Did you know that the average one-way commute in the United States is 26 minutes? What if used that same amount of time, every day, to improve your brain, your business, and your life? The good news is that you can easily do just that. Below are 26 ideas to get you started right now!
Let’s start with the basic things you can start doing immediately.
1. Read a book. It doesn’t matter if you read for work or for pleasure. Reading keeps your mind engaged and helps to improve cognitive functioning (the mental processes which include, among other things, skills such as decision making, problem solving, memory and attention) and increases brain connectivity. One quick warning: reading short articles online, or checking out social media posts, while technically reading, do not have the same effect as sitting down and reading a book. So find something you enjoy reading and dig in, even if just 26 minutes a day.
2. Play a game. Engage your brain in play rather than mindlessly scrolling through social media. Whether you do crossword puzzles or Sudoko, put together jigsaw puzzles, or solve brain teasers, you’ll be strengthening your brain by improving critical thinking skills, spatial reasoning, and short-term memory. You’ll lower your stress levels, and as a bonus, you’ll improve your mood as you get a little dopamine boost with every game success.
3. Get creative. You don’t have to be an artist to do something creative. Creativity can be drawing a picture, putting together a collage, or playing with clay. It can be drawing on the sidewalk, writing a poem or a song, or coloring in a coloring book designed for adults. Forget about the idea that you can’t do something because you are “right-brained” or “left-brained” (your brain is not segmented like that), just do something that creates something that wasn’t there before. No one has to see what you do, but the mere act of creation improves your mental and physical health, as well as your response to stress, and helps to decrease the risk of cognitive issues as you age.
LEARN SOMETHING NEW
One of the best ways to strengthen your brain is by learning something new. As you try new things and continue to improve at them, you build new brain synapses, which helps to improve all types of cognitive functions.
4. Be curious. What questions do you have, and where can you find the answers? Chances are, whatever you need to know, someone has the answer and has written about it or made a video about it. Hunt it down and get your answer. Another option? Learn new things you didn’t know you needed to know. Check out websites like “Wait, But Why,” “Mental Floss,” or “LifeHacker.” Who knows when something you learn there might lead to an unexpected inspiration?
5. Opi uusi kieli (translated from Finnish: Learn a New Language). Learning a new language will help you improve your thinking skills and memory abilities as well as your ability to concentrate. It can enhance your creativity and help you to think more analytically. Plus, the ability to swear in another language should never be underestimated. Apps like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone or Babbel, or websites like FluentU can help to get you started.
6. Throw balls in the air. Much like learning a new language (or even learning a musical instrument), juggling helps to build new synapses in your brain. The stronger your brain, the better your brain functions. Juggling helps with your hand/eye co-ordination and your concentration. Also, it’s a fun skill to show off to others. An easy way to get started is by checking out: The Jim Show
7. Put fear in its place. Try something you’ve been afraid to try. The fear of looking silly or feeling incompetent keeps us from branching out and trying things we haven’t done before. Now is the time to try something new, but do it with no expectation of success. Experiment with something you’ve always been intrigued about: cook a new recipe with a technique you’ve never tried. Try out a new form of exercise, look into a new hobby, or explore new technology. No matter what you decide to try, be sure to approach with a Beginners Mind, knowing you don’t have to get it right the first time. If you mess things up, it’s ok. You’re just trying new things. You don’t need perfection, just the experience. And who knows where it will take you? No matter what, trying new things (and sticking with ones you like) can improve all types of brain functions.
8. Dance like no one is watching. Dancing improves posture and helps with weight control, muscle tone, and balance and flexibility. It also helps to build brain connectivity and is a possible treatment for depression. Dancing may also help reduce the risk of dementia. All of which means it’s time to learn some new dance moves. YouTube is full of dancing videos. Find something you like and follow along. Remember, you don’t have to share your new dance skills with anyone unless you want to.
WORK AROUND THE HOUSE
Doing work around the house doesn’t sound like much fun. Still, a little work each day can lead to more items being crossed off your to-do list, more time to do the things you enjoy (especially on weekends), land and lead to better brain health.
9. Outsmart hunger. Prep your food, so you’re ready when the hunger pains hit. Prepping can be as simple as cleaning, peeling, and chopping vegetables to use for salads or stir-fries. It can be marinating meat, so it’s ready to slap on the barbecue. It can be putting together a menu for the week, so you don’t have to think about what to make when dinner rolls around. So why does this matter to your brain? When you eat better, your brain functions better. High quality, healthy food helps to nourish the brain and protect it from what’s known as “oxidative stress.” You wouldn’t put cheap gas in your car, so don’t put unhealthy food in your body.
10. Grab a broom. Cleaning in small, daily increments can be more manageable than blocking out a few hours to clean. You’ll be less likely to procrastinate, and more likely to do a better job, since the time is limited. More importantly, daily cleaning and straightening can reduce anxiety and improve your ability to focus and improve your physical health (which means improved brain health as well). Pick a room each day to focus on and see what a difference a little cleaning can make.
11. Calm clutter chaos. Studies have shown that being in a disorganized space can affect your stress levels, which in turn affects your brain function and your ability to focus. Instead of trying to find big blocks of time to unclutter and organize areas in your home, pick a small area (a drawer, a section of a cabinet or closet), and devote 20 minutes to it. The next day, select a new space as needed and repeat.
12. Fix things: Think of all the little things around your home that you need to fix. Write each task you need to do on a separate slip of paper and put it into an empty jar. When you find yourself with available time, pick a slip out of the jar, and get started. Randomizing your choice of the task will eliminate procrastination. The satisfaction you’ll feel from finishing a task will give you a hit of dopamine, which will encourage you to succeed at whatever you do next.
WORK ON YOUR BUSINESS SKILLS
Chance are you’ve probably uttered the words: “When I have “extra-time” I’m going to learn how to…” Guess what? Your “extra-time” is here. Why not be proactive and use that time to improve something having to do with your work?
13. Learn a new business skill. What’s something you’ve been wanting to learn? How to put together better PowerPoint presentations? How to improve your public speaking? What does it take to be a Project Manager? Now is the time to learn more about those skills. Places like LinkedIn Learning, or Coursera, or even YouTube, can get you on your way to being better at whatever business skill you’d like. Just like learning anything new, you’ll be building new neural pathways, which will improve your brain health.
14. Clean up your technology. Technology has a life of its own, and if you don’t stay on top of it, you fall behind. Block out time to eliminate unneeded emails, unsubscribe from old subscriptions, upgrade software, change passwords, delete apps you no longer need, and investigate newer, more efficient hardware.
15. Become a Power user. Are you utilizing our software to its full capacity? Are there tools and techniques that you aren’t currently using because you haven’t taken the time to really dig in and learn? Now is the time to really learn what your most-used software can do for you. You’ll increase your efficiency and reduce stress while increasing productivity and becoming more of an asset to your company.
As humans, we are wired to connect with other humans. Having a robust network of friends and family helps to reduce stress, fight depression, slow the rate of memory decline. It can also help us to be just a little bit smarter than we would be on our own. Social connections help you live longer, and are one of the most significant predictors of longevity. Keeping relationships going is often easier to say than do. Why not use some of your new-found time to strengthen your connections with others?
16. Write a letter. Send a letter or a card to someone you haven’t seen or talked to in a while. Think of someone you’d like to reach out to and write them a real card or letter; this is no time for email or texts. The act of writing a message by hand forces you to think of the person, and your shared connection. After you’ve mailed the card or letter, take a moment to plan who you’ll write to next, and when you’ll do it. Not into writing? Pick up your phone and call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. While in-person interactions are the best, taking the time to talk on the phone or on a video call qualifies as well. Make a list of people you’d like to talk to, then start calling.
17. Randomly help others. Make a list of ways you can practice random (or not-so-random) acts of kindness, then get started. Doing something nice for someone else reduces stress for you and can improve your emotional well-being. You can choose to do things throughout the day that will help others, such as letting someone go in front of you at the grocery store, paying for someone’s coffee, or picking up trash you see in your neighborhood. Give someone a heartfelt compliment or anonymously leave a gift on a neighbors’ doorstep. Select a cause to support and start volunteering. If you need some ideas to get started, read the book 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life by Cami Walker.
While helping others is great, it’s also important to take care of yourself as well. Improve your mental and physical health with some well thought out self-care.
18. Get physical. Exercise is one of the most productive things you can do for your mental and physical health. You already know that exercise can make you stronger and help control weight. But it’s a powerhouse when it comes to what you don’t see. Exercising increases your heart rate, which means more oxygen to the brain (never a bad thing), and it helps to release hormones that assist brain cell growth. Exercise makes it easier to build new neural connections, which can help improve your memory and prevent some neurological conditions. It reduces cortisol (stress hormones) levels and can reduce social anxiety and depression.
19. Be appreciative. Take a look at what you have in your life and say thank you. Being grateful can help you take better care of your physical health, reduce frustration and regret, improve mental health, and increase empathy. Practice gratitude by writing what you’re grateful for in a dedicated gratitude journal every day, or by reviewing your day and mentally appreciating the good things in your life.
20. Say “OOOMMM.” What if you could: reduce stress, improve concentration and memory, increase happiness, slow aging, and help cardiovascular and immune health, all by sitting quietly? You can. All you have to do is meditate. Meditation doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. You don’t need special clothes or comfy cushions or to download any apps. Just sit and concentrate on your breath following it as you breathe in and out. If thoughts come into your mind, imagine they are clouds and let them drift away. Then return your attention to your breath. That’s it. Sure, you can make it more complicated, but you don’t have to. Any type or length of meditation will improve how your brain functions.
21. Crack yourself up. Watch funny videos, listen to comedians, read humorous books, or have a conversation with someone you know is going to make you laugh out loud. Laughter really is one of the best things you can do both for your brain and your body. Laughter decreases stress hormones, releases feel-good endorphins, helps to increase blood flow, improves mental health, can leave your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes. With all those benefits, there’s no reason not to laugh each day.
22. Let your mind go. Sit and do nothing while daydreaming (or mind-wandering as scientists call it). Daydreaming has been shown to increase creativity, help you focus on and achieve goals, and may help you to be more patient, so you make better decisions. So, despite what your 3rd-grade teacher said about your tendencies to daydream, go ahead and let your mind wander.
DO MORE OF SOMETHING YOU ARE ALREADY DOING
While the past 22 suggestions have all been about adding more things into your day, another option exists: spending more time on things that you already enjoy having in your life.
23. Get some extra sleep. If there is one thing people slack on, it’s getting enough sleep. While sleep allows your body to physically recharge, it also is the time your brain uses to flush out toxins that are built up while you’re awake. When you don’t get enough sleep, cognitive performance can be impaired, and memory can be affected. So why not get an extra 26 minutes of sleep in the morning, or go to bed 26 minutes earlier at night? Another option is to take a 20-minute power nap during the day. A rest of this length allows you to get into the lighter stages of NREM sleep (non-rapid-eye movement sleep). This makes it easier for you to hit the ground running when you wake up.
24. Start pairing your “what” with a “when.” You probably take time in the morning to plan your day. Instead of only planning for what you are going to do, start planning for when you are going to do it as well. Rather than just hoping you can fit something into your schedule, make a solid plan for when you’re actually going to do it. This is known as an Implementation Intention and has been scientifically proven to increase the probability of you achieving what you plan to do, leading to improved productivity and reduced stress.
25. Dig deeper into your current hobbies. One of the problems with hobbies is finding the time to enjoy them, so use your new-found time to work on or in a hobby you currently enjoy. You’ll reduce stress, boost your confidence, and possibly improve your personal development. Working on a hobby you are already involved in, helps your brain just as much as starting a new one.
26. Spend time with your pet. Walk them, play with them, observe them, talk to them, teach them to do stupid pet tricks. Interacting with pets, of all kinds, reduces both cortisol levels and blood pressure and can help to increase general overall well-being. Both you and your pet will benefit from the bonus time.
Any and all of these 26 ideas can be done with any chunk of time you find yourself with, it doesn’t have to be 26 minutes. Everyone is a way to improve your life and utilize your day in a way that supports your brain health and your productivity. There’s no time like the present to pick one and get started.
Learn more here: Wouldn’t it feel great to be able to overcome procrastination, accomplish more with your time, and improve your focus. You can learn how to do all of this (and more!) by reading DONE: How To Work When No One Is Watching.
Ellen Goodwin is a Productivity Trainer, TEDx speaker, and author who uses neuroscience-based principles to enable individuals and businesses to overcome all types of procrastination, build stronger habits, and be more focused so that they can be more efficient and effective with their time. Ellen believes that when it comes to productivity, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, which is why she advocates for experimentation to find the tools and techniques which will work seamlessly with your life and your business, no matter what you want to accomplish. She is the co-host of The Faster, Easier, Better Show podcast. Ellen lives in San Diego and is an avid baseball fan. Her husband is not.