As a student and an entrepreneur, I tend to ask a lot of my mind. If you are a typical example of either of those things, I imagine you do the same. Whether you are cramming for test after test, or waiting on that next brilliant idea for a startup, your mind is very much responsible for your success.
There’s a lot of “fluff” out there about how you can supposedly “unlock your brain’s full potential.” Unfortunately, you are already using your whole brain, and there is no magic secret to becoming a genius. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t strategies for maximizing the effectiveness of your mental efforts. I think that learning how to think is one of the most valuable skills you can gain.
Over the past few years creating a startup, indextheapp.com (shameless self-promotion), I did a lot of digging around about this topic. After lots of research I came upon a few strategies that have become the cornerstones of how I get work done. I think these are skills that everyone should be aware of, as they have helped me tremendously during my school career.
1. The Mental Palace
Being able to memorize information is undoubtedly one the largest barriers when trying to learn new material. The mental palace technique (also known as the method of loci) is often used by those who compete in memory competitions. Practicing this can take you from having an average memory to being able to memorize an entire shuffled deck of playing cards with ease. In essence, this technique works by engaging areas of the brain that deal with visual, emotional, and spatial memory, not just phonological memory.
How to Do It
In your mind, imagine a location that you’re very familiar with, perhaps your home or workplace. In order to memorize something, you’re going to “place” it somewhere in this location. However, many things that you will want to memorize won’t always have such a clear image paired with it. This is where we will need to get creative. Here is an example that I often use when trying to explain this to people:
Let’s say that you’re trying to memorize the name Phineas Gage. For those of you who may not know who that is, he is a common case study example taught in psychology classes. He had an accident while working on a railroad, and was impaled in the head with a railroad spike. The interesting part to this story is that he lived. However, he had a lot of brain damage, which is what makes him such a great case study example. If I were to place this person in my mental palace, I might imagine the cartoon character “Phineas” from the cartoon “Phineas and Ferb.” Then, I would make that character have massive gages in his ears. Now I remember the name, so to finish it off, I’d put a massive spike through his head. I would take that image and place it on my front doorstep inside my mind. Now, whenever I take a walk back though my mental palace, I see that image and am immediately reminded of why the name Phineas Gage is important
This was just one example; the idea of using a mental palace is to create these absurd images for every piece of information that you need to remember and place them around your palace. I know that this doesn’t sound like much, but if you give this technique some time and practice, people will start to think you have a photographic memory due to your new ability to memorize information quickly, and store it accurately for a long time. I wish I could present this technique in a way that fully demonstrates its power. During my freshman year, on several accounts I would study for a test literally on the walk to my classroom using this technique. Not that I would advise doing that, but hopefully it demonstrates the effectiveness of this technique.
2. Flow States
Memorizing facts is great and all, but when it comes to learning new skills or practicing something, the mental palace doesn’t offer much use. If there was such a thing as “unlocking your brain’s full potential,” the flow state would be it. I’m sure you all have experienced a flow state at some point in your life, although you probably didn’t know what it was. In essence, a flow state is the feeling when everything becomes effortless – many times it’s described as being “in the zone.” It’s the feeling you get when you get a fantastic new idea, and all of your thoughts are just flowing and flowing and work stops feeling like work.
As I imagine a few of you may be interested in what is actually happening neurologically, I’ll take a moment to explain it. During a flow state, you experience something called “transienthypofrontality.” The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for a lot of your executive functions and decision-making processes. As a result, there are pieces of it that tend to be a very harsh personal critic. It’s the voice in your head when you have an idea that says “that’ll never work,” or “you’re missing something.” During a flow state, that small part of the frontal lobe turns off temporarily. This allows your ideas to flow uninterrupted.
This state of mind allows for some really incredible things to start happening. You’re able to learn things 230 times faster than normal. That’s over double your normal speed. You’re also five times more efficient when working than normal. And, without that inner critic, you’re able to form far more creative ideas. Obviously, this sounds like magic, but unfortunately, it’s not as easy to control as we would like. However, there are some habits that you can form to start having more of these experiences in an environment where you can use it to your advantage. This is a really complex process, so I’ll break it down to a very simple formula. It starts with having a problem that you can’t seem to solve. Throw everything you have at it, then at a certain point, just stop. Go outside for a walk, or do anything to relax. That harsh change between high mental effort and low mental effort is the easiest way to artificially create a flow state (aside from attaching electrical diodes to your head and shocking yourself, which probably isn’t the best choice).
I’ve used flow states countless times in the creation of my startup, Index. A common thing I would do is I would get into a flow state, put instructional videos on double speed, and just sit there and watch them for hours. I was able to learn the program “Sketch” in one day doing that. This is probably the most challenging mental “hack” to get down, but once you do, it feels like you have super powers. If you want to learn more about flow states, watch a video here or read this article.
I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times how important sleep is. I’m also pretty sure that you don’t get nearly as much as you should. Regardless of how many times people have told you that sleep is important, I would bet that you don’t fully know why it is. First, I’ll tell you the benefits of getting enough sleep. If that doesn’t convince you, I’ll briefly go through some of the risks of not getting enough.
During sleep, your brain practices what you learn during the day, except it does it 20 times faster than you would consciously. This results in you waking up in the morning being about 30 percent better than you were the day before in whatever you’re currently practicing.
Memory is also intensely tied to sleep, and having enough sleep is going to make memorizing anything significantly easier. This also means that studying just before you go to sleep can yield a higher retention rate.
As you sleep, your mind takes all of the information you’ve learned, and starts compiling it with all the other information you know. This allows your brain to start testing new neural connections with the things you’ve learned, which is a huge plus if you’re trying to be creative. Essentially, every morning that you wake up, you wake up with a new neural map that has new possibilities of creating things.
Lastly, your attentional resources are also heavily dependent upon getting enough sleep. If your brain hasn’t had a chance to move everything from the day before into long-term memory, then your short-term memory is going to be a lot more taxed. Not only will focusing become more difficult, but learning will, too.
Sleep is essential for preventing Alzheimer’s disease. There have been countless examples of notoriously sleepless entrepreneurs developing Alzheimer’s later in life.
Your cardiovascular system is also heavily dependent on getting enough sleep. Even losing just one hour can increase your risk for a heart attack significantly.
During sleep, your body also produces lots of immune system-related hormones. Many of these are needed for fighting off early forms of cancer. Recently, the World Health Organization has added a lack of sleep to their list of carcinogens.
I know that you’re busy, and it’s really easy to sacrifice sleep to get something done. However, research has shown that doing this often results in you making more mistakes and becoming a less effective worker. So, although you meet one deadline, you may miss the next due to that lack of sleep. If you’re an entrepreneur, I highly encourage you to make sure that your team is getting enough sleep, because otherwise they are becoming a liability to your company. Society has unfortunately been rewarding sacrificing sleep for work, so as a result it is often seen as a heroic sacrifice, but in reality it’s just plain stupid.
When I was in the first few months of my startup, I would stay up until 3 a.m. every night working on it. As a result, I had a massive burnout. In the end, I lost much more work time during those burnout weeks than I gained by sacrificing my sleep. If you think you’re special, and think it won’t ever catch up to you in some way, you’re wrong. It will, and it will suck.
In conclusion, if you’re trying to be efficient, trying to learn new things, or trying to be creative, getting enough sleep is absolutely vital. To further your learning about sleep, watch this video by the Smithsonian Institute, or this video by Tech Insider.
This brings us to our fourth, and final, mental strategy: meditation. As of recently, meditation has been a fairly hot topic. Lots of people claim it to have major benefits, and lots of other people are left with a lackluster feeling after trying it. Meditation can be very effective, but it needs to be met with the right mindset. I’ll start by breaking it down into two main types: meditation for creativity and productiveness, and meditation to calm the nerves and relax. Please note that there are many different ways to meditate. This section is primarily aimed at those who have tried it with no success.
Most people, when they think of meditation, think of clearing the mind of all thought. Not only is this difficult, but it can also be very frustrating. When mediating for the purpose of creativity, you’re going to do the opposite. The objective is to let your thoughts flow unfiltered. This will result in very bizarre thoughts with seemingly no connection. It is this unfiltered process that exercises your creative muscles and really lets your mind explore itself. In order to do this effectively, you need to be in a space where you can be quiet, without interruption. Otherwise, the noises and sights will influence what you think about.
Here is an example of an unfiltered flow of consciousness from my last meditation setting: giraffe, cat, ocean, boat, red, sky, space, Elon Musk, Mars, artificial intelligence, school, art, grass, burrito.
This went on for some time. I usually will do this type of meditation for about 10 minutes or so. The benefits of this are very similar to the uninterrupted state of mind that you get with a flow state, and often times this can also induce a full-on flow state. The biggest personal example I have of using this is during the creation of my company name. Any of you who have started a company know that naming it can be one of the hardest parts. I sat around for two hours writing down every thought that came to my mind that was related to our vision in any way.
The next type of meditation is to relax and remove stress. Whether your stressor is school, a startup, or both, I think it’s fair to say we are all usually stressed out. When we get stressed, our brain releases cortisol, which is our body’s stress hormone. Over time, this can build up, which eventually leads to a burnout. Taking the time to do something fun, or meditate, can help your body flush out the cortisol, leaving you feeling more energized and less stressed. This type of meditation is much closer to the traditional, clear-your-mind meditation. It involves doing a very simple task, and focusing all of your mental efforts on it. A very common example of this is focusing on your breathing. However, this task could be anything. It could be taking a walk, going to the gym, or maybe even practicing an instrument. Personally, I’m a fan of evening walks. Something about the cool night air really helps me clear my head.
However, this type of meditation can actually lead to more stress. If you’re unable to focus on something, and the other thoughts of your day keep creeping in, it is very easy to become frustrated. This frustration of being unable to fully meditate in turn stresses you out more. Though as long as you are still doing whatever task you have chosen, any other thoughts that enter your mind are okay. Tell yourself this if your mind wanders, and it should help dramatically. After all, there are no rules to meditation. For more information on meditation, read this article from Science Daily or this academic paper.
This concludes my little article of mental tricks, and I sincerely hope you’ve found something valuable in it. Although they may not help you the first time you try them, with a little practice, you’ll have them down in no time.