How to Improve Memory- Best 50 ways
Most people would like to have a better memory, but you'll already find lots of tips and techniques online to help you with that. What this hack is about is giving you better memories. In this i will show you 50 best ways to improve your memory.
Change Your Memories
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Marcel Proust
By that, I don't mean giving you the tools to help you remember better. It's about making the memories you have, better. Memories are so subjective. Two people can remember the same event completely differently.
If we all remembered an event in exactly the same way, there would certainly be far fewer disagreements. We truly believe how we remember an event is how it happened.
Imagine you've just written a post online and you get 20 comments. Even if 19 are really positive and only one is negative, our natural tendency is to focus on the negative one. It's why so many actors don't read reviews, because even if most of the reviews are great, it's that one negative comment that they'll keep going over in their head.
In the same way, negative memories will eat away at us. Of course, you can't get rid of memories, but how you think about them can go some way from turning a negative memory into, at the very least, a neutral memory.
Memories aren't set in stone: every time we call up a memory it changes slightly. When you remember something, your brain is “rewiring” the connections between the neurons.
Literally changing the structure of your brain. When you recall a memory you are recreating, changing and re-memorizing. The memory is subject to change every time you remember it.
Strong negative memories can create strong fears and affect your attitudes and behavior. For instance, the example of forgetting what you were going to say in front of everyone at school could create strong fears of public speaking later on in your life.
By actively thinking about the memory and trying to associate a different emotion with it, you'll reduce the negative emotion associated with it and so reduce the fear it creates.
When we learn something, chemicals in the brain strengthen the synapses that connect the neurons. Long-term memories, built from new proteins, change those synaptic networks constantly. So inevitably, some grow weaker and others, as they absorb new information, grow more powerful.
It's not the 100 billion neurons in your head that are changing all the time; it's the connections between them – the neural pathways. Imagine these as real pathways across a field.
Accentuate the Positive
Now let's look at the other side of the coin, positive memories. In Brain, we're not very good at accepting praise and we certainly don't feel we should wallow in it. That would be egotistical and narcissistic. But that is exactly what you should do.
The reason for spending time focusing on praise is that we need time for it to embed in our long-term memories. Then, when something happens to knock our confidence, we have positive memories of our ability to give us a boost again.
It actually takes a few hours for new experiences to complete the biochemical and electrical process that transforms them from short-term to long-term memories.
This doesn't mean you have to think about something for a couple of hours to turn it into a memory but just focus on it for a little while so you feel confident it's joining the line for processing.
Stay with that feeling of pride in a job well done and give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back. You can't always control what others think of you, but you do have some control over what you think of yourself.
Exercise More to Make Your Brain Run better
“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” Steven Wright
If you asked most people how to get a fitter, healthier brain they'd probably talk about doing brain training exercises or Sudoku. But it's actually just as important to make your brain physically healthy, as it is about giving it mental stimulation.
Twenty minutes of vigorous activity on three or more days a week, or 30 minutes of moderate activity on five or more days a week, will reduce your chances of getting Alzheimer's by around 20%.
Even in the short-term, it can have a huge effect on how your brain functions.
You know that feeling at the end of a really busy stressful day when your brain feels “fried”. Well, that's because it is fried. The stress hormone cortisol is released to keep you in a state of heightened alertness. It keeps your blood sugar and blood pressure up to help you escape from danger.
In the short-term, it's meant to help you deal with life-threatening situations. Getting that document finished by the end of the day is hardly life-threatening, but unfortunately, you can't tell your body that.
It's called the “fight or flight” mechanism and that's why exercise is so good at countering it. You don't need to imagine you're being chased by a saber-toothed tiger (although it might help you run a bit faster); just the act of running will help reduce the cortisol in your body. Even a brisk stroll will have a similar beneficial effect.
Most people believe it's the more cerebral activities like reading, studying and discussing that improve our minds. But as well as reducing stress, exercise has actually been proved to increase the production of grey matter in the brain.
How do you prove this when there are so many factors to be taken into account when measuring an increase in cognitive performance?
Simple really: identical twins.
It's like those old soap powder comparison ads.
“We took these two identical twins, made one sit in a chair, watch TV and eat crisps all day and make the other eat only raw vegetables and spend the whole day in the gym.”
Well, that's the principle, but not something that's very practical if you want to see the effect of years of difference.
Let Your Body Do the Talking
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.” Peter Drucker
Everyone's aware that your non-verbal communication has an effect on how others view you. But what's just as important is the effect it has on you.
The Fake Smile
No one likes a fake smile, but it's better than no smile at all. Frowning, grimacing, and other negative facial expressions send signals to your brain that whatever you are doing is difficult or unpleasant. This leads to your body releasing cortisol in response, which in turn raises your stress levels.
So if you make yourself smile (it doesn't have to be a full-on cheesy grin), you'll feel less stressed and with the added bonus, it'll make people around you less stressed too.
Be More Determined – Cross Your Arms
If you're in someone's company and you cross your arms, they may perceive you as being defensive. But if you cross your arms when you're on your own, it can have the powerful effect of making you more determined. When you've got a difficult problem to solve, holding your arms tightly against your chest will unconsciously help you stick at it.
Stand Like Superman, Be Like Superman
It turns out all that positive psychology we often make fun of, actually does work. That doesn't mean that the next time you've got an important meeting, you should pre-empt it by standing in front of the bathroom mirror, roaring and shouting, “I'm a tiger”.
But the next time you've got an important meeting, interview or public speaking engagement, try power posing.
Find somewhere private and spend two minutes standing tall with your hands on your hips like Superman or Wonder Woman. You can also vary it by holding your arms out like you're addressing a crowd or holding your arms towards the sky. It seems hard to believe, but this will dramatically increase your level of confidence.
I think you'll agree, those are pretty good stats for just two minutes spent posing in private.
Practice With Purpose
“Don't practice until you get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong.”
I'm sure you're aware of the 10,000-hour theory made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he argues that to become truly great at anything you need to spend at least 10,000 hours doing it.
But it doesn't mean that just because you spend 10,000 hours doing something, you're going to become great at it. Obviously, you do need to spend time working at it, but it's how you spend that time that really counts.
It shouldn't be practice makes perfect, it should be the right practice makes perfect.
If you do the same thing over and over again, once you get past a certain level you're not going to be learning anything new.
Do you want to learn to ride a bike, or do you want to learn how to do a wheelie?
“It shouldn't be practice makes perfect, it should be the right practice makes perfect.”
“Deliberate practice” is about pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, but it's also about learning from it.
Music is another area, where how you practice is vital. The difference between a good violinist and a great one is the quality and concentration of the time they spend practicing, not the length. In fact, it was found that the elite musicians actually practiced less, slept more and were less stressed.
Just doing the same thing over and over again, isn't going to create fresh neural pathways in the brain. It's the intensity and focus that hacks the brain into learning and remembering new things.
When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they're good at. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven't yet mastered.
Elite musicians don't:
Go through their music without concentration.
Repeat skills they have already mastered.
Allow themselves to repeat or “get by” with mistakes, so that these become ingrained in their muscle memory.
Their aim is to reach a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in:
Being very focused.
Analyzing what they've done after getting feedback and how they can do it better.
Repeating areas of weakness and making constant refinements.
Whether it's in the arts, sports or business, “deliberate practice” will have the strongest effect on your brain and therefore have the strongest effect on your future ability.
“Deliberate practice will have the strongest effect on your brain.”
Make a Done List
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” Zig Ziglar
Before you read this, I want you to leaf through your work diary.
Is there anything inspiring in there? Were you impressed by how much you've achieved?
I know when I look through old work diaries, all I find are lists of meetings and to-do lists.
Even on your phone or laptop, there are endless productivity apps enticing you in to make to-do lists in new and different ways.
The trouble with to-do lists, is I don't think they make us any more productive. I don't think they excite and stimulate our minds to want to get things done.
Usually, we don't finish them anyway, which immediately has a negative effect.
Now I'm not saying we should do away with to-do lists. We all need reminders of what we've got to do. What I'm saying is, they serve a useful purpose of reminding us of things we need to do, but they're not actually going to make us more productive. What you need is a done list.
Seeing what you've actually achieved will spur you on. Of course, you may look back and think how little you have achieved, but hopefully, this will also spur you on even more.
One of the dangers of to-do lists is we think we're being productive because we're ticking things off a list. But how many of those things you're ticking off are things you truly value? The benefit of a done list, as you only put things on it that are of value to you.
So how do you decide what is of value and is worthy of putting on your list? Well, for starters you don't want to put everything on it, for example, “Called Debra in accounts” or “Had a meeting with marketing”, otherwise it just becomes a completed to-do list.
A good rule of thumb is only put things on it that at the end of the year you'd look back at and be proud of.
One of the big differences between a done list, as opposed to a to-do list, is the positive effect it has on your brain.
A to-do list gets the things you have to do out of your head and onto paper. It unclutters your brain. The trouble is, how often do you complete the list? I find I do half of it and then the rest gets transferred to the next day's list.
A long to-do list means: “we've got a lot to do” – it doesn't mean we do a lot.
Unconsciously it changes from a to-do list into a “what you haven't done list” and creates more stress and anxiety.
“To-do lists are about goals, a done list is about achievements.”
A done list of things you have achieved creates positive associations and creates new connections in your brain making you feel more positive about yourself.
Of course, the danger is to think that you feel you can only put big achievements on there, but this couldn't be further from the truth. If this is the year that you decide to run a marathon, don't just make an entry on the actual day you ran a marathon, put in an entry for how long you ran on each day you trained leading up to it.
Don't Get Stressed
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” David Mamet, Boston Marriage
When you hear the phrase “performance-enhancing drugs”, you probably start thinking about the darker side of the top-level sport. But the fact is we're all affected by them.
Whether it's having to give a speech, organizing a big event or meeting a certain deadline, you need a boost.
You want focused performance energy, but you don't want the worry – the performance anxiety. The trouble is, your adrenal gland can't tell the difference between you needing the energy at work, to you worrying about it at night.
The cortisol tap gets turned on and left on and that's when you get all those negative effects that are associated with stress.
One of the problems is that we call it stress. The word “stress” has so many negative connotations, that when we tell ourselves we're stressed, it's just going to make it worse. Take the term “performance energy” – it sounds like a good thing doesn't it? Well, stress is just performance energy that's outstayed its welcome.
So the first thing is to forget about stress and think instead of how to control your performance energy and make it work for you.
Turn Performance Anxiety into Performance Energy
To start with, we often spend too much time thinking and not enough time planning and doing. The danger is that the time we spend thinking leads to self-critical thoughts, which leads to stress, which leads to a big hit of cortisol and the next thing you know you're bent over double, breathing into a paper bag.
If you've got a project to finish, don't worry about whether you're going to finish it or not, just get to work on it. If you've got a speech or presentation to make, don't imagine how it's going to go, just write down what you're going to say and practice it. Keep focusing on what you're going to say and not the event itself.
If you are starting to get nervous, practicing what you're going to say gives your performance energy somewhere to go.
“We often spend too much time thinking and not enough time planning and doing.”
If you ever see a stand-up comedian perform on different nights, you'll be amazed at how similar the performances are. All those moments that felt improvised and spontaneous are often written.
They've sweated over every single word. Now I'm not saying you have to go to those lengths but being well prepared will make you feel more confident and help you relax.
Of course, there will inevitably be times when self-critical thoughts will creep into your head and you'll start feeling anxious.
If this happens it's good to have a few tricks up your sleeve. It's all about giving you confidence and helping you feel relaxed in the lead up to whatever upcoming event you're getting stressed about.
Keep practicing and not thinking. Then when the time comes, you'll have the focus of performance energy and not the stress of performance anxiety.
Make Fewer Decisions
“An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgments simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore." Edward De Bono
Every time we have to make a decision, it is resolved in the courtroom of our brains. Sights, sounds and other sensory evidence are registered by the sensory circuits. Then various neurons act like the “jury”, collating and weighing up each piece of evidence. Finally a decision is made.
And as we normally have to make thousands of decisions each day, it's not surprising that we often feel mentally drained by the end of it. This is just one of the reasons why it's so important to get a good night's sleep, as it has the effect of completely recharging our brains.
The fact that every choice you make is going to use up a little bit of your energy is why a lot of successful people reduce the number of daily decisions they have to make.
In a recent online Q&A session with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, there was one question quite a few people had on their minds: why does he always wear a dark grey T-shirt?
It's not a question that's on his mind of course, because he's decided not to think about what he wears every day. Zuckerberg said, “I'm not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.”
“A lot of successful people reduce the number of daily decisions they have to make.”
He's not the only one. Barack Obama is almost always seen in grey or blue suits. He says, “I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Steve Jobs was famous for his black crew neck jumpers, jeans, and trainers. He once even tried to get Apple staff to wear a type of uniform, but the idea didn't go down very well. clothes anyone?
And it's not just men who have taken up this move to sartorial simplification. For the past three years, New York art director Matilda Kahl has been wearing the same outfit to work every single day.
She said she was tired of running late in the morning, re-evaluating her outfits, and stressing about whether her clothes were appropriate for different events or meetings at her advertising agency. For someone in the creative field who has to make a lot of decisions throughout the day, she longed for one less choice to make.
After a couple of days of searching, she found the perfect work uniform and bought 15 versions of the same white silk top as well as six pairs of black trousers.
Of course, the problem is not just about the number of decisions we have to make, but also the number of options we have to choose from in each decision. There's no denying having a choice is a good thing, but there can be such a thing as too much choice.
The other negative linked with more choice is that it increases your expectations. When you've had so many options to choose from, you expect the one you've chosen to be perfect. When it's not, this leads to more dissatisfaction than if you'd had less choice in the first place.
“Too much choice can just be too overwhelming, so we end up just not making a choice at all.”
This basically means that if you want to save your brainpower for important decisions or creative problem solving, limit what you have to think about every morning.
Narrow down your choice of clothes, get up at the same time, have the same morning routine. Your brain's at its sharpest in the morning, so don't pull it by humming and hawing over which cereal to have for breakfast.
While choice reduction can be really helpful, you shouldn't be too strict with yourself. When you're not so busy and at the weekends, making choices will actually become more enjoyable.
Even after her “office uniform” experiment, Matilda Kahl says she still likes choosing what to wear on weekends and weeknights. “Nowadays, I never have to rush through the process of putting together an outfit, so the whole experience has become a lot more enjoyable.
It has really made me more appreciative of the clothes I own – they feel more special now when I don't wear them every day.”
Whether you decide to have a very strict routine or not, what's most important is that you're in control of choosing when you have a choice.
Count the Days, Minutes and Hours
“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” William Penn
Why is it so hard to keep New Year's resolutions?
It's not to do with our goals being unachievable, it's because we call them “New Year resolutions”. If we called them “New Day resolutions” or even “New Month resolutions”, we'd be far more likely to keep to them.
The reason for this is that the smaller the unit of time a task is expressed in, the closer it seems and so the more likely you are to start working on it.
For instance, if you have a project deadline of three months, it's better to express it as ninety days. Or if you have something you need to complete in three days, think of your deadline as 72 hours away.
It's all about a task being more urgent and needing our attention. If you had a resolution that in the next year you'll get fit, it's far more likely that you'll be successful if you say that you're going to get fit in the next 365 days.
If it's expressed in days, you might even add some action like go for a run to your daily to-do list, which you're unlikely to do if the goal's expressed as a year.
Look on the Bright Side
“Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right.” Henry Ford
The classic question to find out whether you're a pessimist or an optimist is whether you think your glass is half empty or half full. Saying half empty and therefore being seen a pessimist would be regarded as the more negative of the two. But a characteristic most people would regard as negative doesn't have to be seen that way.
If you can find the silver lining, you can turn a negative into a positive and a pessimist into a realist.
Alexandra Wesnousky of New York University found in a study that more than 90% of people are inclined to see some sort of positive attribute associated with a typically negative trait.
She then decided to find out if seeing the positive in a negative might actually be beneficial.
“If you can find the silver lining, you can turn a negative into a positive and a pessimist into a realist.”
The participants in the test took an impulsiveness survey. Afterward, some participants were told they'd scored very high on the test, suggesting they were impulsive individuals, while others were told they'd scored very low.
Next, the researchers led some of the test participants to believe that impulsivity had a silver lining of making you more creative. These participants read a fake news article that cited scientific evidence to support the impulsive-creative connection. Other participants, meanwhile, read a fake news article refuting that link.
Finally, the test participants all completed an “alternative uses” task. A standard measure of creativity that asks people to list novel uses for common household items.
The results showed participants in the group who were told they were impulsive and who read about its “silver lining” scored higher on the creativity test than those who didn't. So in a nutshell, telling people they were impulsive and that being impulsive was connected with being more creative, actually had the effect of making people more creative.
Of course, this isn't really a hack you can do on yourself, but you could use it to help colleagues find the positive in a negative.
Shortcuts to help your brain become better at solving problems
“It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem.” G.K. Chesterton
When we've got a problem to solve, our mind's tendency is to fixate on the common use of an object or its parts.
Tease Your Brain
This unconscious cognitive bias that we have to fight is what makes brainteasers hard. To put it to the test, here are a few for you to see if you can beat your cognitive bias at its own game.
1. A woman and her daughter walk into a restaurant. A man walks past and both women say “Hello father”. How is this possible?
2. A man stands on one side of a river, his dog on the other. The man calls his dog. The dog immediately crosses the river without getting wet and without using a bridge or boat. How did the dog do it?
3. Two boxers are in a match scheduled for 12 rounds. One of the boxers gets knocked out after only six rounds, yet no man throws a punch. How is this possible?
4. A man turns off the light in his bedroom. The light switch is on the other side of the room from his bed, but he still manages to get into his bed before it is dark. How does he do it?
1. The man was a priest.
2. The river was frozen.
3. Both the boxers were women.
4. He goes to bed when there is still daylight.
We're making assumptions without even realizing that we're doing it.
So the next time you've got a problem to solve, try to boil it down to its purest form. Then try one of these techniques to help you come up with unbiased solutions.
Just try typing your newly simplified problem into Google and you might find it gives you some interesting starting points in areas you'd never have expected.
Keep Asking Why
“Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Don't come to me with questions, come to me with solutions.” Not the words of some impatient boss, but of your own mind. On second thoughts then, they are the words of an impatient boss.
Our brain has a lot on its plate, so it wants to solve problems quickly and get on to the next thing.
It was different when we were young. Our brains were full of questions it needed the answers to. We ask about 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. Four being our most inquisitive age when we ask about three hundred questions per day.
But these were questions we needed answers to in order to understand the world around us. Once children get older their questioning starts to tail off. A lot of people lay the blame on a school system that seems to value answers more than questions. I'm sure that's part of it, but I also think we don't need the answers as much.
From an evolutionary point of view, our brains need just enough information to keep us safe and be able to function successfully in society. The answers to any other questions are just an added luxury. But if you want to be a great problem solver, you need to cultivate a truly questioning mind.
“If you want to be a great problem solver, you need to cultivate a truly questioning mind.”
You need that natural curiosity of a four-year-old, but you want to be asking the questions that have never been asked before. Take Isaac Newton; he didn't have a to-do list, he had a why list. It's the struggle to work things out that creates a great mind, not just having the answers.
I don't think we can just blame schools and society for making us less inquisitive. We need to create our own desire for how and why things happen.
In fact, if you look at Darwin's notebooks, you will see that he already had the information he needed to come up with his theory of evolution. He had all the jigsaw pieces; he just needed time to put them together.
Why, oh why, oh why?
Millions of people have been on walks in the countryside with their dogs and had to pick burrs out of their dogs' fur afterward. But how many would have wondered why the burrs kept their stickiness.
It took the questioning mind of George de Mestral to ponder it and then put one of the burrs under a microscope and see hundreds of “hooks” that caught on anything with a loop, like curly hairs of a dog's coat.
He then took this discovery and used it as the basis of his invention Velcro. But having this questioning nature isn't just about discovering new ideas; it's also a way of questioning something that already exists, that isn't working.
Be More Sarcastic
“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.” Oscar Wilde
The trouble with the quote above is, that it's only part of the quote. What Oscar Wilde actually said was, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.” And as a pretty sarcastic man himself, I think maybe the first part of the quote was meant sarcastically.
But for me, the interesting part of the quote is that it's “the highest form of intelligence”, because understanding sarcasm actually requires many processes in the brain.
Understanding sarcasm requires comprehending contradictory statements, for example, “Don't work too hard” said to someone who is clearly resting. This puts the brain into abstract thinking mode, and the researchers said that there are decades of work to show that abstract thinking increases creativity.
“We have shown that creativity is enhanced following all types of sarcasm, from sarcastic anger and criticism to sarcastic compliments and banter,” the researchers said. “All forms of sarcastic exchanges, not just sarcastic anger or criticism, seem to exercise the brain more.”
Health and Safety
The trouble is sarcasm is often used to convey thinly disguised disapproval, contempt, and scorn. Even if it makes you more creative, these aren't very productive and helpful emotions to have at work.
If it's amongst work colleagues and friends with whom you have a good relationship, then it's a healthy way to put your brain into abstract thinking mode and make you more creative. But if it's contemptuous or angry sarcasm, the negative emotions it creates outweigh the creative benefits.
Here are a few examples:
Boss to Employee:
“Good news, you're going to have to work this weekend.”
“We're really behind with the project, would you be able to work at the weekend?”
“Of course, I'd be happy to, I didn't really want to see any of my friends anyway.”
One colleague to another:
“Congratulations, I hear you've got the opportunity to be at work all weekend. I'm really happy for you.”
Using sarcasm to purposely make people feel uncomfortable is definitely the lowest form of wit. Using sarcasm to tell a colleague in an unpatronizing way that you understand their plight, knowing that it'll also make you both more creative, is the highest form of intelligence.
“Very often, gleams of light come in a few minutes' sleeplessnesses, in a second perhaps; you must fix them. To entrust them to the relaxed brain is like writing on water; there is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.”
Have you had that feeling of having a great idea and then not being able to remember it later in the day? It's incredibly frustrating. The idea that was going to make you millions, save the world, inspire a nation…is gone.
Our thought process is very fluid and our thoughts often ephemeral. So don't leave it for even ten minutes, write it down! It may not seem as elegant as it did in your head. It may not be fully formed. Don't worry; just make a note of it.
“Don't leave it for even ten minutes, write it down!”
Whenever Woody Allen has an idea, he writes it down on a piece of paper and puts it in a drawer in his bedside table. When he's finished one film and it's time to write another, he takes all the scraps of paper from the drawer and spreads them out on his bed. He then goes through them one by one and sees if any of them spark anything off.
They can be as simple as one line. This is one of them: “A man inherits all the magic tricks of a great magician.” As he looks at each one he thinks if there's anything about it that inspires him. If there's nothing, he puts it back in the drawer and moves on to the next one.
I think what's interesting is that if he doesn't find an idea inspiring he doesn't chuck it out; he puts it back in the drawer. Six months or a year later he could have read something or have seen something that would suddenly make one of the ideas that he previously rejected, spring to life.
That's why it's so important to keep a record of your thoughts. You don't know when the other pieces of the jigsaw are going to turn up.
“You don't know when the other pieces of the jigsaw are going to turn up”
One of the other benefits of writing things down is you're not just making a record of it on paper, but also in your long-term memory, the mind's filing system. Once firmly lodged in your mind, your unconscious can start working on developing the idea.
Even just reading an online article still creates more cognitive load than reading it in print. There are the distractions of links on the same page as well as the ones in the article. Even if you don't click on the links in the article, you have still had to make the choice not to click on it and that in itself is distracting.
So how do you remember all the interesting things you read online? The obvious thing is just to bookmark the page. The trouble is, we get into the habit of just reading the title and then bookmarking the page to read later, which, of course, we never end up doing.
So if you really want the best way to retain information from the Internet you should write it down. Obviously, this requires a lot of work. If you haven't got time for this, cut and paste whatever you find of interest online into your own digital commonplace book.
If you don't keep digital clippings, the interesting stories you read will be bundled in with everything else you're bombarded with online and will be thrown out by your overloaded temporary memory. Surf and turf!
So wherever or whenever, if you have a thought or an idea, give that little spark a chance of greatness and write it down.
“Give that little spark a chance of greatness and write it down.”
Notice Your Mistakes
“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” George Bernard Shaw
How do you feel when you get an email that has a spelling mistake in it?
I know when I get one, I feel like the person sending me the email has written it in a rush. It makes me think they don't see it as important because they haven't checked it through properly.
The thing is, I know I send emails with mistakes in them as well. The problem isn't always that we haven't checked it through, it's that we can't see the mistakes.
The trouble is when we're proofreading our own work, we have to compete with the version that's already in our heads. So however hard we try, we read for meaning, so we end up not seeing our mistakes. When there's a problem with the meaning our brain will pick up on it, but if it's just a misspelled word, it's a lot harder.
Obviously, whoever reads what you've written has the same unconscious patterning, which is why the previous exercises work for everybody. But the big benefit they have is that they are reading it for the first time, trying to discover its meaning – they don't have a version of it in their heads as you do.
So that's your first port of call: get someone else to read it before you send it off. This is fine for a document or blog, but you can't ask someone to read every email you send.
“When there's a problem with the meaning, our brain will pick up on it, but if it's just a misspell word it's a lot harder.”
When you're proofreading your own work, the secret is to make yourself as unfamiliar with your work as possible. Try changing the color of the type and the typeface itself.
Even making the type smaller than normal, or much bigger. The whole point is not to make it an easy read for yourself, and in that way, you're more likely to notice small mistakes.
Write by Hand
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” Henry David Thoreau
When you take notes by hand you can't write everything down. This means you have to think about the “essence” of what's being said.
Writing by hand actually uses more of the brain, as you need to make several strokes for each letter. Your working memory gets activated, as well as brain areas used for thinking and language. On a keyboard, one tap creates an entire letter, so your relationship with making the letter is shorter and more superficial.
The more areas of the brain that are firing, the stronger connection is between the content of what you're writing and your brain; therefore the more you'll be able to remember later on.
Now you might argue that surely it's better to take more comprehensive typewritten notes at a meeting, conference or lecture and then review and distill them at your leisure. But research has proved otherwise.
The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard
Research by Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA has shown that students who write their notes on paper actually learn more.
Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half to write out their notes by hand.
As expected, the students who used laptops took more notes, but in each study, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding of the subject they'd listened to.
They were also found to be more successful in applying and integrating the material compared to those who took notes with their laptops.
Even when the students were given the chance to study their notes for a test a week later, those who took longhand notes still outperformed laptop note takers.
And to prove it's better to take handwritten notes whatever the subject, the lectures covered a varied range of topics from faith, respiration, and economics, to algorithms, bread, and bats.
So if you are ever in need of information about the lesser dog-faced fruit bat, there will be a Princeton student who writes notes by hand who will be able to help you.
When you type notes you are writing down what is being said. When you are handwriting notes you are re-writing. It forces the brain to engage more and therefore creates a stronger memory of the subject matter.
Because longhand notes contain your own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (individual facts).
The other huge benefit of taking handwritten notes is that you can't be distracted by the lure of the Internet. It has been found that students using laptops spend as much as 40% of their time using applications unrelated to their coursework.
Just because something's faster, it doesn't necessarily mean it's better. As with all things brain-related, the more you engage it, the better the results.
Run a Brain Marathon
“A collection of a hundred Great Brains makes one big fathead.” Carl Jung
There are lots of problems with brainstorms, but the main one is they don't go on for long enough.
They usually stop when people have run out of ideas and you get those embarrassing silences. But those embarrassing silences are when your unconscious starts engaging on the problem and is a vital part to coming up with great ideas.
“There are lots of problems with brainstorms, but the main one is they don't go on for long enough.”
The fact is, brainstorms do have a useful part to play in solving problems. They can be very useful at the start and the end of the process. The trouble is a lot of the time they're used as the only part of the process.
Here are some of the problems with a brainstorm:
The more extrovert characters often dominate the session.
Early ideas tend to have a disproportionate influence over the direction the whole session takes.
You listen and focus on other people's ideas and don't spend time thinking about your own. When we hear someone else's solution, it's like a magnet and it pulls our focus towards it.
After the idea generation process, the decision makers often tend to choose the moderately creative over the highly creative ideas.
Some of these problems can be solved by a technique called brainwriting. This is where people either write their ideas down before or at the start of the session. They then stick them all up on the wall anonymously.
This is definitely a way to improve brainstorms. But the decision makers can still use the session to pick a solution to the problem, rather than using the ideas as starting points for further thought.
Too many people in a group can also be a problem. When you get embarrassing silences with a group of fifteen people you wrap up the session. But when there are two, three or four of you, you can ride the silence.
Sometimes these creative teams involve more than two people as in American TV's “writers rooms”. But what all these creative team sessions have in common is what brainstorms don't: time, a trusting environment, a lack of ego and drive to keep working on the problem.
They said that if you feel like you're going to be criticized for something you say, then you're not going to say it. It's really important to be in an environment where you would feel comfortable saying the stupidest of things because often good ideas would arise from these.
I think the brainstorm has become the dominant model for problem-solving in business because it's easy and quick. You get everyone together for an hour, throw ideas around and then the boss picks his favorite. You know at the end of the hour you'll have some solutions to your problem and you can give it a big tick and move on.
“Instead of trying to negate what another person says, you should try and build on it.”
But it's unlikely that the brainstorm has created the best solution. If you genuinely want good ideas, borrow the model from creative teams whose job it is to come up with ideas on a daily basis.
After all, if you want to know how to grow flowers, you wouldn't ask a florist, you'd ask a gardener.
If you want to get good ideas you've got to work at it. It can be fun and it can be frustrating, but you've got to put in the hours.
“If you want to get good ideas you've got to work at it.” So here's the model I would suggest instead of the brainstorm.
Think, think, think
Get people into small teams of two, three or four and then allocate a decent block of time for them to work on the problem. The very minimum should be a whole morning or afternoon.
If you can get out of the office, that's even better. “Lots of the best ideas occur when camaraderie and chemistry have built up between employees, and breaks from the office together – even for just a day – can make all the difference,” says Richard Branson.
After an initial outpouring of ideas, you'll find yourself drying up. This is the stage when brainstorms usually stop. But don't think it's any reflection on your thinking abilities.
It happens to all creative thinkers. That point when you get stuck and feel like you're not getting anywhere, that's when you're hacking your brain and getting your unconscious and its huge processing power involved. What's important is to stay together and don't drift back to your desks to check emails.
Once you've spent the morning working on a problem, have a break from it and then get back together for an hour at the end of the day to review your ideas.
This is when you need to narrow down your ideas and pick your favorites. Instead of your boss picking from a long list in a brainstorm, you get to narrow down the choice to a shortlist. The benefit of this is you get to argue out amongst yourselves the benefit of one idea over another and in doing so create a solid argument for each idea.
Brainstorms might come in a convenient half hour and hour time slots, but ideas don't. So if you're really serious about finding a solution to a problem, give the brain marathon a try.
Do Something Different
“If all you own is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Abraham Maslow
If asked whether it is better to have more knowledge of a subject than less, most people's natural inclination would be to say more. It's why we have the phrase “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. The implication being, with a little knowledge you can be misled into thinking you're an expert on a subject.
But knowledge is often just other people's ideas and is often seen as set in stone. If you want to look at something in a fresh way you need to break away from existing ideas on a subject.
I think that's why Einstein tweaked it to: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”
It's no surprise then that Einstein himself had what was called his “miracle year” (or his miracle “three and a half months” to be more precise), when he was just twenty-six.
In that time, he wrote three papers, one of which won him the Nobel prize, one that confirmed beyond doubt the existence and size of atoms, and another that introduced the mind, space and time-bending concept of special relativity.
I went over and had a look and it simply said, “The Americans should get up really early.” When I asked which ideas people thought had potential no one mentioned this one. It was seen as a joke. I'm sure even the person who wrote it didn't expect it to be considered seriously.
We're so set in thinking of things in a certain way. It's why, when a simple new idea comes along you often hear, “That's so obvious; why hasn't anyone thought of that before?” They haven't thought of it before because everyone is so fixed in their thinking.
By changing your focus the ordinary can become extraordinary again.
But don't feel you have to wait till you get outside the office. Dr. Ritter says, “Start a brainstorming session with something unexpected and you'll find that it is easier for participants to think outside the box.” If you want your neurons to make new connections, you need to connect with the world in a new way.
“If you want your neurons to make new connections, you need to connect with the world in a new way.”
Don't Try to Have Good Ideas
“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.” Émile Chartier
The first rule of having good ideas: Don't try to have good ideas.
What's important is just to have ideas. When you have an idea you don't know how good it is. It can only be judged when you have more ideas to compare it to.
Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin said “Someone asked me where I get all my good ideas, explaining that it takes him a month or two to come up with one and I seem to have more than that. I asked him how many bad ideas he has every month. He paused and said, ‘None'.”
When there's pressure to think of a “great” idea, you start judging your ideas before you've even written them down.
“The first rule of having good ideas: Don't try to have good ideas.”
American advertising legend George Lois said that he told everyone in his department to come up with a great idea for a client. He came back in an hour and nobody had any ideas at all. So he said, “Okay, come up with twenty ideas.” He came back in an hour and everyone had twenty ideas. Some were good and some were bad, but they'd all managed to get twenty ideas.
Don't Fall in Love
What's just as bad as being too judgemental is not being judgemental enough. You have an idea and you fall head over heels in love with it and you stop thinking. It might be a great idea, but it's probably not.
It's usually the ideas that you have after sweating over the problem for a bit, which are the best. Try not to get too fixated on one idea. Just write it down and carry on thinking.
Feed the Mind
As you write down each idea, it's not just being recorded on paper; it's also being etched into your brain. And it's not just that you're memorizing that particular idea, you're also creating material for further ideas.
Einstein talked about ideas coming from “combinatory play” and Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” So the more thoughts you have about a problem, the more interesting the combination of ideas you can have.
The writer James Altucher came up with the concept of increasing your idea muscle by coming up with ten ideas a day. Each day he picks a different subject. It could be anything “Ten businesses I can start”, “Ten ways to give me more free time”, “Ten ways to make my daily commute more interesting”.
The important thing is to force yourself to come up with ten. As he says, the first three will be fairly easy, but the last few can be like squeezing blood out of a stone.
I think it's a great idea and would thoroughly recommend it. Again with this exercise, it's not about the quality, it's about the quantity. But by freeing yourself from the pressure of having to have good ideas, you will find that by having lots of ideas you will naturally start having interesting ideas.
“By having lots of ideas you will naturally start having interesting ideas.”
Think Like a Child
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso
We're always being told if we want to be creative we need to think like a child. Well, now there's scientific proof to back it up. Simply by imagining yourself as a free-thinking imaginative seven-year-old, it can make you more creative.
“To be really open in our thinking, we need to be restricted.”
To be really open in our thinking, we need to be restricted. If you can really get a roomful of adults to think like seven-year-olds, you'll have a group of people who aren't worried who had what idea, or what the boss thinks.
And most importantly you'll have a roomful of people who want to be creators and not critics.
“When you are going good, stop writing.” Ernest Hemingway
When it comes to writing or creating anything, people always talk about the fear of the blank sheet of paper.
But it's not really a fear of paper unless you've got Papyrophobia and then it is.
It's the fear of a blank mind.
But there's an easy way to hack your way out of having a blank mind.
When you sit down to work on a project, don't finish.
Say, for example, you're writing a long work document, the natural inclination would be to stop where you find a natural ending: at the end of a thought or, at the very least, the end of a paragraph.
You're dotting the I's and crossing the t's and leaving it neat and tidy for tomorrow. But the trouble is, putting your project to bed like this also puts your mind to sleep and that's the last thing you want.
The project might only be halfway through, but to your mind, it's done and dusted. The next day when you come back to it, you really are starting afresh.
“When you sit down to work on a project, don't finish.”
You need to re-engage your mind into the project and this can be hard. You can't really grasp that thought that seemed so clear the night before.
And then because it's not coming easily, you start to feel blocked and negative emotions start arising about your own ability. You get distracted by emails and then when you come back to it later, getting into it again seems an even more daunting task.
Well, Ernest Hemingway had an answer to this problem. When he stopped writing he didn't leave it at a natural neat ending point of a chapter or even a paragraph. He wanted to leave his writing with a sharp jagged edge so it couldn't be ignored. So he would always stop mid-sentence.
This is what he said about the practice: “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
Firstly and most obviously, by stopping when you know what you want to write next, makes it a lot easier to start again the next day.
But more importantly, you're engaging your brain and tying it to the project. The brain doesn't like unfinished business, so by stopping mid-sentence, you're keeping it involved. That's what Hemingway meant when he said, “you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.” Your mind is actually desperate to get back to working on it.
Take Part in Name Calling
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their own names.” Chinese Proverb
“You need to get in touch with your emotions” is a phrase you hear a lot these days, in relation to growing as a person.
But do you need to get in touch with them?
There are lots of emotions I don't want to get in touch with: intimidated, scared, insecure, lonely, unhappy, angry, upset, sad, patronized, humiliated … I could go on about the appointment with my doctor, but I won't.
The fact is there are a lot of emotions that can have quite an overpowering effect on us. But our emotions are there to help us. We need our feelings to signal to us about the dangers and opportunities that we face from within and without. But when our emotions get too strong they just take over and we can't function properly.
But there is a simple technique that can really help to diffuse negative emotions. Name them. I don't mean give each emotion its own pet name: “This is my insecurity, but I call it ‘Norman'”. No, what I mean is when you feel an overpowering emotion, just say the name of it.
Obviously, if you're in the company of someone you say it in your head, but if you're alone, saying it out loud can give it more authority. For instance, if someone says they don't like what you're wearing, you might say “humiliated”, or if someone cuts you up when you're driving, you might say “angry”.
Labeling their feelings shifted them from an emotional state to a thinking state. Suddenly your mind is changing its focus from the emotion “anger” to the word “anger”.
Of course, your feelings won't disappear, and you don't want them to. They play an important role in helping us understand and cope with people, situations and experiences. But just naming the feeling can help soothe negative emotions and stop us responding impulsively, drowning in negative feelings, or becoming aggressive in a counter-productive way.
“Just naming the feeling can help soothe negative emotions.”
Sanda Dolcos at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dolores Albarracin at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of experiments on the subject.
“When you give yourself motivational speeches in your head, it will lead to better performance if you use ‘you' rather than ‘I'.”
In the first experiment, they had 95 undergraduates imagine they were a character in a sketch, and that character was facing a choice.
They were asked to write down the advice they would give themselves in making this choice, and half were told to use “I” in their instructions while the other half were told to use “you.”
Time to Talk It Out
Have you ever found yourself walking down the aisles in a supermarket, looking for a particular item and then muttering the name of the product at the same time? Well, whatever the other shoppers thought of you, you were actually using a very helpful cognitive tool.
Past research has shown that self-directed speech can help guide behaviors for children, such as tying shoelaces or other step-by-step tasks. But Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley from the University of Wisconsin have found the same can be true for adults.
As long as you know what an object looks like, if you say its name out loud, you can speed up the process of finding it. In one experiment, volunteers were shown 20 pictures of various objects and asked to look for a specific one, such as a banana.
In half of the trials, participants were asked to repeatedly say what they were looking for out loud to themselves; in the others, they were asked to remain silent.
The researchers found self-directed speech helped people find objects more quickly by about a tenth of a second, which might not sound like much, but it is when you see it as a percentage of the average time it took participants to find an item, which was 1.2 to 2 seconds.
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Albert Einstein
You walk into an Apple store and it's uncluttered and beautifully laid out. In the same way, Apple products are about clean lines and simple design. So it would be fairly safe to assume Steve Jobs' desk would have been a perfect example of Zen minimalism.
Wrong, it was a complete tip.
Other famous exemplars of the messy desk are Einstein, Mark Twain, Alexander Fleming, Mark Zuckerberg, and Alan Turing.
All in very different fields, but all very creative thinkers.
The question is, were their desks messy because they were creative, or were they creative because they had messy desks?
Was the real reason that one of Fleming's Petri dishes got mold all over it and so helped him invent penicillin because it got lost under a pile of junk on his desk?
Unlikely. And of course, there's more to being creative than just having a messy desk. But research led by Kathleen Vohs,1 a professor at the University of Minnesota, has found that you do actually get a creativity boost when you work in a messy space.
“You do actually get a creativity boost when you work in a messy space.”
Our brains are very impressionable, so the unconscious cues of disorder in the messy room make us think “messy”. This disorderly thinking is an ideal state to be in when trying to come up with innovative and unexpected ideas. Maybe it's an argument for moving away from the current trend of minimal open plan offices.
The moment of insight and how to turn ideas into innovations
“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow
I'm sitting at my computer trying to write about a creative block but I don't know how to start. This isn't the first line I've written; I've started and deleted a few already.
I've got background material about being blocked and I've got various ideas of my own that I want to write about, but it's still hard getting started.
The important thing is just to get started and not worry too much about what you're going to write or whether it's going to be any good. You're probably going to have to do some more work on it anyway.
“The important thing is just to get started and not worry too much.”
Whatever field you're in, you just need to get started and don't let self-doubt get a foothold in your mind. The artist Chuck Close said this: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
And Tchaikovsky said, “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”
Creating anything is hard, but just because it's a struggle, it doesn't mean you're blocked. “Just because it's a struggle, it doesn't mean you're blocked.”
One of the ways to fight the feeling of being blocked is to think about what you've achieved previously. Say you make a commitment to yourself to write a weekly blog. Once you've written one and it was okay, you will be able to do another one.
The trouble is all this self-doubt starts to come in before you even start to write the second one. You begin to think you won't know what to write about.
But rather than think about it, give yourself an hour and sit down and try to work out what you can write about. Write any ideas down even if they seem rubbish. If you do get stuck, read. Read books, magazines or online articles. You're not trying to steal ideas; you're looking for a fire starter.
The most important thing is to stick at the task for an hour. Even if at the end of the hour you feel like you've got nothing, that hour will have been invaluable; you will have fed your unconscious and ideas will come later on.
Blocked Not Block
One of the worst and most damaging things is calling it writer's, or creative, block. If it is a “block” it makes it a thing; it gives it power. Really, it is about feeling blocked and it is something you need to work through.
Also, by calling your mental struggle creative block, it lets you off the hook. It's not about you: it's about the block. It's something that stands in your way like a huge wall. But it's not. It's not a thing and it's not a condition, it's all in your mind and you just have to work through it.
A Walk Around the Block
Feeling blocked can feel very different depending on what stage you are in your project.
At the start
At the start, it's about looking for an idea. It's always better to sit down with an idea, and then you don't have to fear the blank sheet of paper and can get started straight away.
If you follow Brainhack 25 “Take Notes”, then you should always have a good list of ideas to work on. It also helps if your ideas have been maturing in your head for a little while. It's much easier when the ideas are fighting to get out rather than you having to go in search for them.
Once you've got an idea you need to just dive into getting it down on paper and don't worry about the quality of the writing. If you start writing straight away you'll engage the mind much quicker and it'll get easier and easier as the minute's pass.
The trouble is, if you spend too much time just sitting there staring at the blank piece of paper/screen, your mind will get restless and procrastination will take over. You've got emails to read, pencils to sharpen. If you let your mind distract you from writing, it'll just be harder the next time you try to start writing again.
In the middle
You've got to the middle of whatever project you're doing and you don't know where to go. It's like walking through a forest and suddenly finding yourself back where you were five minutes ago. It can be very dispiriting. The thing is you should be proud of how far you have managed to come.
You will find an answer – you just need to keep thinking and not get too stressed. You need to think about the problem for a while, but then take a break and keep it on the back burner. If your unconscious can see that your conscious mind is really desperate for a solution, it'll put its full processing power behind solving it.
The thing with being blocked is it's all mental. If you fear it, you give it power. You'll feel totally lost and dispirited. Have faith and keep gently persevering and embrace being blocked. Because when your unconscious offers up a solution, it will have been worth waiting for.
When I've been writing these blogs, I'll often move on to a new one before I've finished a previous one. I'll then come back to the first one a day later and it's suddenly a lot clearer about what I need to do to finish it.
The main thing to remember is: feeling blocked is all in the mind. If you're about to start something, just dive in and don't give your thoughts room to start to play mind games with you. If you're in the middle and feeling blocked, don't get stressed. Just keep thinking about the problem and your unconscious will eventually come to your rescue.
Think Like Goldilocks
“Creativity comes from conscious facts planted in the unconscious and allowed to germinate.” Bertrand Russell
The unconscious mind plays a very important role in coming up with ideas. But you need to create the right conditions for this to happen. And this brain-hack is all about how you create those conditions.
There are no guarantee ideas will pop up from your unconscious, but it's like planting a seed; if you plant it in a sunny spot in good soil and give it plenty of water, you've given it the best chance to grow.
One of the most common misconceptions is that “creative” people have these “light bulb moments” that just pop into their heads as if from nowhere. But no one has great ideas without thinking about a problem for a long time.
It only seems to come out of nowhere because it comes from your unconscious. They never just appear without a lot of hard work.
John Lennon spent five hours trying to write a song “that was meaningful and good”. Finally, he gave up and lay down. “Then Nowhere Man came, words and music, the whole damn thing, as I lay down…So letting it go is what the whole game is.”
“No one has great ideas without thinking about a problem for a long time.”
If you work hard on a problem and are passionate about finding a solution, your unconscious mind will then deem it worthy of putting its processing power behind it.
But one of the side effects of working hard on something is that you're likely to get to a place where you feel you can't think of any more ideas. This is often when people feel either blocked or start to feel self-doubt.
But this is when you need to follow “Goldilocks” thinking – neither too hard nor too soft. If your unconscious is to be allowed to do its stuff, you want to avoid the two extremes: on the one hand getting too stressed and on the other hand totally zoning out and doing something mindless, such as watching TV or checking up on Facebook.
You just need to keep the problem simmering away on the back burner. As John Cleese said, “This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: if you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”
It often helps to stop thinking about the problem altogether as Hilary Mantel said in her “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” in The Guardian: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk.
Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space.”
When the breakthrough or insight you've been looking for does come, it's accompanied by a surge of energy. This isn't just mental, it's actually physical.
When J.K. Rowling described getting the idea for her first book for adults she said, “I had a totally physical response you get to an idea that you know will work. It's a rush of adrenaline; it's chemical. I had it with Harry Potter and I had it with this.”
“When the breakthrough or insight you've been looking for does come, it's accompanied by a surge of energy. This isn't just mental, it's actually physical.”
Scientists have found that the moment of creative insight is actually accompanied by a spike in brainwaves called gamma waves, the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain.
But what's just as interesting, is what happens before the moment of insight. There is a surge of alpha waves at the back of the head. Now alpha waves are associated with closing areas of the brain down and the back of the brain mainly deals with visual processing. At least half the brain's power is normally devoted directly or indirectly to vision.
As well as the part of the brain involved in visual processing closing down, there is a distinct change in the frontal lobes, which are the main areas of consciousness in the brain. They were almost going into sleep mode, which neuropsychologist, Rex Jung, calls “transient hypofrontality”.
Your brain wants to concentrate fully on the moment of insight, so it reduces both the amount of visual information that is processed and how much conscious thinking goes on.
It's as if at that moment you go into a sort of “creative trance”. It's why if you ever see someone at the point when they have an idea, they look down or stare into space or if they're on a walk, they'll suddenly stop when the idea occurs to them.
Of course, if you haven't experienced one of these “light bulb moments”, this may all seem a bit alien to you. But are you sure you haven't?
Have you ever been doing a crossword puzzle and found yourself stuck on a particular crossword clue? You keep thinking about it, but it just won't come. Finally, you give up.
You stop thinking about it and move on to another clue, or go to make a cup of tea. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, the answer to the clue you were stuck on just pops into your head.
When Archimedes had his famous moment of insight, he jumped out of his bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting “Eureka”. He hadn't just got the answer to seven across, but it's the same mental process that was at work.
It's no surprise then, that in Ancient Greece they didn't actually believe individuals were creative. The Greeks believed that the muses were real. To them, they were goddesses who were considered the source of all knowledge, which were then invoked by the writer or artist.
And take the word “genius”. It actually comes from Ancient Rome and doesn't refer to a gifted individual, but a guiding spirit. The achievements of exceptional people were seen as an indication of the presence of a particularly powerful “genius”.
In fact, it was only during the Renaissance in the 14th century that creativity was first seen as the ability of a gifted “individual”.
Think When You're Tired
“There is a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy……where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these ‘fancies' only when I am upon the very brink of sleep . . .” Edgar Allan Poe
Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Whichever you are, you probably think the most productive time would be the morning if you're an early bird or the end of the day if you're a night owl. Well, yes and no. It depends what type of work you're doing.
If it were analytical work that requires a focused brain, you'd be right. But if it's more of a creative problem and requires more lateral thinking, you're at your best when you're not at your best.
If you're tired, your brain is not so good at focusing on a task or filtering out distractions. Your mind will wander more and therefore you'll be far more likely to create new connections and come up with unexpected
This idea of being most creative when we're tired is taken a step further where people try to tap into the state between wakefulness and sleep. This transitional state between sleeping and waking up is called the hypnopompic state. The hypnagogic state is the experience of the transitional state from being awake to go to sleep.
Two of the most famous proponents of this were Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison. Not the most expected of bedfellows, but in their own fields, they were both driven in pushing the boundaries. They found the transitional state just before falling asleep to be highly conducive to radical ideas.
Edison would take a catnap in a chair, holding steel balls in his hands. As he drifted off to sleep, his grip would relax and the balls would drop, waking him up. He said his mind was flooded with images and more often than not he'd have a new idea to research.
But you don't need to go to these lengths, to experience this state between sleep and wakefulness. Try setting your alarm half an hour before you have to get up. Then when the alarm goes off, try not to fall back to sleep and try to doze. If you do fall asleep, you've always got the snooze alarm to wake you up.
Being half asleep is a great state for your mind to wander and for unconscious thoughts to bubble up; but the fact that your mind is so unfocused makes it a lot harder to remember the thoughts you have. So make sure you've got a pen and paper or your phone by your bed, so you can record any ideas you have.
Just Say It
“Examine what is said and not who speaks.” Arab proverb
Have you ever had the experience of explaining a problem to someone and before they even say anything, something clicks and you realize what the solution is? Communicating your problem out loud is actually a very powerful tool that can often help you understand what's needed without the person you're talking to saying anything.
The Nodding Teddy Bear
A few of the benefits of verbalizing your problem are that it:
1. Makes it clearer
By stating your problem out loud you are forced to mentally organize all the information you have regarding the problem. It also separates the problem from any emotional mental chatter about your ability, deadlines, the anxiety of possible failure, etc.
2. Simplifies the problem
Assume the person you are explaining the problem to has little or no knowledge of the subject. This forces you to think about what the essence of the problem is and makes you explain it as simply and clearly as possible.
3. Helps you think about the problem, not the solution
Instead of spending all your energy focusing on what the solution is, you can focus purely on the problem. This takes the pressure away from looking for an answer. It can also help you in accessing different or overlooked information.
4. Uses more of your brain
Saying the problem out loud engages many more areas of the brain than merely thinking about it. This creates more chances of new connections being made. That's why it also works so much better than just imagining you're telling someone about the problem.
I know “Rubber Ducking” sounds like some terrible new form of torture, but really it's just an inanimate version of the nodding teddy bear. Instead of telling your problem to a person, tell it to a rubber duck.
The concept is popular in the software development industry and is sometimes known as “rubber duck debugging”. You have a rubber duck beside your computer and when you have a problem you can't solve you explain it to your rubber duck. And talking to a rubber duck really does have its benefits:
Rubber ducks don't:
Say they're too busy and ask you to come back later.
Interrupt you at a vital point and make you lose your flow.
Have meetings to go to.
But if you find the idea of talking to a rubber duck too embarrassing, you can always email it. Write the problem down in an email to the duck or to someone you know. Even though you're not going to send it, visualizing them reading it will help you to explain the problem as clearly and as simply as possible.
Talking someone – or something – through your problem can often be enough to help you find an answer. And whether it means talking to a nodding teddy bear or a rubber duck, it's a lot less embarrassing than telling your boss you can't crack it.
“Talking someone – or something – through your problem can often be enough to help you find an answer.”
Give It the Overnight Test
“Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning?”
Alexander Graham Bell
I've already talked about the negative effects of not getting a good night's sleep in Brainhack 23 (Sleep Well), but what about the positive effects of getting a good night's sleep?
One of the most important things is that it's YOU sleeping. What I mean is your prefrontal cortex, the center of what makes you, you. That your personality, your decisions, your social controls – is asleep. The night is when your unconscious really does have free rein. It can do its work without interference.
Obviously, part of this is making sense of the day's events and filing them away in long-term memory. But also, if there are any problems on your mind, your unconscious will work on those. A problem can seem insurmountable when you go to bed, but then when you wake up, it doesn't seem so daunting.
“If there are any problems on your mind, your unconscious will work on those.”
Here's the part of Alexander Graham Bell's quote that precedes the one at the top of the page: “I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it.
At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results.”
If your unconscious is aware that your conscious mind has been working hard on a problem, come the night, it will put its full processing power behind it. But as with the “lightbulb moment” in the day, your conscious mind needs to have been working hard on the problem and you need to passionately require an answer to get your unconscious to work on it.
It's like the classic children's fairytale, The Elves, and the Shoemaker, where the penniless shoemaker lays out his last piece of cloth and in the night the elves come and turn it into a beautiful pair of shoes.
Sometimes the solution to a problem, or at least the direction you need to take, will be revealed to you in the morning. Sometimes even in your dreams. Either way, always make sure you make a note of any thoughts you have as soon as you wake up, otherwise they may fade away.
If you can remember your dreams, then you can see the unconscious at work. And our dreams, even though we have no control over them, are very good at solving our problems. This is because when we're dreaming our minds are in the REM state, which has been found to be highly conducive to fluid reasoning and flexible thought.
Researchers tested participants' ability to solve anagrams when they were woken from REM (dream) sleep, compared with when they were woken from normal sleep. When people were woken from REM sleep, they proved 32% better at solving anagrams. for example
When Larry Page was a 22-year-old graduate student at Stanford he was struck in the middle of the night with a vision. In it, he somehow managed to download the entire Web and by examining the links between the pages he saw the world's information in an entirely new way.
What Page wrote down that night became the basis for an algorithm. He called it PageRank and used it to power a new Web search engine called BackRub. PageRank was a success, the name BackRub wasn't.
Again, these ideas didn't come out of anywhere. All three had been desperate to find solutions to their problems.
“What you're supposed to do when you don't like a thing is change it. If you can't change it, change the way you think about it. Don't complain.” Maya Angelou
Everyone likes a bit of a moan, especially in Britain. We don't like to complain, but we like to moan.
We moan as a way of letting off steam when we've had a confrontation at work, someone's been rude or we've got angry about bad service or being treated unfairly. But moaning can also unite us.
It's an ice-breaker, a way of creating a bond with someone you don't know. Say you get in a taxi; you can immediately start a conversation by moaning about the weather or the traffic.
The thing is, we see it more as a way of letting off steam than as negative energy. If someone told you about a person who was extremely negative, you probably wouldn't be that keen to meet that person.
You'd think their negativity would just bring you down. But when we “have a bit of a moan”, we don't really see it as being particularly negative, more of just a need to chat about something that's been bugging you.
But unfortunately, even just the smallest of moans is still a negative thought. It may feel like you're just getting something off your chest, but you're sending it straight to your brain.
Because when we moan it creates the stress hormone, cortisol. And cortisol has a bad effect on the hippocampus, which is highly sensitive to negative stimuli. “Even just the smallest of moans is still a negative thought.”
Don't Moan. Complain
One thing you actually can do is to complain instead of moan. Complaining is a positive action and is much more likely to get a gripe out of your system.
Say, for example, your train was delayed for the third day in a row. By calling up the train company or writing them an email, you've acted, and just by doing this, your annoyance at it will subside. If you moan about it, it doesn't make your annoyance subside, if anything it adds fuel to the fire.
You can actually feel the difference between complaining and moaning. Take the training scenario for instance. First, try to imagine you're talking on the phone to someone from customer service at the train company and imagine the conversation you would have.
Okay, now try imagining you haven't complained, but you're moaning to a friend at work about the terrible train service.
How To Complain
So to get the problem off your chest it's best to complain about it, but it's important to know the right way to complain. If you don't, when you're unsuccessful, it'll just give you something extra to moan about – and that's the last thing you want.
Dr Winch says complaining the right way may not only create a solution; it can curb anxiety and improve relationships. He offers these seven tips:
A complaint should have a purpose
Before you share your woes, have a specific goal in mind.
The more you think about what you want to achieve, the more rational and level-headed you'll be.
It makes it easier for the person dealing with your complaint. If you don't know what you want, the other person may not know how to resolve the situation.
“Identifying a purpose is most important when complaining to a spouse, friend, or colleague,” says Dr Winch, “because this is when you're likely to take the least amount of time preparing. Don't voice dissatisfaction until you're clear about why you're upset and what you want.”
Start with a positive statement
Before you launch into the problem, set the stage for a positive outcome. Even customer service professionals will get defensive if you start out in anger. “A complaint is an accusation,” says Dr. Winch. “It's natural to get defensive, but you want to deliver your complaint in a way that motivates the other person to help.”
State something positive, such as the fact that you've been a loyal customer or that you share a common goal. This makes the person less defensive and more likely to listen to what you say next.
Deliver a lean complaint
“If the problem has been going on for a while, don't go into each and every detail,” says Winch. Instead, talk about the most recent incident. Stick to the facts as much as possible and hold back on emotions.
End with another positive statement
Finish your complaint by ending on a high note. Tell the person if the problem is resolved, then it will improve your relationship. Or simply say something like, “I would really appreciate your help.”
Dr Winch says wrapping your complaint between two positive statements builds a complaint sandwich that's easier to swallow: “When you add in the positives, you're more likely to get the result you want.
The person will find you much more pleasant to deal with, and they'll be more motivated to use their resources to help you than if they feel abused because you were having a go at them.”
Consider your listener
If you are complaining to a company, remember the person you're talking to probably didn't make the product or the company policies.
“A complaint is a request for help and when we ask for help, we ask nicely,” says Winch. “This can be tricky because we are not motivated to be nice when we are most annoyed.”
If you can't control your emotions, then at least acknowledge them. “Tell them, ‘I'm sorry if I sound annoyed; it's not you,'” says Winch. “Let them know it's not personal. They will appreciate that.”
Use social media properly
Complaining about social media can be effective because many companies monitor their accounts. “If you complain on Twitter or Facebook, you're likely to get a helpful response if you provide enough information for them to contact you,” says Dr. Winch.
“If your flight was canceled, for example, you might get immediate results by posting your problem on Twitter rather than standing in line with everyone else for 45 minutes.”
“Get” Your “But” Into Gear
You can't complain about everything, but you can stop yourself moaning about it. Here are two tips that might help. Imagine you've got a boring document to write:
1. “But-Positive” – If you find yourself moaning “I've got this really boring document to write” add but on the end with a positive thought: “I've got this really boring document to write, but at least once I've done it, I won't have it hanging over me.
2. Change “have to” to “get to” – You change a moaning voice, that implies whatever it is you have no choice in the matter, to a more empowered voice. Change “I can't come out to lunch I have to write this boring document” to “I can't come out to lunch, because if I get to write this boring document now, then it's out of the way.”
To Sleep, Perchance to Solve a Problem
There is a way to help your unconscious work for you: set it a challenge. It might sound silly, but it does work.
If you engage your mind in a task just before you go to sleep – if not solved it will certainly seem a lot clearer in the morning. Say, for instance, you are unhappy in your job and don't know whether to leave or not.
When you think about it in the day, your conscious mind is beset with different opinions and emotions on the subject. It's like sitting around a table with twenty friends debating the subject. They all genuinely want to help, but all the different opinions just make it all a bit overwhelming.
If you set the problem for your unconscious to work on, it has got access to all the facts and relevant information and can calmly work through it.
1. First, before you go to bed, spend thirty minutes thinking in a relaxed way about the problem or issue.
2. Then when you get into bed, actually write down the problem and ask the question out loud to your unconscious. Also give it a deadline. Too much pressure creates stress; you don't want to be lying awake thinking about the problem.
That will just be the problem going round and round in your conscious mind and won't be helping at all. But a little bit of gentle pressure can help, so set a time that you want the answer for.
Using the example I mentioned earlier, say out loud and write down: “I am unhappy in my job and want to know what I should do. I would like an answer by 7:00 in the morning when I wake up.”
3. When you wake up write down any immediate thoughts or insightful dreams you can remember. But don't worry if the answer doesn't seem obvious. Have a shower, which again can be a very productive place for unconscious ideas to bubble up.
4. Next make yourself a tea or coffee and sit down in a comfortable chair with a pen and a pad of paper. Now for half an hour just write. Don't think too much about what you're writing, or if it makes any sense. Just get your thoughts down on paper.
5. After you've read back what you've written, let the council of your conscious mind debate it. You really will be surprised how much clearer things are after a good night's sleep.
Plan a Pre-Mortem
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Winston Churchill
There's a lot of talks these days about failing. Failing's good. Fail and fail fast. The idea, obviously, is that it's better to make mistakes early on and learn from them. But why not learn before you make the mistakes?
That's the idea behind the pre-mortem, created by Gary Klein, behavioral economist and psychologist, famous for his work in the field of naturalistic decision-making.
It's very simple really. You imagine a time in the future after your business/project/idea has been launched. And in this imaginary future, your idea has been a complete failure.
“Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the pre-mortem operates on the assumption that the ‘patient' has died.”
Now you're probably thinking: Isn't this very negative? Aren't all these business successes started by people who are really positive go-getters who believe nothing is impossible and failure is not an option?
Only 50% of businesses survive the first five years. So it's important to make your idea as good and as strong as it can be.
Again this exercise isn't just for big projects like starting a new business; it could just be a presentation to a client, or even on a personal level like packing for a family holiday.
In a way, how parents prepare for trips is a lot better than how many people launch their new projects in the business world.
You see, parents are worriers; they imagine the worst. “What happens if it rains all the time” (British-specific holiday), “What happens if the children get hurt?” or “What happens if they find the journey too long?”
“Projects that are a success are also the ones that don't have any little chinks in their armor.”
Whereas a lot of business people would want everyone to be pumped up and positive about a project, already thinking about how they can scale it; parents think about what could go wrong. And that's exactly the idea behind the pre-mortem. If you can imagine what could go wrong, you can fix it before it ever happens.
“If you can imagine what could go wrong, you can fix it before it ever happens.”
Now you might say, “Well, that's just planning, isn't it?” but it's actually a lot more effective than planning. When you're planning, you are imagining your project in the future, but you have a cognitive bias so you're imagining it as a success.
When you're imagining the future of your project, you naturally want it to succeed, so you think of it in a positive light.
The good thing with team members really pushing to find reasons why a project failed is they can discover quite obscure reasons that wouldn't have normally been thought about.
Here's an example that Gary Klein gives: In a session held at one Fortune 50–size company, an executive suggested that a billion-dollar environmental sustainability project had “failed” because interest waned when the CEO retired. Another pinned the failure on a dilution of the business case after a government agency revised its policies.
So how do you run a pre-mortem session?
1. Gather your team together and get them to imagine the project you've all been working so hard on, has been launched and has been a complete and utter failure.
2. Give everyone five minutes to write down any possible reason they can think of for this failure, especially the kinds of things they wouldn't normally mention for fear of being seen as overly negative or impolite.
3. Next, the session leader asks each member of the team to read one reason from his or her list. Everyone states a different reason until all of them have been recorded.
4. After the session, the project manager or core team reviews the list.
5. A further meeting is held to look at the most likely problem areas and discuss ways to strengthen and improve the project.
And don't just believe because you've been really successful in the past, you will carry on being. You should always put every project under the microscope. That's what Pixar does with each of their films and that's why they are so successful.
Don't be wise after the event – be wise before it!
Make a Story of It
We live through stories. Every time we meet someone, we start to make a story up about him or her in our minds. Storytelling is so ingrained in the human experience that personal stories and gossip make up 65% of the conversation.
When we hear a story, we immediately try to relate it to one of our existing experiences. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate a part of the brain called the insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust.
Because our brains are built for stories, they absorb them more readily than other kinds of information. Recent psychological studies suggest that people are more open to ideas when they're listening to stories than when they're listening to factual information.
Another reason we're so attached to stories is we remember information better through the story. Before the written word, huge amounts of information was passed down through generations by oral storytelling.
“Because our brains are built for stories, they absorb them more readily than other kinds of information.”
We don't just imagine stories: we experience them.
We don't just hear them: we feel them.
So if you've got an important message to get across to people that you want to resonate with them and be remembered, ditch the PowerPoint and tell a story.
Make a Better Impression
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Will Rogers
In a study of 130 diner restaurants, it was discovered that simply using high-quality cutlery, normally reserved for banquets, resulted in customers willing to pay 15% more for their food compared to people eating the same meal with lower quality utensils.
“It is likely that the positive or negative values that we attribute to the cutlery get implicitly ‘transferred' to our judgments of the food – a phenomenon that is often called ‘sensation transference',” said Charles Michel who led the research.
This same “sensation transference” is exactly why having a good firm handshake isn't an old-fashioned idea, but is actually something you will be unconsciously judged upon. Of course, for women, a firm handshake is not as important, but you could try knocking your coffee over.
“Making a mistake or being a little clumsy makes you more endearing.”
It seems making a mistake or being a little clumsy makes you more endearing. Perfection creates distance and gives off an unattractive air of invincibility. “Occasional mistakes are not only acceptable; they may turn out to be beneficial.”
Don't Get Labelled
“What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare
Wouldn't it be nice if we got a warning like this every time we were unconsciously influenced by things around us? That's the aim of this hack. It's not about how you control your brain, but how outside influences control it.
Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, but Words They Can Control You
Language and how it is used as a very powerful effect on us. I've often thought that when visiting websites, we more readily “accept cookies” because of the language used. Cookies collect data on the sites we use and also if you are buying something, your credit card details.
Until the Internet came along, the only association with the term “cookies” was biscuits – and who doesn't like biscuits?
People are also unconsciously more likely to choose a road to live on that starts with the same letter as their name starts with. People are even more likely to do a job that has some connection to their name.
Another unconscious way a name affects our actions is where your name comes in the alphabet. This harks back to our school days, where people with N–Z names habitually wait behind people with A–M names, so making them more impatient.
In my days it was surnamed and now it's Christian names, but the principle's the same. “People are even more likely to do a job that has some connection to their name.”
Think of a Colour
It may be nothing more than an association with big skies and the open sea, but seeing the color blue or working in a blue environment has been proved to make you more creative.
Juliet Zhu at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver compared the effects of red and blue on people's behavior. While red tended to sharpen the memories of her undergraduate volunteers, blue helped to unlock their imaginations.
For example, when they were given toy parts in either blue or red, the toys that the volunteers constructed in blue were rated as much more creative. Twelve judges saw greyscale versions of the designs and rated them in terms of practicality and appropriateness (reflecting attention to detail) and originality (representing a creative streak).
“Seeing the color blue or working in a blue environment has been proved to make you more creative.” The judges' verdicts were largely in agreement – toys built from red parts were deemed more practical and appropriate than those built from blue parts, but less novel or original.
I actually chose blue illustrations for this blog in the hope it would help stimulate your imagination and make you more engaged in the ideas in it. Not exactly brainwashing – more of a brain-rinse.
In the tests, however, red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31% compared to blue.
Of course, it also depends on the environment. In Glasgow, they wanted to make the city look more beautiful at night by installing blue lighting in prominent locations. Although it was never the intention, this blue light had a powerful effect of reducing crime in these areas.
They realized that the blue light, which is the same as the blue light from police cars, unconsciously made people feel that in those areas the police were watching them.
Don't Break the Chain
What's important is that you have achievable goals that you stick to. If you make your targets too hard, you either won't achieve them and feel you've failed, or you'll put them off for a day and then another day and before you know it, you've given up on the task completely.
Just try to do a little bit every day
If you're building a house, you can stand back at the end of each day and admire how much you've built that day. But the trouble with a lot of our tasks on a day-to-day basis is that there's no physical proof of what we've done.
That's the great thing with a done list, as in the example of Seinfeld's calendar, you can stand back and be proud of what you've achieved.
The thing with a done list is it can be about anything. What's important is that it's something of value to you. It could be steps towards starting your own business, it could be about how much weight you've lost, how much time you've spent reading a book;
If you're some high flying businessman or woman it could be about how much quality time you managed to spend with your family. As I say, it can be about anything, but it has to be something that you value.