Sometimes you sit down to a difficult task and find yourself flying through it, solving problems with aplomb, and coming up with new and creative approaches. Other times, you can’t seem to get off square one. You can’t find any solutions to problems. Getting anything done is an impossible chore.
If this sounds familiar, there’s a simple explanation: Sometimes our brains work better than other times. That insight comes from Josh Davis, Ph.D., author of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, and director of research and lead professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Since we’re human beings and not machines, Davis says, it’s wrong for us to expect peak performance from ourselves all the time. Instead, he suggests we use brain science to help create periods during the day when we’re at our greatest effectiveness–what he calls “awesome.”
As you might guess from his book title, he believes two hours of peak performance a day is a good goal for most people, although some people may be able to achieve more and others will struggle to spend any time at all in the awesome zone. The key is to understand how our brains work and create the conditions that will help them work at their best. “When that happens we can do amazing things,” he says.
Davis shared seven of his tips for creating peak brain function in yesterday’s column. Here are seven more that are just as effective:
1. Eat smaller, more frequent meals and avoid carbs.
“If you have to stay alert for the afternoon, instead of a full meal at lunch, eat half now and the other half in two hours,” Davis says. “On a day when you’re tired but need to be at your best, this is a great thing to do. Also, if you’re having a meal that’s predominantly carbs, that’s going to have the biggest effect on your blood sugar level, so a meal that’s more balanced will sustain you better.”
2. Drink plenty of water.
You already know it’s essential for your health but it will also help you operate at your best, Davis says. “People are reliably irritated if they’re dehydrated.” If your last drink of water was more than two hours ago, consider having some, he advises.
3. Put cream in your coffee.
Fats have a bad reputation, but they stabilize blood sugar, helping you stay in a good frame of mind for productivity, Davis says. It’s especially helpful to combine fats with caffeine, because that will extend the euphoric lift caffeine gives you, making it last a couple of hours. (If you don’t like cream in your coffe, try having some high-fat food with it instead, such as nuts.)
Speaking of coffee, if you’re feeling especially exhausted or lethargic, don’t try to counteract that feeling by having more caffeine than usual. It won’t work, Davis says. “Whatever your normal dose is, if you have more than that it doesn’t help you concentrate. It just makes you jittery and anxious.”
4. Eliminate noise, especially talking.
Silence or white noise creates the best productivity environment for most people, Davis says. “Most people are worse off if there’s noise of any kind, and the worst offender is speech.” That’s bad news given the popularity of open-plan offices these days.
Don’t let sound derail you, he advises. “If you have important work to do, shut the door, reserve a conference room, and turn off any sources of noise. If none of those things are at your disposal, it’s worth putting on noise-cancelling headphones.”
5. Get some blue light.
“It turns out bright cool light with a little blue is helpful for executive function–things like making decisions and keeping things in mind, what we call mental rotation,” Davis says. The reason is photo receptors in our eyes that send information to our circadian clock. They tell us to be awake and alert if we’re seeing light from a clear blue sky.
A desk by a window is the best choice but you can also use a desk lamp with a blue-light bulb. Stepping outside during the day will help as well. (For the same reason, blue light at night can inhibit sleep, so if your read on your phone or tablet before bed, consider downloading a blue light filter.)
In addition to blue light, having plants and/or images of nature within view while you’re working is restorative and refreshing to the brain, Davis says.
6. Clear off your desk.
It needn’t be spotless at all times, but if you’re getting to work on an important project and you want to be at your best, your messy desk could be a hindrance.
“What do we leave out to remind ourselves of?” Davis asks. “Stuff we didn’t get to, someone we’re letting down or something that’s hard to do, either because it has an emotional charge or because it’s difficult. This is exactly the wrong stuff to remind yourself of when you are ready to sit down for a great session of work. Your attention systems will be bouncing around among all those reminders.”
If you’re sitting down to work on a great project, you’re not going to deal with any of that for the moment. “So if you’re not someone who tends to clean up, put it all in a pile and move it out of sight during that session. Or put it in your calendar to look at it later.
“You can really do yourself a favor by getting that stuff out of your line of sight,” Davis says. Besides removing the irritating distraction, you’ve now given yourself to the space to move expansively, leaning across your desk or putting your feet up on it–the type of expansive behaviors that have been shown to build confidence. “Those incidental movements prime ideas of power,” Davis says. “They cause a positivity bias and make people more comfortable taking risks.”
7. Take a 10-minute nap.
Napping for 10 minutes is a better idea than napping for 20 or 30 minutes, Davis says. “They have similar benefits but the longer nap takes longer for people to come out of and the effects don’t last any longer.” Can’t fall asleep in 10 minutes? It doesn’t really matter, he says–the idea is to lie down and close your eyes for 10 minutes. “The nap doesn’t need to take you to a place where you’re fully asleep.” Besides, he says, the more often you do it, the faster you’ll doze off.
Most people will feel relatively fresh soon after a nap, Davis says. “If you are, explore what happens if you don’t look at any media before getting to work. Allow yourself to make no decisions and do no information tracking until you sit down to do something that matters to you.” You may be surprised and pleased with the results.