That 3 lb. organ between our ears controls everything we do. We depend on it for literally everything from deciding which holiday presents to exchange to keeping us breathing. Yet most of us spend more time and energy trying to improve every other part of the body but give little thought to our brains. It's as though they had no needs of their own.
Taking good care of your brain may the single most powerful thing you can do if you want a healthy, happy, and productive 2016. Like every organ in the body, you can create optimum conditions for your brain to work at its best. Which could lead to one of the most creative, successful, life-changing years you've ever had.
Commit to making these simple changes, and reap the benefits of better brain function all year long:
1. Get enough sleep.
There's plenty of evidence that not getting enough sleep impairs brain function. Keep that up for enough years and you can actually change your brain's DNA to make you more vulnerable to depression. Even in the short term, though, lack of sleep diverts the pathways in your brain.
So insist on a schedule that allows you plenty of sleep time, even if it means you can't make that early-morning flight or late night performance. And leave time during the day for the occasional 10-minute nap which won't make up for your sleep deprivation, but will improve brain function in the short term.
2. Eat the right foods.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and flavonoids have been shown to improve brain function. You can find omega-3s in walnuts, eggs, and leafy greens among other foods. And flavonoids are in coffee, berries, leafy greens, and dark chocolate.
Beyond that, you can keep stress at bay and brain function high by eating several small meals throughout the day--first thing in the morning and at least once every four hours. Avoid high-fat, high-sugar, and highly-processed foods that can spike your blood sugar or overload your system. Choose foods in their natural state such as fruits and nuts or whole grains, or dairy foods such as yogurt. Drinking plenty of water will also help your brain function and entire body. You can set yourself up for success by keeping a water bottle and a bag of nuts near your desk.
3. Get moderate exercise.
Like eating the right foods, regular exercise improves both your brain and the rest of your body. Fortunately, you don't need a program of hours-long daily workouts to make this happen. Regular, moderate exercise, such as walking two miles a day is plenty to boost both your brain and your mood.
You can also use short periods of exercise to help you at specific points throughout the day. For instance, if something really upsets you, spend 60 seconds running up a flight of stairs or jumping up and down in your office. That brief burst of exercise will satisfy the flight-or-fight response our brains evolved to produce. Likewise, if you have to give a presentation, spend a few minutes on moderate exercise, such as running in place, before you go onstage. (Tony Robbins, for example, jumps on a trampoline to get his energy up for presentations.)
4. Make time to clear your mind.
Research shows that regular meditation not only improves brain function but also increases happiness. Even five minutes in the middle of your work day, will make a big difference.
But if you can't or don't want to make time for meditation, you can still some of the same benefits by taking the time to clear your mind on a regular basis. Taking time to stop and breathe, and stare out the window (which in itself has brain benefits) is helpful. So is taking a walk, which can be a form of meditation, and adds to brain function both as moderate exercise and because it gets you outdoors and into daylight.
5. Learn something new.
If you've always wanted to take up surfing, or study Sanskrit, or perform improv, 2016 is a great time to actually do it. That's because learning something new, such as a new language or a new performance technique, actually creates new pathways in your brain. If you can spend an hour a day on your new hobby, you'll see the greatest brain improvement, especially if you spend all that time learning. But anytime you learn anything new, you're helping your brain stay more flexible.
6. Take some time off.
Like sleep, time away from work is a must from your brain's point of view. This means at least one day out of every seven. If you're accustomed to working every day, don't fear falling behind. In one experiment, a work team was instructed to take one rest day a week and instead of work piling up they found they got more done and were prouder of their accomplishments. That's one good example of how improving brain function makes a big difference to productivity.
But don't stop there. Regular vacations are also essential to brain function, and it's no accident that many people do their most creative thinking while on vacation. Not only that, taking at least one week's vacation at least twice a year will actually extend your life.
So there you have it--a recipe for better brain function in the coming year. Will you take the time to make these small changes? Your brain will thank you if you do.