Why do people go to the gym? We didn’t evolve with treadmills and barbells, so why should experts recommend exercising every day? The answer would probably be because our daily life doesn’t challenge us enough physically.
I’d like to suggest that our daily life doesn’t challenge us enough mentally. Through setting aside time to visit the mental “gym” and organizing my life to work various mental muscles I’ve found it much easier to think logically, create new ideas and focus myself.
Research indicates brainpower is more than just genes
Science shows that intelligence is both environmental and genetic. Lab rats given more toys to interact ended up much smarter than rats left without any. Even more, studies are now showing that, contrary to an earlier belief, you can grow new neurons if given a stimulating environment.
The benefits of mental fitness
The benefits of physical fitness are obvious and visual. In my opinion, the benefits of mental fitness are even more important, although they might be more subtle. Here’s just a few benefits I’ve noticed from structuring my activities and hitting the mental gym:
- Rapid learning. It’s no secret I barely study for exams. My grade point average for my first year of University was a 4.2 out of a 4.5 (my lowest mark was one B+). And this is while taking courses with high failure rates such as Calculus, Asian History and Computer Science.
- Logical thinking. I’ve been told one of the biggest assets to this blog is my ability to discuss problems with a clear line of logic and reasoning. I believe this is an ability I’ve greatly improved over the last few years through mental training.
- Creativity. This month I wrote about 25 articles for this blog, 15 articles as a freelancer and a handful of guest posts. The volume of posting ideas I get is large enough that I now need to put a more strenuous filter for quality.
- Memory. I’ve gone from almost complete absent mindedness to above average memory. Learning memory tools such as linking and pegging have given me new methods to store information.
- Focus. When I started meditating to improve focus over a year ago, I found it hard to control a visual scene or keep out distracting thoughts. I’ve since noticed huge improvements so that I can hold images, ideas or focal points even with a fair degree of distraction. I’m still starting out, but the future looks promising.
Creating a mental fitness routine
There are two major ways to construct a mental fitness routine:
- Balancing projects/activities to ensure all mental “muscles” are being worked intensely.
- Setting aside time to hit the mental gym with activities solely for the purpose of building brainpower.
I use a combination of the two. Unlike physical exercise which is hard to reach a high intensity in routine life, you can structure your day to ensure you are working mental muscles.
You just need to ensure that you are working all mental muscles, not just one or two. If you go to the gym and just work biceps, you’ll have big arms but be completely weak everywhere else. Varied mental exercises will ensure you can handle all problems and ideas.
Here are twenty ideas for starting a mental fitness routine. I don’t suggest trying to implement them all. Instead either set aside fifteen minutes a day for one of these or integrate one of them into your routine.
- Journaling – Writing down your thoughts is a great tool for problem solving. Every journal session I have, I leave amazed with the answers to tough problems I can come up with. Journaling is your Universal Machine of the mental gym, providing good workouts for creativity, logic and focus.
- Meditation – I’ve only recently started to find serious uses for meditation in my mental regimen. Before I saw meditation as a more spiritual than practical activity. Now I’ve come up with several different meditations to work different mental muscles:
- Visualization – One I’ve been working on I call: eating the white apple. Visualize a white apple and hold it in your mind. Then imagine yourself eating it a bite at a time. Experience all the sensations of touch, taste, sound, smell and sight. The hard part is keeping the mental image of your apple consistent with where and how you eat it. I can usually only go about 10 bites before the mental image degrades.
- Focused Breathing – Start by slowing your breathing to about 10-15 seconds per breath. Next focus on one specific part of your body on the inhale. Select a new focus on the exhale. You can then move this to noticing specific sounds or senses. A good exercise in focus.
- Self-Dialog – Meditation makes it easier to talk with yourself. You can invent characters that can dialog with you, helping explore ideas. I believe journaling is an easier form of introspection than meditation, but they both have their strengths.
- Cycle Hobbies – Take up new activities regularly. This will keep your learning curve steep so your mind is always engaged at a high intensity. I’ve dabbled in painting, dancing, speaking, running, music, woodworking, programming, design and many others.
- Peripheral Activities – Don’t just take new hobbies, take ones that are vastly different from each other. Being a mile wide doesn’t just improve mental fitness, it gives you a broad base of metaphors for creativity.
- Read One Book Per Week – I strive to read one book each week. Sometimes this can be difficult with time constraints, but the benefits are impressive. If you want to save time on this one, learn speed reading.
- Engaging Fiction – Engage yourself in movies, books or television that makes you think. Television that makes you think might sound like an oxymoron, but the medium isn’t all bad if you know where to look. Engaging doesn’t just mean entertaining, but that it actively challenges your assumptions.
- Puzzles – I like to do crosswords and computer game puzzles. Solitary game playing can keep your mind sharp as long as the learning curve is steep and it doesn’t become routine.
- Competitive Games – Games that require strategic thinking are excellent ways to boost your logic and empathizing skills. Chess may be an intellectual favorite, but newer games can hold more promise by being much more diverse, and having a deeper range of strategic options.
- Explore Another’s Perspective – Empathy is a mental, not just an emotional, ability. Exploring another’s perspective hones your ability to think through another’s eyes. Although empathy is often dismissed as being touchy-feely and not logical, the ability to think from another’s perspective is an advanced mental ability that doesn’t develop until we are several years old.
- Create Regularly – I always like to have a project on the go. After finishing my latest e-book, I’ve been itching for a new challenge. I think I’ll be redesigning the entire website in the next month or two.
- Thought Experiments – Einstein was famous for thought experiments. This kind of reasoning ability is a mark of intelligence. Ask yourself, “What if?”
- Break Routines – Try consciously breaking one of your habits, just for a moment. Eat a different breakfast. Take a different route to work. Sleep in the opposite direction.
- New Cultures – Expose yourself to different worldviews. I found going to University and meeting people from vastly different cultures to have a big effect on my own ideas.
- Learn Outside Your Interests – Don’t stick to what you like. As a geek who knows C++ and watches Star Trek, I wasn’t sure whether I’d like dancing. But I took a Latin dancing course and found it to be both fun and interesting. People told me I was an introvert who wouldn’t make a good public speaker. I just finished my Competent Toastmaster and Competent Leader awards from the Toastmasters program.
- Friendly Debate – Discuss, don’t argue. When you are in a debate you should try to persuade, but welcome opposing ideas not as attacks but opportunities. Debating forces you to examine your opinions.
- Teach - When I used to teach First Aid as a lifeguard, I was often surprised at how much better I understood the material through teaching it. Writing articles for this blog organizes those ideas inside my head.
- Practice New Skills – Mastery may be useful, but I don’t think it is as valuable to mental discipline as just getting the basics. Unless a skill is useful to you, I’d suggest trying to learn different skills just to adequacy and then moving to something different. It can take six months to understand 80% of a subject and sixty years to understand 95%.
- Force Constraints – Try washing yourself with your eyes closed. Cooking without sauces. Reading upside down. Extra constraints make problems more challenging, ramping up the mental intensity required.
- Interlink – Holistic learning is about linking ideas together. Spend some time to explore a subject and ask yourself how the pieces fit into other information. This will organize your thinking and improve your understanding.
- Increase Mental Intensity - Force yourself to use your brain more. All these ideas are just specific implementations to increase the mental intensity you face. Focus, strategy, logic and creativity are just a few of the mental muscles you should be exercising more regularly.
Image courtesy of flickr.