Three Habits for a Healthy Brain

Because, synapses

Have you ever been in line for something and found yourself reaching for your phone? You realize that your email is all read, you don’t have the time to get back into that Kindle book, so you launch Facebook or Twitter. We all do it. The thing is, we are feeding ourselves with a semi-random flow of information that is pushed to us by one particular algorithm. What is the algorithm optimized for? Engagement, and another hit.

I started to build habits to help me.

Habit One: Separating Gardening from Consumption

If I start following lines in my feed, an hour can go by and I don’t even know where it went. I just kept tapping through links and coming back to my feed for more. How could I make sure that I am reading what I actually think will be useful from my feeds and network?

When I have the micro-moments I go into gardening mode. The rules of gardening are that I don’t stop to “eat”, but instead keep working on the garden. If there is something that looks interesting I send it to Pocket for later consumption. No reading allowed. You find that in this mode you get bored quicker and exhaust your feed. The end result is that you get back to the other tasks at hand.

At other scheduled times I go into consumption mode. This time, I open up Pocket and order my reading based on what I think is most interesting from the entire corpus. This all means that I read based on sort(content).by(mostInteresting).

Habit Two: Goal vs. Timing based learning

The first habit works well for saving me some time on the task of keeping up with what is happening with the world. It doesn’t help me actually reach my goals though. Do I want to wander down the path of knowledge randomly, or would I prefer to do some thinking about what I want to learn in life up front? These goals can change and should be revisited, but going through the exercise changes how you spend your time drastically.

It turns out that human civilization has produced quite a bit of fantastic content already! This new article on Medium may NOT be the most important piece of information for you today (hmm, why am I writing this then? ☺) . If new new content was ever created again, we would still have far more content that we could ever consume in our life times (until Ray is correct and we merge with the singularity!).

If I build a learning path out, then I can build up content that I want to consume that takes me along that path. I am pretty sure you will then end up spending more time on Khan Academy and less on Facebook.

For complex topics you will want to dedicate substantial time and structure. I am talking more about microlearning moments here, and there is room for goal based learning too.

I have become a True Believer in spaced repetition learning. It started with Duolingo, a perfect example of the approach. I have spent a few minutes every day learning Spanish and it works (well, at the very least it works at getting me good at doing Duolingo Spanish!).

The system is getting information into your brain, and when it falls out again it will automatically put it back. If there is a topic that you don’t quite grok you will find yourself quizzed on it more until it is firmly in place.

Since Duolingo gave me such good results with minimal time investment I decided to take this to other areas. I created modules with information across the spectrum of my interests.

Some examples are:

Humans are weird flawed animals. I believe it is vital that we understand our flaws and thus want to understand the cognitive biases that we tend to have. This doesn’t mean that I won’t fall for the same tricks on a daily basis, but it HAS come in handy a few times for: a) helping me make different choices when I do catch myself, b) tricking others (for good I promise!)

Health. I want to understand how certain systems work in my body and why I have made particular choices. This data set puts that information top of mind.

Work. What are the key KPIs and how are we doing? What anecdotes do I need to remember? Why were certain decisions made? This became a super power in situations when decisions were being made and the other side didn’t have the data but only have some stories.

People. Who do I want to remember and what do I want to remember about them. People in my life have a special project (don’t worry!)

It feels really good being able to basically prove what information is available in my head and keeping it there. What is amazing is that as I flush out the corpus the time commitment hasn’t scaled linearly at all. The brain is freaking amazing (even if flawed).

Doing this type of training doesn’t take time, and you can pick it up throughout the day. This makes it a perfect replacement for launching Facebook when in line!

Habit Three: 50 minutes, 10 minutes

It is hard to focus for long periods. Your brain and body need a break. I am trying to take that into account and use 10 minute breaks for several activities, such as:

  • Gardening (ideal if kinda fried)
  • SRS Study
  • Daily Push Ups (N+1 every week)
  • Elevate brain training
  • Meditation
  • Plank Challenge
  • Consumption Catch Up
  • Napping!

It gives you that little break and transition between meetings… er between tackling tasks!

I am excited to see where this all goes for me. I have already seen great benefits, and hope to see more as I tweak various elements. I definitely realize that “putting some piece of info in your brain so when you see X you can recall Y” doesn’t equal having the knowledge that will show up when you really need it.

I am also keen to see what can be done with my kids. I have created a “What I want my kids to know and be able to do before they leave the nest” list and want to see how I can flush that out.

I look at this and start to move my neck around :/

A lot of the learning that I want to do is very much offline and off device. It is great to get off of Facebook and onto something else, but how about not rushing to pull out me phone? Instead turn on Forest and move on

How do you handle those down time moments? Would you be interested in using that time for something else?

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