all these super smart people advocating writing everything down, why did I only just doing it?

Blame – or rather thank – Sam Bennett. Yes, the same Sam Bennett I mentioned earlier, in the same book.

It was the combination of “Nearly Miraculous Daily Habit 2: Find an Idea Catcher” and “Nearly Miraculous Daily Habit 3: Allot Fifteen Minutes a Day for Deliberate Daydreaming.”

The idea is to keep your hands busy on purpose and allow your mind to wander. If you are up on trendy self-help techniques, you might notice this is the exact opposite of mindfulness. Mindfulness teaches you to focus your attention on whatever you are doing, and when your mind drifts off, to gently bring it back to fully experience the here, the now, the task at hand. Deliberate daydreaming encourages your mind to wander. How crazy is that?

Deliberate daydreaming turns chores into an amazing opportunity to come up with new ideas: gardening, washing dishes, driving, even exercising. Although it gets complicated jotting the ideas down when your hands are covered in hot soapy water, or if you are driving!

Of course everyone has experienced this before. It’s why great ideas always pop into your head in the shower. Deliberate daydreaming differs because you seek out these hands-busy, brain-idle times intentionally (I now tolerate hand washing dishes, only for this reason), with pen and paper at the ready.

By the way, this makes me a bore in the car. The radio is always turned off when I’m driving – any sound, podcasts, audiobooks, or even music, renders me incapable of having my own creative thoughts. It entirely kills the deliberate daydreaming thing. Although sometimes it doesn’t happen anyway, which makes for a really, really, really long car ride. And for the record, earworms are just as detrimental to the deliberate daydreaming as actual songs on the radio!

There you have it – the whys and wherefores of my current idea capturing habit. Now go try it for yourself and watch your creativity soar!


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Your Brain on Exercise

A few weeks ago, my friend Dave raised the issue of cognitive function, and his comment inspired me to write a post on the tactics I have tried to keep my brain working at peak performance.

Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I realized I had to say on the subject. As a result, I will write a series of posts. (Because I hate blog posts that drag on and on and on…)

First up: exercise.

Researchers are still exploring the exact mechanisms by which physical activity improves the brain’s health, along with questions like what kind, frequency and duration of exercise are most effective. A quick internet search will turn up a slew of hits, and many books (for example Dave Asprey’s Head Strong) also cover the topic. According to studies, physical activity boosts cognition, mood and even memory. These benefits could be from improved blood flow and oxygen to the brain; increased neurogenesis; enhanced mitochondrial function; more or different neurotransmitters to connect the neurons; other things we haven’t discovered yet (or I haven’t read about yet, which is more likely); or some combination of the above.

I am discussing exercise first because it has so many benefits beyond just mental capacity, such as increased stamina and heart health, the self-confidence boost that comes with sticking to a workout routine, and fitting into your favorite jeans you haven’t been able to wear in over a year. (Yes, really!) Plus, exercise can be cheap or even free. A brisk walk outdoors is free. (By the same token, exercise has the potential to suck up every spare dollar to have, so your mileage may vary! Speaking of which, does anyone want to buy a gently used elliptical machine?)

DISCLAIMER: I am not a certified fitness professional (although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once), and the workout routine described in this post is what works for ME. Please consult a medical professional before engaging in any new exercise, and consider speaking with a personal trainer for advice on the proper execution of these or any other exercises. No, YouTube videos do not count – which is why I have not included links below.

I first described my workout back in May, so miracle of miracles, I have stuck with it for over 6 months now! (I guess that is long enough to make it a habit.) I have tweaked my original routine slightly to ramp up the intensity without having to buy a heavier kettlebell (see previous note about how exercising can be expensive but doesn’t have to be!). My current kettlebell weighs in at 35 lbs, up from the 15 where I started way back when.

My workout, three days a week:

Hip flexor stretches – 30 seconds per hip
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (this is anywhere from 15 to 17 jumps for me, depending on my energy level)
Donkey kicks – 20 reps per leg
Planks – high plank, side planks, and reverse plank, each for 45 seconds
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps
Jump squats – 30 seconds (by now I am panting)
Exercise Ball Bridge – 20 reps
Cat vomit – 10 reps of 20 seconds each, with a 10 second rest in between (I often do “Cat-Cow” stretches during the rest period)
Kettlebell swings – 25 reps (at this point my form gets sloppy so I really concentrate on proper technique)
Jump squats – 30 seconds (then I collapse)
Myotatic crunch (on my exercise ball) – 10 reps, with a four-count hold at the top of the crunch

Yes, this workout still kicks my abs. (Haha.)

Best of all, it only takes about 30 minutes to complete. So even at my busiest, I have no excuse to skip it.

Now for the real question: does it improve my brain function?

And the truth is, I have no clue. I don’t know how to self-administer tests for mental sharpness, and even if I did, I have no “before” metrics for comparison. Maybe I need more cardio to really see the difference, or maybe I should exercise longer for a noticeable improvement. (Or less often but with greater intensity, according to Mr. Asprey’s book.)

However, I do know that I love the dopamine hit from setting and meeting my fitness goals three days a week … and from being able to wear those jeans again!