Improving Your Mind

Athletes spend their whole year doing one of two things: training, or playing. They develop consistent and intricate routines designed to help them reach their optimal level of performance. These routines are developed and changed over time, as the athlete has to adapt to change — in their health, their age, their league, et cetera. Athletes invest a lot of time and resources in building the best possible routine because they know that their efforts will compound over time. If they have a good training routine, each day they will get a little better, and over time the effects will add up. If they have a low-quality training routine, they will not get better each day, and that will compound as well — they are making no progress, or taking steps back.

Why do knowledge workers not have their own routines to help improve the mind? Indeed, knowledge workers should train like the best athlete and develop plans to help them succeed. Acquiring knowledge is more difficult to measure than athletic performance for sure, but if we develop a good mental learning routine, we can work toward incremental success each day that will compound. Think of your mind as an operating system. Operating systems receive continuous software updates to help them level up their game; athletes make changes to their routines to help them reach peak performance. The principles of training and routines do not just apply to athletes, they apply to everyone. Each day we should be trying to acquire new knowledge that acts as an update to our internal operating system — something that will help us perform better tomorrow. The true benchmark for mental success is to go to bed smarter than when you woke up.

Build Good Routines

The first step in building your own “mental gym” is to understand the power of routines, and work toward building successful ones. Routines are a specific behavior you do at a certain time when a set of circumstances are met. Routines are systems. Over time, your routine will become engrained into your brain, and so the activity will no longer require as much energy to conduct. This is fundamentally different to the idea of goals, which, when met, stop. If you develop a good routine, you will keep improving even after you have met the goal you wanted to achieve. Building strong routines is important because we only have a limited amount of willpower each day to use. We are all faced with perhaps hundreds of decisions each day — where to get coffee, what to have at lunch, what you need to do to get that work project finished on time. And as we make more decisions, our mind becomes fatigued. Implementing routines allows us to preserve our mental energy for the things that actually matter in our day. If we go to the same coffeeshop each day, we no longer have to worry about deciding where to go; if we create a routine to plan the next day before we leave work, we can spend more time thinking about the things that matter.

Routines are automatic and over time reduce the number of decisions that we need to make. If we spend our energy making little decisions, we will not be able to invest all of our resources when we need to make big decisions. Obama famously wore only gray or blue suits in most cases; Steve Jobs had a specific attire he liked. These choices were not made because they loved the clothes they had chosen per se (although they most likely did), rather because having a set outfit reduced the amount of time they had to spend each day choosing an outfit. Developing routines is critical because over time your progress will compound. If you read 10 pages of a book a day, in a month you will likely have finished that book. If you commit to writing a paragraph each day and publishing that on a blog, you will have thousands of words by the end of the month — by the end of the year, you will have a whole repository of information. Conversely, if you don’t have routines, each day you need to find the energy to do something new, which is difficult. And, in most cases, we end up setting something aside because doing it seems so onerous. Thinking to ourselves “I want to write today” gives us an out — we can always say we didn’t have time. But if we develop a habit, we can’t use that excuse — doing that thing almost becomes human nature.

Optimize for Focus

When you are building your mental gym, you also need to build routines that will help you focus. One of the most simple rules for leveling up your thinking is to eliminate distractions and create an environment that will help you focus. If you build routines that allow you to focus, you will not only start doing things automatically because you have a routine, but the time you spend doing that thing will be valuable — you will be in the best possible mental state so you can achieve your peak performance. Blocking out distractions allows you to focus on the thing that matters: what you are doing right now.

There are a few ways in which you can optimize your mental gym for focus. The best one is to create blocks of time where no distractions are allowed. My calendar sets aside the first two hours each day (after I have eaten breakfast, of course) for writing. Often, I extend this period to four hours when I want to write more. I don’t have meetings in this time, and I don’t usually respond to emails. My mind is focused on my writing tool. By doing this, I am able to reach a zen state of mind sooner, and produce better work over time. Another useful routine I have learned is to leave your reactive work until the end of the day. In the morning, you should spend your time on all of the creative things you need to do — write, code, work on a project, et cetera. Then, in the afternoon, you can do all of the reactive work — sending emails, responding to messages, and so on. For most people, their mind is at its highest state of focus in the morning, and making time for more creative work in the morning will allow them to produce better work.

Building a Gym as a Knowledge Worker

In the context of knowledge work, there are a few things that we can do to improve our minds that incorporate the two principles of routines and focus.

The first is to make time to write each day. Even if you don’t think you are good at writing, you can still derive a lot of benefit from the exercise. Writing allows you to share all of the thoughts which are around in your mind on paper. I find the exercise of writing something liberating because I can now see what I have been thinking — there is a record of my thoughts. You can write about whatever you want, whether it be expressive, or about a topic you are interested in. Choose a topic, then get started. Don’t worry about producing a masterpiece — just embrace the exercise. Build a routine around this so that over time your mind will adjust and the behavior will become automatic, and let the words flow.

Good mental gyms should also be based around learning something new every day. Warren Buffett famously had a rule that each day he wanted to go to bed smarter than when he woke up. Learning something new each day helps us stay alert, and gives us something to think about in our down time. You could read a few pages of a book, talk to your friend about a topic you find interesting, work toward building a new skill — writing, coding, woodworking, whatever you are interested in — or listen to a podcast. These are only a few ways in which you can learn something new. In order to make the most out of this experience, you should use the two aforementioned principles of routines and focus. For example, you could decide that you want to read for 30 minutes before you fall asleep, or that you want to listen to a podcast before you start your day. Over time, the benefits of learning something new will compound, and you will have a whole range of new knowledge which you can use throughout your day.

When you are building your mental gym, it can be useful to have a source of accountability. This will ensure that you are always on-track and that you are making positive iterations when your routines are no longer working for you. For example, you could decide to schedule a call with a friend each week to discuss one podcast episode you listened to that week. Or you could attend a book club that meets every month. Or you could publish what you have learned publicly so that people can see the progress that you have made. Read about how to build your own mental gym? Why don’t you write about it and share your thoughts. If you want to learn to write, start a blog. If you want to become a better coder, share your work on GitHub. If you want to become a great designer, share your work on Dribbble.

We often forget about our improving mind because it is harder to track our progress. But if we develop a good routine, we are setting ourselves up for success — assuming, of course, we execute on that routine and focus. As you continue to acquire new knowledge, you will learn more, and learning will become easier; compounding will take over. Every day your aim should be to become a better person, and having a good mental gym is the best way to meet that aim each day.

Blog, EssayJames GallagherComment