Our brains can’t deliver peak performance every minute of the day — it works differently as the day progresses.
Some days you can perform at the top of your game. Others days, you may struggle to do your best work. It happens to even top performers.
Just like the muscles, some people train in the gym, your brain requires stimulation and exercise to grow and maintain cognitive function.
Experiments in neuroplasticity (our brain’s ability to change throughout your life) have proven that the brain is capable of modifying itself, either by changing its structure, increasing and reducing its size or altering its biochemistry.
Neuroplasticity works through repetition and mental stimulation. A lot of the good change you expect for better cognitive function is in your control — you can train your brain to achieve peak performance.
The question then is, what habits, routines, activities, and stimulations really work? What can you do daily to train your brain to achieve performance? There’s no substitute for intellectual labour, but there are ways to maintain a healthy brain.
For robust mental stimulation, pair mental stimulation with physical activity
Choose activities or exercises that involve as many parts of the brain as possible — eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet. These are all mental processes critical to peak performance.
Examples, you can throw a ball against the wall or recite a poem while doing jumping jacks. While walking on a treadmill, read a book or a magazine. The goal is to make your brain work hard in sync with your body.
“Each of these examples works multiple parts of your brain and body simultaneously, in ways that will improve your focus, decision-making ability and coordination,” says John Kennedy, a pioneer in the field of applied neuroplasticity and director of the Mental Performance Institute.
To improve cognitive performance, develop a growth mindset
“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning., said Benjamin Franklin.
Mindsets inform action, so those with a growth mindset about the brain’s ability to improve or change are thought to be more likely to build new and better habits that can enhance cognitive performance.
“I think that the growth mindset is a very helpful brain hack. The growth mindset emphasises the possibility of change and growth as opposed to focusing on capacity or ability,” explains Dr Linda Wilbrecht, Associate Professor, UC Berkeley.
You can improve your cognition function through effort, practice, and persistence.
When you are open to embracing new habits and activities, you can build pathways that can make your brain stronger and smarter.
Do you best, difficult or high-value tasks when your brain is at its optimal performance
According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if stimulus remains constant for too long. You lose your focus and your performance on the tasks decline.
The brain naturally functions in spurts of high energy (roughly an hour) followed by spurts of low energy (10–20 minutes).
This natural ebb and flow of energy should be used for high-value tasks and breaks. Working with your body, not against it is the ultimate productivity hack. You can’t demand more of your brain if it’s low on energy.
“There is certainly evidence that when the prefrontal cortex, the part that does a lot of rational decision making, is depleted in energy, your rationality and ability to make sound decisions decreases,” says Dr Randall Platt, Assistant Professor, ETH Zurich.
“The best brain hacks I can think of are more like scheduling or optimization hacks.”
“I would recommend giving your highest performing time to your most demanding tasks. If you’re best at 7 in the morning, and you’re checking emails at that time, I don’t think you’re optimally using your capacity,” he tells Sainsbury Wellcome Centre.
Regulating negative emotions is critical to peak performance
When you are consistently stressed, anxious, frustrated or upset, your brain becomes too busy trying to control negative feelings — you spend a lot of mental energy and you become too distracted to perform well.
“Two systems in your brain are competing,” says Neuroscientist Hans Hagemann and co-author of The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance.
“That leads to not being focused on anything anymore.” To regain cognitive control, recognize and ‘label’ how you feel, he said. Learn to be more aware of your own emotional states and tame them accordingly.
Peak performers control their emotions to think optimally and clearly.
When your emotions are under control, you can consciously put yourself in the best state that gets you in a position, and in a situation, where you can really perform at your best.
Openness to new mental and social experiences can improve function
You can reduce the risk of cognitive decline if you are open to learning new or difficult skills beyond your comfortable domain. The more you engage your brain, the better.
A study on the impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function found that learning new and demanding skills while maintaining an engaged social network is key to staying sharp as we age.
“It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something — it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone,” explains, lead researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas.
To benefit from new experiences, cultivate your curiosity, master new and better skills, habits and activities that push your boundaries. Challenging mental activities can slow cognitive decline.
Practicing, exploring, and learning new things can give your brain the full workout it needs to perform at its best.
The key takeaway is that your brain’s efficiency can be improved by small shifts and steps in the right direction.
This article first appeared on Medium.