• Max Linkoff

3 Tools to Increase your Mental Performance

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

3 Tools to Increase your Mental Performance

Endless Zoom meetings. Quarantine fatigue. Ongoing normalcy adjustments.

Raise your hand if you’re feeling a form of mental exhaustion by the external and internal forces that have come to shape our day to day.

I know I am.

Over the last few years, I’ve been researching, testing, and refining various ways to maximize brain performance by fighting internal noise and reducing mental clutter and exhaustion.

Throughout the research and books read, one common theme continues to emerge:

our brain is a muscle and we should be treating it the same way we would any other muscle in our body. Prolonged usage without the right tools to rejuvenate its performance only leads to a decreased value in efficiency.

Below you’ll find 3 practical tools that you can integrate as part of your routine to increase your mental performance and brain stamina to keep your concentration and focus levels up throughout the day.

Since all of these tools and practices are from books I’ve read, I’ll be including an explanation of the tool/practice itself, how to use it, and quick tips from my own experience of implementing for more tactical ways to make it a part of your routine.

1. Morning Pages | The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

What is it?

Morning Pages is a form of journaling, where first thing in the morning, you grab a journal and start writing down whatever thoughts have been swirling in your brain. Julia Cameron recommends writing 3 pages worth of thoughts before you start any activity (shower, coffee, workout, etc.). If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is, and it’s intentional.

How does it work?

By putting all of your thoughts from pen to paper, especially first thing in the morning, you remove all the clutter - anxiety, doubts, negative mindsets - that may be lingering in your brain. Think of it as a clean sweep of the brain / your mindset to support you in gaining clarity on what you should be focusing on and how you should be tackling it. It’s cathartic, a brain booster, and an excellent way to start your day mentally energized and focused.

Quick tip:

This exercise was initially challenging for me. Writing one-page worth of thoughts can already be a struggle, so asking for three felt like a stretch. Like anything new though, the more consistently I would hit the three-page goal, the more beneficial the activity would be.

If you get stuck within the first page, Julia recommends writing a continued phrase over and over, such as, “I am writing this sentence to finish my Morning Pages”. While that may seem tedious, it does eventually allow your brain to get into a meditative state and even discover other clutter that has been on your mind.

Some mornings, you may not have 3 pages worth of notes - that’s okay. 1 page can even be effective too. Consistency is key and the type of thoughts you jot down will and should evolve over time.

Take things to the next level by adding in personal affirmations. You’ll be amazed at how it can transform even some of your most challenging internal topics and change your mindset, both personally and professionally.

More about the book:

The Artists Way is all about rediscovering your creative freedom and creative spirit. Creatives, which all of us are in one way or another, run into creative walls every now and then and need a spark to reinvigorate their thinking. One way to do this is through Morning Pages, to help break through whatever clutter has built up within our brains.

2. Mindfulness Meditation | Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright

What is it?

As described in Why Buddhism is True,to live mindfully is to pay attention, to be “mindful of” what’s happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations”.

In other words, mindfulness allows you to slow down and “smell the roses”. Adding meditation to the realm of mindfulness and you get mindfulness meditation (MM).

MM has two areas of focus:

1. Focusing on your breath

2. Freeing your mind of busy-ness and mental clutter

How does it work?

By focusing on your breath and freeing your mind of clutter, MM allows you to “observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way”.

Similar to Morning Pages, it allows you to observe free flowing thoughts, emotions, and feelings, which also rejuvenating your brain to enter a state of clarity.

Performance wise, according to Psych Central, it’s also incredibly effective for lowering your blood pressure, stress and anxiety levels, and improve attention, memory, learning, and emotional regulation among other things.

How’s that for mid-day brain refresher?

Not only is MM the ultimate tool for slowing your brain down but it also allows you to breakthrough emotions that could be clouding your thoughts and get present to the areas in your life that matter. Just imagine if you gave your brain 15 minutes each day (or twice a day) to settle down from the endless list of things we try to get accomplished. It becomes even more powerful when you put it into a professional context, where focusing on the ‘what’ can get easily get lost throughout the day.

Quick Tip:

My meditation practice is close to 2 years old. At this point, I’m able to observe noticeable differences in emotional regulation and productivity on the few days that I haven’t made time (or skipped). MM has also been invaluable for my creative brain spirit. I can’t tell you how many different ideas I’ve thought of - whether for professional related topics or personally, that have sprouted from a focus on my breath and the thoughts flowing through my brain space.

In practice, first and foremost, I acknowledge the challenges that come with learning to meditate. Your mind is constantly racing and you’re fighting the internal dialogue questioning if you’re doing it right and if you can even sit still for 10 to 15 minutes.

I recommend starting out with exercises that enable you to focus on your breath. Specifically, go with an incremental approach around the number of deep breaths you can take. Inhale through your nose and deep into the stomach and chest. If you can get to 10, then gradually increase overtime and observe how you fall into a more transitive state, evaluating the different thoughts that flow across your mind.

More about the book:

Why Buddhism is True has less to do with Buddhism and more to do with the scientific effects of meditation on your mental, spiritual, and brain health. The book takes you through Wright’s story of learning to meditate, the positive impacts it created in his life, with tangible benefits that he continues to experience by making a meditation practice as part of his daily routine.

3. Energizer Routine | The Art of Learning: An Inner Journal to Optimal Performance by Joshua Waitzkin

What Is it?

A 5-10-minute, customized routine that combines physical and mental elements to drive a complete mental refresh. This could be something as simple as a pro-longed stretch, a quick sprint up a few flights of stairs (my go-to), or a walk outside with some added breath work modifications.

How does it work?

In his journey from chess prodigy to top ranked chess player in the world, Waitzkin would often come across opponents that required 5+ hour matches. Recognizing that our brains are muscles and need occasional breaks like any other muscle in our body, Waitzkin came up with a quick cardiovascular oriented process that combined physical and mental elements to release tension and rejuvenate concentration abilities.

This same process should be used while working to give your mind a mental refresher and to enable peak brain performance. As Waitzkin explains based on his time at the Human Performance Institute (formerly LGE), “LGE had discovered that there is a clear physiological connection when it comes to recovery – cardiovascular training can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion”.

Energizer routines focused around some sort of cardiovascular activity (a quick sprint through the hall or running up the stairs) can have an impactful effect on your ability to release mental tension and drive mental recovery to regrasp focus levels. Even the hype behind going on walks when stressed or in-need of a break are real.

Mental clarity and quick spurts of physical activity are interlaced and should be prioritized for maximizing brain performance.

Quick Tip:

“There was more than one occasion that I got up from the board four or five hours into a hugely tense chess game, walked outside the playing hall, and sprinted fifty yards or up six flights of stairs. Then I’d walk back, wash my face, and be completely renewed.”

As noted in the 2018 study titled “The Effect of Movement on Cognitive Performance”, brain plasticity and cognitive function are significantly improved by physical activity (NCBI, 2018).

If the science of psychological performance to fitness continues to paint a picture for peak mental performance, wouldn’t you prioritize ways to incorporate energizer breaks with physical components to keep your brain in tip top shape?

More about the book:

The Art of Learning takes us through the life of Josh Waitzkin, as he tells his story about becoming a chess prodigy at an early age and eventually becoming a Tai-Chi world champion, mastering both mental and physical elements of the sport and how to sustain peak performance. There are several invaluable lessons learned around a growth mindset, how and why we should always continue to learn, and ways to limit anxiety and rejuvenate your brain to keep your top performance switch on.

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To summarize - there are 3 tools you can use to start to reduce mental clutter, increase your brain performance, and rejuvenate your focus levels during your normal day to day. These include:

1. Morning Pages

2. Mindfulness meditation

3. Energize routines

Whether you use one or a combination of these tools, you’ll be rewarding your brain muscle with several options to stay sharp, sustain peak performance, and remove the mental noise that can hinder our clarity and focus.

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