From encouraging criticism to getting more sleep, here are 10 training exercises and habits that will give your brain a comprehensive workout.
Entrepreneurs and business owners looking to gain a competitive edge in the workplace should look no further than their own cognitive fitness.
Our cognition is our ability to plan, organise, solve problems, remember things and focus – all vital for ensuring that we work to our best. Being cognitively fit means that we make better decisions and work smarter. It can also boost wellbeing.
The World Economic Forum highlighted in its 2016 report that cognitive fitness is becoming the skill most sought after by employers – and it’s possible to enhance it. Major advances in neuroscience over the past 30 years have built on two centuries of psychological and cognitive research, to give us a better understanding of the five domains that form the main part of our cognitive function. These are: executive function; working memory; episodic memory; attention; and processing speed.
So here are 10 brain training exercises and habits that will give a comprehensive workout to the five major cognitive domains.
1. Executive function
Executive function is the ability to plan, organise and be creative. It’s the most significant domain when it comes to leadership, because it also controls how we fully utilise our cognition across all five cognitive domains.
Plan to succeed
As your business becomes more successful and the workload grows, you may be tempted – and encouraged – to delegate more to others. But delegating too much of your planning could be detrimental. It’s important to nurture planning and strategy skills, so enhance your executive function by keeping or taking back some planning responsibility and prevent these skills from diminishing.
A healthy debate
Encourage constructive criticism from your team to ensure that you regularly critically analyse your own actions and decisions. Clarifying and defending your opinions and the way you have behaved towards others will strengthen your executive function by testing your convictions and keeping you focused.
2. Working memory
Working memory is the “workspace” of our minds. It’s where we store relevant information to which we can return when needed. Ultimately, it’s our ability to make decisions and solve problems.
‘To teach is to learn twice’
Boost your working memory by taking time to explain concepts, ideas and work processes to others. As well as benefitting your work colleagues, the process of teaching helps you to consolidate information and archive it, while making way for more long-term memory.
Sleep is critical to learning and memory. To avoid sleep deprivation, 95pc of adults need between seven-and-a-half to nine hours sleep a night, so “getting by” on a few hours’ sleep is a false economy, because your working memory will suffer. Get into a regular sleep schedule and try not to break your routine.
3. Processing speed
Processing speed is the ability to act with speed and accuracy. It impacts our verbal fluency and articulation, and the rate at which we are able to engage our thinking processes.
Boost your processing speed by re-energising your meetings. Try to cut the length of them down by 10pc. If that works, try cutting them down again by another 10pc. Not only will these “speed meetings” force attendees to be more concise and focussed, but given that the average employee spends 62 hours in meetings a month, a 10pc saving may give you six hours of your life back each month.
Maintain an active and diverse social life. Humans are inherently social animals and, fortunately, from the simplest of conversations to the liveliest of debates, the dynamics of social interactions flex our cognitive skills and boost our mood. Ensure that you take time in your working day to indulge your social nature and engage with those around you.
4. Episodic memory
Episodic memory is the ability to recall events, people, and places in context to a relevant situation. It’s what helps us learn from experiences and impart wisdom to others in our organisation.
Your episodic memory is seen by many in the workplace as a crucial skill for management and leadership. Enhance this cognitive domain as well as your ability to recall a list of individual items in a sequence by conjuring up a striking image of all the items together. This mnemonic imagery technique is up to three times more effective than trying to learn by repetition, enabling you to recount information quickly and succinctly whenever you need to.
The power of love
Positive relationships not only help people live longer and have a better quality of life, but they also help protect against memory loss. Nurture your personal relationships, don’t take people for granted, and ensure that you don’t let others take you for granted either. Make a habit of telling the one you love that you love them – every day.
Attention is the ability to concentrate and focus. It enables us to selectively focus on a task, even when being distracted.
The head and the heart
Attention can be given a powerful and immediate injection through regular exercise. A healthy level of cardiovascular fitness has been clinically proven to increase function in the attentional network of the brain. Therefore, walking or running to work, hitting the gym, or even making sure that you always take the stairs will make a vital contribution to keeping you sharper and more energised for longer.
Talk less, listen more
The best leaders are intuitive listeners; they spend more time listening and learning than they do talking. Task yourself with the daily challenge of talking less and listening more to your colleagues, family and friends. It will boost your attention, improve your communication, and help you to better read situations and understand what is sometimes – crucially – not being said or heard.
Keiron Sparrowhawk is founder and chief executive of MyCognition