A September Tune-Up

The most powerful and complex information-processing tool we have sits between our ears. But are we making the most of it? This September, instead of defragging the hard drive, give yourself a mental tune up to ensure you are making the most of your primary information processor.

I turned to three experts for their take on maximizing brain power: John Medina, neuroscientist and author of Brain Rules; David Allen, productivity coach and author of Getting Things Done; and Gina Trapini, lead editor of the blog Lifehacker.

Tip number one: Sleep to excess, I dare you!

Adults do best with between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. For your mental tune up plan to give yourself eight to nine hours of sleep a night for a solid week.

Getting enough sleep contributes positively to your working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.

Napping is a normal part of human functioning and is the brain’s way of taking a learning break. Unfortunately napping is something we have almost entirely banished from Canadian work places. Medina reports that “in one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent.“ It may be time to bring back the afternoon nap in order to boost national productivity.

Tip number two: Exercise to create mental muscle

If your heart races from a short walk up the stairs it may not just be your six pack in need of toning. The fastest way to better memory and cognitive functioning is aerobic exercise.

Research now shows that when we get moving with aerobic exercise our cognitive scores go up. Four months of regular aerobic exercise results in improved memory and executive functions. Executive function doesn`t so much as refer to performance in the boardroom but rather is the term used to describe the capacities of the frontal cortex, that guide such complex behavior as planning, decision-making and response control.

Medina has had a treadmill installed in his office so that he can go for a stroll while working on his computer. Harvard Business review named Medina’s concept of bringing treadmills into the workplace as one of its “Breakthrough Ideas for 2008.”

While you wait for your treadmill to arrive make sure to engage in regular aerobic activity to get your little grey cells working at optimal power.

Tip number three: Mind like water not mud

Get rid of your mental clutter to free up your mind for the heavy lifting of frontal cortex reasoning. This is the concept that productivity coach David Allen refers to as ‘Mind like Water’.

With a clear mind we are able to respond appropriately in every situation, just like when a stone is tossed into a calm pool of water. Ripples flow from the centre in response to the impact of the stone. The water reacts and then returns to calm.

For your mental tune up – get your to do list out of your head and onto paper (or the computer). Then implement a regular review to keep the information current. What’s important here is to reduce mental stress by getting the 100s of action items out of your head.

Stress has a powerful negative impact on higher brain functions. Getting organized is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress. Check out Allen’s “reminder-type lists that we all need to let our brain relax (re: outcomes and actions).”

Tip number four: Create a multi-tasking free zone

“Multi-tasking is just bad for reasoning” says Trapini in an interview with Harvard Business Review.

Focus is underrated in too many work environments today; instead we hop from one thing to the next like coked-up bunnies wearing Bluetooth headsets and thumbing our Blackberries, and then at 7 pm we realise the research article we needed a few hours of uninterrupted time to complete didn’t happen.

Legal work and research takes focused concentration. Each time you break your thought process to open a new email message, answer the phone or update your Facebook status your brain stops its thinking process and moves to the new task. When you wish to re-engage the brain then has to take valuable time to refocus and pick up where it left off. The one hundred interruptions that occur during a normal working day take a significant toll on one’s reasoning power and use of time.

To truly enhance your cognitive capacity set some boundaries. Get yourself some pockets of uninterrupted time during the day for tackling the major thinking work. The need to be available to clients, colleagues, and other important people in our lives cannot be denied. But this needs to be balanced with the need for uninterrupted concentration. Scheduling email and phone call free work periods each day is one powerful way of maximising the use of time.

Give it a try

A healthy dose of exercise, some good nights of sleep, a little organization and a multi-tasking free zone just might be all it takes to get the best performance out of your mental muscle. Give it a try and share any additional tips you might have by adding a comment below.


  1. You are right, GTD can improve your effectiveness if correctly applied.

    For organizing your activities like GTD recommends, you can use this web-based application:

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set Next Actions and Contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.