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Nancy Haller, Ph.D.
Leadership Coach
McKenzie Management
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Four Brain Workouts for 2015
By Nancy Haller, Ph.D.

It’s the start of a new calendar year, that time when we set goals for dieting and exercise. We make promises to lose weight, eat healthy food, spend more time with family, save money and the list goes on and on. Self-improvement intentions are noble. The trouble is that only a tiny fraction of people keep their New Year’s resolutions. What’s the secret to succeeding? Your brain.

In an experiment conducted at Stanford University, a group of students was divided into two ‘conditions’. The first was asked to remember a two-digit number and the other was given a seven-digit number. Both groups took a short walk and then they were offered the choice of a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit. The students who needed to remember seven-digit numbers picked the chocolate cake twice as often as the two-digit group. Why?

According to the researcher, the ‘extra numbers’ took up valuable space in the brain and accounted for a ‘cognitive load’ that made it much harder to resist the temptation of chocolate. It’s no surprise that changing habits involves an enormous amount of effort, especially in the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain immediately behind the forehead. Therefore it makes sense that THE most important goal to set this year is to work your brain. After all, the brain is connected to everything. Here are four of the best ‘exercises’ to train your brain to be at its best.

Learn Something New Everyday
Taking in and processing new information is the best workout for your brain. When you are actively learning you build new neural pathways. This is especially crucial as we age. Active learners also tend to have fewer cognitive impairments later in life. The key to learning actively is to be mindful and focused as you go through the day. Pay attention and be fully present. Ask questions and engage in thoughtful inquiry. Find a workshop, class or conference to attend. If you’re athletic, try a new sport. Or learn to play a musical instrument or speak a new language. 

Practice Your Breathing
Because our respiration happens automatically, we let our bodies breathe for us. Unfortunately we often get less oxygen than our brains really need to function properly. Breathing is essential to think clearly and make wise decisions. Practice breathing for at least 5 minutes every day. Breathe in slowly through your nose (4-5 seconds), and then out through your mouth twice as slowly (8-10 seconds). Deliberately focus on the sensation of inhaling and exhaling. Then, during the day incorporate a deep mindful breath by using a cue such as a red traffic light, or just before you enter the operatory, or when you hear the hourly chime of a clock.

Stop Multitasking
Your brain can only do one thing at a time well. When you constantly shift attention from one activity to another, or respond to every interruption from a smart phone beep or email alert, you make it harder for your brain to function effectively. You may feel more efficient, but you are actually overloading your brain. In addition to fatigue you are creating stress, and this produces the toxic hormone cortisol which inhibits the memory center of the brain.

The biggest culprit of multitasking is technology. Therefore take breaks from your smartphone, computer, tablet, video games and even television. Steel yourself against these distracting interruptions and allow yourself to fully focus on one task at a time. Even 30 minutes without distraction can lead to better brain health and improve your ability to concentrate.

Get More Sleep
Sleep deprivation has dramatic effects on the brain and how well it performs. When you haven’t had sufficient restorative sleep, your working memory struggles to perform normally. The brain has less efficient ‘filtering’ ability and that leads to poor decision-making and problem solving. That’s why normal job tasks take you twice as long when you’re tired. There’s also evidence linking a night of bad sleep to spikes in brain chemicals like serotonin during the day. Serotonin is elevated among those with depression, which may explain why you feel emotionally down when you’re fatigued. Strive to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

Just imagine what the impact might be if you could tap into more parts of your brain to increase innovation, creativity, emotional engagement, vision, feelings of safety and belonging. And what would the impact be if you could guide your entire staff to do this too?

Wishing you a Healthy, Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Dr. Haller provides training for leadership effectiveness, interpersonal communication, conflict management, and team building. If you would like to learn more contact her at nhaller@mckenziemgmt.com

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