Ways to Kickstart Cognitive Function

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7 November 2022

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We’re all likely victims of a random work-day slump where even the smallest of tasks seems like the most impossible feat. It may manifest in any shape or form as any worry or feeling of unrest can put you in a mentally disassociated state where you find yourself making mistakes at work, forgetting to attach that document to the email, sending an email to the wrong person, forgetting deadlines, or just struggling to even read through to the end of an email. 

Smiling woman showing how to being productive.

As a lawyer, no two work days for me are the same, working in a professional environment which prides itself on quick turnarounds and meeting unrealistic client expectations. As a professional in a high stress environment who is constantly expected to meet tight deadlines, I sought out a way to optimise my focus and productivity. Particularly during those inevitable times where my cognitive function seems to decline.

Amassing the knowledge I’ve gained from various sources such as the New York Times, publishings from Harvard Health, and other reputable psychologists, here are my top 5 science backed lifestyle changes (tried and tested by me!) that will help you feel on your A-Game.

Do Some Physical Exercise

This may seem extremely obvious but you’ll be shocked at the amount of people who sit in front of a screen all day and barely move. 

I’ve put this as my first tip because this is, in my opinion, the most important lifestyle you can make to increase mental clarity and focus. 

Research over decades and decades has proved a direct correlation between cognitive power and physical exercise. 

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine have recently discovered significantly more evidence that physical activity is beneficial for brain health and keeps you in a constant feel-good state of mind due to the release of endorphins. Exercise promotes neurogenesis, which is the growth of new brain cells so that coupled with the fact that endorphins neutralise your anxiety and depression receptors will make you feel in a more stable state of play throughout your day. The same research has also proven that it prevents a rapid rate of cognitive decline and brain ageing, and protects you from developing neurodegenerative diseases. 

For me, I do a morning workout before work to feel alert and sharp, and after eating my lunch I’ll try to go for a 10-15 minute walk to stimulate movement and avoid a post-lunch work slump.

Improve Your Quality of Sleep

Now, I know this may also go without saying and seem counter-intuitive, but sleep is definitely a significantly overlooked factor of good health. 

Sleep is actually quite complex when broken down and consists of multiple cycles, but essentially it is the state in which our body is relaxed. While we sleep, our body is in a state of recovery. Our body temperatures decrease, our eye movements stop and our heart rates drop. Essentially, it is the time that repairs and refreshes us. 

The hours we spend asleep has a direct correlation to our mental efficiency, memory power, and the ability to think quickly and alertly. More than that, research from Brown University has actually shown that sleeping is a state in which our brain can consolidate information, and being asleep aids locking in what you may have learned earlier that day. 

Taking active steps to try to get between 7-9 hours of sleep a night and monitoring your sleep patterns are a great way to better understand how much sleep you’re actually getting. Ever since I’ve started tracking my sleep using my smart watch, I’ve realised a direct correlation between my nights with lesser sleep has had on my attention span, concentration and problem-solving abilities. 

Create a wind-down process that helps you get to sleep at a specific time and stick with this routine. It’s also important to avoid aimless scrolling on your phone which may keep you up far later.

Actively Procrastinate

Active procrastination is where you postpone a task or action in favour of another task which is also important and needs to be completed with a similar deadline. Not to be confused with chronic procrastination which is just putting off whatever you have to do with distraction, but active procrastination is actually just doing something else productive.

Research from the Journal of Social Psychology Volume 145, 2005 has also shown that active procrastination actually fuels creativity and that people who practice active procrastination actually have higher self efficacy, are less stressed and as a result do better quality work.  

Working a high stress job as a full time corporate lawyer, my fail-safe trick is to substitute in something else I need to do; I always start with my least favourite, knowing when I need a break, I can substitute it out to the task I’m more interested in. Switching in and out of a task is helpful because going back to something later with a set of fresh eyes can also help you think clearly.

Take a Tea Break

This doesn’t literally mean go make a tea, but it just means the duration of the break should be short enough that you can go get a snack or stretch your limbs but not long enough that you lose focus or your attention span. 
For me, when I hit a wall, the first thing I do is make myself a peppermint or green tea. Just getting up, walking to the kettle and making tea is a change in scenery and a breath of fresh air. Research from Cornell shows that taking purposeful and minimal breaks has a direct correlation to increasing both your energy and your productivity. Scrolling on social media is not a purposeful break! Other things that may constitute a purposeful break are taking a 5-10 minute walk, taking a shower, re-organising your workspace, getting a snack, or even just stretching.

Physically Move into a Different Space

Research from Psychology Today has shown that the brain picks up environmental cues and relates surroundings with a specific behaviour; you know what needs to happen in the toilet or the kitchen. Just like that, when you’re at work you can fall victim to the brain’s inherent knowledge and predictability. That’s why some days can just feel completely unproductive.

If I’m at work at my desk, I may move into one of the focus rooms or the quiet rooms when I feel my attention span faltering, or even into the kitchen. If I’m working from home I might move from my desk to the table downstairs, outside or even into a cafe close by. Known as the “coffee-shop effect” , research has proven that moving and changing up the location tricks your brain into thinking it is doing something different and I get a sudden burst of energy.

We fall victim to routine at times, which is why even having one day of working from home and the rest in the office can feel like breaking the cycles of predictability.

Hopefully these tips can help you feel like you’ve hit your peak productivity!

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