Ten Great Ways to Exercise Your Mind

  1. Take up a new mental pursuit at least once a year. Try to make it something entirely different from things you’ve done before. Learn a foreign language. Take up bird-watching. Master a video game. If you play chess, try the oriental game Go. If you play poker, try bridge or chess. Work your way through the basics of a type of math you’ve not done before, calculus, for example.
  2. Move up a level in your normal pursuits. We know lots of people who work the daily crossword puzzles in their newspapers. If you’re still having trouble getting through yours, stick with it until it becomes easy; but if you’re regularly getting through the puzzle and your completion time is improving, find a new puzzle. If your easily completing most regular crosswords, take up diagramless or cryptic puzzles. Stretch that brain!
  3. Take a different route to work every day, even if you only vary your routine by a few blocks. Habit is the death of thinking.
  4. Don’t just read; read something different. Make sure at least 40 percent of the books you read are non-fiction books unrelated to your business – great books on popular science, history, biographies. If you never read science fiction, force yourself to try some; same with a mystery or two. And make time to re-read at least one book you liked when you read it in college. Rethinking is as important as thinking.
  5. Exercise your memory. Force yourself to learn a list of something: Presidents of the United States, in order; capitals of African nations; the value of pi to the 50th place; the first lines of Shakespeare’s plays; the first sentences of Dickens’ novels; the birthdays of all your direct reports. Sure you could look them up, but memory works your brain. Once you’ve got one list down, challenge yourself with another.
  6. Write your autobiography. Or consider writing a history of your company or a brief biography of someone you admire. William Zinnser, an expert on writing, argues that writing helps us think, makes us organize our thoughts, helps us sort out what we really know and believe. Write to think!
  7. Practice speed math. Face it, you are impressed when someone who’s just heard the same series of numbers you’ve heard, immediately announces that their cumulative effect will be, say, a 60% improvement in revenues. She does this while you’re still putting the numbers into your H-P Business Consultant. Your head for numbers is better than you think, but you have to exercise it and you have to master the tricks of mental computation. As an alternative, try brainteasers. Bet you haven’t done them since you were a kid.
  8. Cultivate people who ask “smart” stupid questions. If you have kids, you’ve already got them close by. Kids ask questions and require explanations that force you to get into the details of things. Why is the day divided into 24 hours? Why do currents flow one direction in the northern half of the globe and the opposite direction in the southern half? Why do we need profit? The main questions and the followups can quickly send you back to the books to seek good ways to explain things like this. Answering “dumb” questions will make you smarter.
  9. Switch hands. If you’re left-handed, try doing things with your right hand; if your right-handed, try doing things with your left. You probably are familiar with all of that “right-brain/left-brain” stuff so you know that the right-side of the brain generally controls the left side of the body and vice versa. You also know that the right-brain is credited with creative processes. We know one person who, when he is in a brainstorming session, always holds his pencil in his left hand, makes a point of rotating his left foot and makes other movements designed to work the left side of his body in order to stimulate the right side of his brain. In budget meetings, he favors the right side of his body to stimulate the “logic” of his left brain. He swears it helps him shift his thinking patterns and match them to the issues at hand.
  10. Keep notes or a diary of things that capture your attention. If you’re reading a book and like a quotation in it, don’t just dog-ear the page, write it down. If you see a painting you like, make a note of who painted it, its medium, when it was painted and where you saw it. Like that wine? Make a note of it. When you write these things down, you further embed them in your memory.
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    Special Note: Don’t forget your body. Your mind functions best when your body functions best. Get enough sleep and don’t forget the exercise.