Be Awesome At A Moment's Notice: A Guide To Powering Up Your Brain

You're already awesome, but sometimes you get tired or you're just not at your best for some reason. You can manipulate your brain and body to rise to the challenge, however. Here's how to fool yourself into realising your full potential in a moment's notice.

Wouldn't it be great if you could absorb a power star or some sort of power-up when you need you don't have the energy to overcome an obstacle? It's an alluring idea, and it's not as impossible as you might think.

Look at it this way: your reasons for avoiding everything from work to exercise to social activity are all self-inflicted. We're subconsciously playing tricks on our brains to avoid doing work. In this post, we're going to look at the behaviours that cause common problems and reverse them to create solutions instead.

Work When You Want To Procrastinate

Because we're so bad at predicting the future and therefore almost unaware of the ramifications of our current actions, we're great at procrastinating. Even though you know you'll regret it later, you do it anyway because you can't (yet) feel the inevitable pain that's a direct result of your procrastination — poor work, unfinished work and compounded stress. Several methods help you beat procrastination, but nothing fools your mind more than emotion.

You procrastinate because you want immediate gratification. When pitted against a murky future that has no associated emotion, you're inclined to choose the happiness you can achieve right now. On top of that, delaying gratification just increased your desire. In order to make work a priority, it needs to feel more gratifying than hopping on Facebook or watching television. You accomplish this by explaining why you want to do something rather than simply knowing what needs to be done.

For example, tell yourself you want to do your laundry right now because your favourite shirt is dirty and you want to look your best tomorrow. Looking good matters to you because you have an important meeting and want to feel confident. When you consider the reasons behind an action you want to take, you inevitably unleash the emotions you've associated with it. This is often enough to convince you to get started, and getting started is everything.

What keeps you working is curiosity. (If you need proof, visit this page and see if you can win.) While laundry isn't going to inspire your sense of wonder, you can fool your brain when it comes to grander, less-tedious tasks. The key is providing your brain with cliffhangers. More specifically, don't stop working when you're done with a task — stop in the middle. Doing so keeps you thinking about where you'll go next. This not only elicits and eagerness to pick up your work where you left off, but will allow your mind to solve problems when you're not working. By turning procrastination's greatest asset against itself and remaining endlessly curious, you'll have little trouble working despite any distractions.

Socialise More Effectively

Nobody is born with a magnetic personality and impeccable social skills. Sometimes you're capable of charming the room, but sometimes you're tired and don't want to put in the effort. During those times, use a couple of simple tasks to push your brain and body to a more social place.

First, exercise is your best friend. It helps get you in the mood for a social situation because of the cognitive benefits it provides, such as am effect similar to antidepressants and lower levels of anxiety. This makes it easier to feel happy and less-inhibited when socialising. In fact, a lack of physical activity makes it harder to think, so you're not only gaining a greater social capacity but countering negative effects as well. The good news is that these basic benefits require very little work. Just 20 pushups or a brisk walk can do the trick (although a full routine is ideal).

But socialising is easier when you feel good, and exercise boosts your happiness through the production of chemicals called endorphins. While we don't know everything there is to know about endorphins, we do understand that they play a large role in inciting a pleasure response and blocking the transmission of pain signals. HowStuffWorks explains how physical activity causes this wonderful chemical reaction in your brain:

Exercise stimulates endorphin production as well, but for a different reason. You're probably familiar with the term "runner's high," which refers to the euphoric feeling one sometimes gets when exercising. Researchers have found that light-to-moderate weight training or cardiovascular exercise doesn't produce endorphins, only heavy weights or training that incorporates sprinting or other anaerobic exertion.

The obvious downside is that a tiny bit of exercise isn't going to give you many happy chemicals, so you'll need to work hard to gain that benefit. Nonetheless, exercise is good for you so you'll be improving your health while tricking your brain into feeling like a social butterfly.

In addition to exercise, priming your brain using neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) can put you in the right mindset. This involves reciting a given set of words that are designed to alter the way you're thinking. If this sounds dubious and like something you'd find in a fantasy novel, you're not the first person to think that. NLP is backed by Yale studies [PDF] and found its way into one of Malcolm Gladwell's books, The Tipping Point. There's no clear proof that this technique works, but I use it sparingly when I need to convince myself to do something. Perhaps it's the placebo effect taking root in my brain, but either way I'm able to motivate myself by attempting to shift my perspective with words. It doesn't take very much time to try, so give it a shot if you want or just stick to exercise if you don't like it.

So how does it work? You read a bunch of words (out loud) that are reminiscent of the way you want to feel. While the individual words have no specific value, together they have an associative value that can change your current perspective. In our case, we want a list of words you can recite to prime your brain for social activity. Here's an example:

smile, enjoy, see, together, go, good, free, shine

This list provides positive associations, but it's generic. You'll want to expand it to include other words that have the same effect for you personally. Priming your brain with your expanded list will help to put you in a better mindset for social activity. It's no magic trick, and a little recitation isn't going to instantly turn you into the life of a party, but it might alter the way you approach social situations for the better. Personally, I prefer to just talk myself into a social activity I don't feel up to — sort of like a self-pep talk. NLC isn't really that much different, but just fragmented and less-specific. Any type of talking to yourself may help or may feel like a waste of time. Either way, it only takes a few minutes to find out.

Make Exercise Easier

Many people aspire to health and fitness, but few are blessed with the desire to actually exercise. It's exhausting, hard work that requires a shower afterwards, making it a prime target for excuses. But just as your brain can figure out plenty of ways to keep you off of the treadmill, you can take measures to trick your brain into ignoring them.

As with everything, the key is to take an action to get you started because that will alert your brain that you are actually going to exercise. One of the simplest starting points is to consume a little caffeine. While the substance has numerous effects on your brain and body, in small amounts (30-70mg) it can help you ignore muscle fatigue. On top of that, being slightly more alert can help you muster the energy you need to get through that seemingly torturous workout. Tea is an ideal option as it also contains theobromine and theophylline, which can relax your muscles. Taking this small action gives you first step towards exercise and a slight edge when you do.

While getting started is the hardest part, staying motivated can be a challenge at times as well. A study conducted at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University found that you'll work harder when listening to uptempo music, meaning you need to get a good playlist in order. All the music you choose should have have a tempo in the range of 120 to 140 beats per minute (BPM). There are several ways to calculat the BPM of your songs, but you can save yourself the trouble by using Jog.fm. It's a clever tool that helps you discover uptempo, energizing music that will help keep you moving. A fast-paced playlist won't necessarily make your exercise feel easier, but it will trick your brain into pushing your body hard enough to complete your routine.

Use These Tricks Sparingly

Here's the unfortunate catch to this whole idea: If you use these tricks too frequently, they will start to fail you. Initially, you allow yourself to be fooled because you're hopeful and lured in by potential, but if these techniques become too familiar, you run the risk of reducing their efficacy. Moderation is key. You can help yourself out by using these tricks when you need them, but you'll waste a good thing if you use them too frequently. Think of these methods as a secret weapon and not as an everyday solution.

This post was illustrated by Dominick Rabrun. You can find his illustrations on his personal web site, or works in progress on his blog.


Comments

    *sigh* not NLP nonsense again...

    Firstly, there's *no* credible and systematic evidence base for the efficacy of NLP. This is not to say that it might not work in individual cases, but as a package, it's not proven (most authoritative sources say that it's solidly _discredited_) . Secondly, Bargh's theoretical and experimental psychological work on goals and self-regulation has very little to do with NLP delivered in its mass-marketed hyped-up forms. Fascinating work in its own right, but don't cite it in support of NLP.

    Having said that, sure, words and language do affect the way you think, feel and behave. That's the basis of evidence-based psychotherapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). We can learn, unlearn and relearn good and bad thinking patterns. We're flexible beings, but there's no magic bullet or instant cure. The placebo effect is also very real and powerful, so if you think that NLP helps you, then go for it. Just don't spend megabucks on the pointless pursuit of pseudoprogress. The scientific term for people like that is 'sucker'.

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