Ways to make your brain function better

The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin, a book teeming with insights about simple adjustments we can make in our daily routines to improve our productivity.As technologies improve and our focus becomes increasingly fragmented by our proliferating gadgets, the challenge, whether we’re studying for the CAT or trying to complete a project at work, is how we can be productive and still have enough time and energy to enjoy some semblance of a personal life.

1) Sleep

First, Levitin emphasizes the importance of sleep. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our instinct is to work more and sleep less – we feel as though we need more waking hours to complete whatever tasks we have to perform. The problem with this approach is that sleep deprivation causes us to be significantly less effective and productive, so much so that the additional time we gain is more than offset by the diminished performance that results from a sleep-debt.

Go to bed at the same time each night (preferably an hour earlier than you’re accustomed to) and wake up at the same time each morning. If it isn’t possible to sleep more at night, a nap as short as 15 minutes can serve the same refreshing function. Napping has been shown to reduce our risk of developing a host of medical conditions, and the beneficial effects are so striking that many companies have designated nap rooms filled with cots.

2) Stop Multi-Tasking

Next, Levitin discusses the cognitive impact of multi-tasking. We all know that it isn’t a great idea to try to study while texting or answering emails, etc., but what’s striking is that the impact of allowing other activities to siphon our attention is actually quantifiable. Glenn Wilson, a British researcher from Gresham College, conducted a study in which he found that when participants were informed that they had an unread email in their inbox, their effective IQ decreased by 10 points. Moreover, he documented that the cognitive-blunting effects of multi-tasking are more pronounced than the effects of smoking marijuana.

Other studies have revealed that task-switching, in general, heightens the brain’s glucose demands and amplifies anxiety, and the resulting discomfort ratchets up the desire to find some kind of distraction, such as, checking email again. Experts recommend designating two or three blocks of time a day for responding to email, and beyond that, strictly forbidding yourself to check for new messages.

A more ingenious idea comes from Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor. Lessig recommends declaring email bankruptcy, which would involve composing an automatic reply that informs whoever has contacted you that if this email requires an immediate response, they should call you, and if not, they should resend the email in a week if they haven’t heard from you. This technique will allow you greater latitude in structuring your day in terms of when you respond to emails, and will, hopefully, negate the multi-tasking concerns that lead to the aforementioned IQ drop. And when you’re studying for the GMAT, have a strict policy of not checking your phone or opening a new browser window.

3) Don’t Procrastinate

Last, and perhaps most importantly, the book addresses the problem of procrastination. Procrastination is a universal problem and likely results from the basic architecture of the human brain, wired as it is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Jake Eberts, a Harvard MBA and successful film producer, offers a bit of very simple but compelling advice: just get in the habit of always doing the most unpleasant thing on your agenda first. There is evidence that our willpower is gradually depleted throughout the day, so it’s best to tackle the most dreaded elements of our to-do list first thing in the morning.

Takeaway: Here are three very easy things you can do, starting today, if you’re having difficulty finding the time/energy to study:

1) First, sleep more. If that means a 15-minute midday nap, so be it – you will gain in productivity far more than you lose in time sacrificed.

2) Second, declare email bankruptcy and put away your phone. Multi-tasking produces a scientifically documented brain drain.

3) Last, do the most unpleasant thing first. Whether that unpleasant thing is 25 Data Sufficiency questions, or some work-related activity, your resilience will be greatest first thing in the morning, so that’s the time to tackle the task you want to do least.