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EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an article that I am really glad to have featured on Java Code Geeks and one that I think is long overdue. It will explain how to leverage and better utilize our greatest asset as programmers, and that is of course, our brain.
We are intellectual workers and without an optimally working brain, we produce substandard work. We all know this on an abstract, theoretical basis, but still, we rarely do the stuff that will help our brains function better. We always think about the latest cool technology, but we rarely stop and take care of the fundamentals.
And boy, as programmers, we are way off at this. From having a love affair with the vending machine, to constantly being stressed and “burned out”. From regarding extra hours as a badge of honor, to totally neglecting our bodies.
So, it is time to restore the order and help you master what billions of years of evolution have gifted you with: your human brain. Enjoy!
It was only some years ago that I realized that whatever I do, think, feel and have in my life, are in direct proportion of the performance of my brain. I immersed myself in books, videos and articles on what improves our brain’s performance, and how one can turn around almost any situation no matter how bad it seems. By starting to implement these tips I’m going to share with you, I literally saw every aspect of my life transforming, change happening with incremental speed, while at the same time feeling more happy and fulfilled than ever. I had cracked the code. Now, 2 years after, I can juggle with all the areas of my life simultaneously, improving them all day by day, week by week. I really don’t say that to impress you, but rather to make a point: that when you start improving your brain and how it works, everything will be possible.
Positive States = Resourceful states
First of all, one of the first things I learned in my journey, it’s something I got from Tony Robbins: everything is driven by emotions. If businesses rise or fall because of their leaders, leaders rise or fall because of their emotions. Emotions are what drive people. Emotions are what enable or disable different parts of our brain. And there are no positive or negative emotions, but rather “resourceful” or “unresourceful” states.
I am certain that we all have experienced some times that everything seemed to click, to say and do the right thing at the right time, and everything seemed brilliant. Right then, we were experiencing a resourceful state. That was a Genius state. A state in which our brain was open and creative, and was finding whatever was needed, when it was needed. I am also certain that all of us have experienced times that our brain is like dead. We knew that we know the answer, but we couldn’t remember it – or better, access it. We were being stupid and doing/saying stupid things. When we were saying things that we were thinking afterwards “what was I thinking?! That wasn’t me!”. We were in a stupid state! And that was an example of an unresourceful state that we had.
Emotions can definitely block our brain from finding what and when is needed. I understood that Creativity and Resourcefulness are what we need at all times, in order to grow, evolve and perform correctly. And so I immersed myself even more on that subject, coming up a year later with a book on 33 ways to boost our brain’s natural creative capabilities. What are the states in which your brain is working in full speed? What are the states in which your brain shows some of its genius? What are the states in which everything seems to click? But most importantly: What can you do in order to enter these Resourceful States? I will give you 7 ways, although there are countless more, and actually this is the base for the whole book I recently published on Amazon (you can find it on my site):
Tip 1: Imbue Passion in your Daily Life
Start doing more of what you love doing, and stop doing things that you hate doing. Simple as that. Have more fun with your loved ones. Go on trips, and escape once in a while (more on that later). Find a PURPOSE on your work. Read Your Body of Work of Pamela Slim. Understand that everything you’ve done up until now had a bigger purpose. And find yours. Aligning a job you love doing with a bigger purpose, is the secret key not only to happiness, but also to Mastery, immense Contribution and potentially, Wealth.
One way to add more passion (which I love!) is to start always having 1-3 side-projects. Of course you’ll have your main project with the big deadline staring at you, but you can also create some side-projects for yourself, things you want to achieve, things that really fill you up with juicy emotions, things that – what the heck – may someday become your main projects. If you do them on your free time, they won’t stress you out anyway and you’ll do them just for the fun of it. That’s the point. To recreate you and give you some purpose, some passion, some reason for being and going through any hardships.
Start a hobby you always wanted – dancing, sketching, drawing, creating art on photoshop or 3D studio, or whatever. Start a sport or a martial art. Start learning things you always wanted through online learning platforms (like JCG Academy, Coursera, Class-Central, Udemy, etc.).
Another way is to add passion in your daily life is by simply PRACTICING passion! Speak about things you are passionate about. Travels and adventures, stories you’ve lived and long forgotten that you are proud and passionate about. Speak louder and with more passion in your voice. Laugh harder. Walk with complete determination and like you have a set purpose. Read The Alchemist of Paulo Coelho (my favorite book of all times).
But how can you possibly exude passion when you are all worn and stressed out? So that’s the main point of the rest of the article. All the tips below are targeting on reducing the stress from your life and from your brain, so you can allow it to work at its optimum, and allow the space for creativity, novel and breakthrough ideas and to arise. First a foremost, a lesson from nature herself:
Tip 2: Work in Cycles and Pulses, like Nature does
I’m writing these lines as I lay on the beach. It’s early in the morning. We came with my friends yesterday night with a bunch of beers, and slept here on the beach till the sunrise. It’s one of the best experiences ever. After a long week of pushing the envelope, delivering all the work and value I possibly could, and making major progress towards all of my goals – on my health, on my fitness, on my relationships, University, career and finances – now it’s time for pause, renewal and rejuvenation.
The first thing I saw when I woke up today was this heaven. And this is me walking the walk on the second tip I want to share with you, that will drastically improve your brain, and if consistently applied in every level of your life, it would certainly and totally transform your whole reality. And this made me think. A lot. On the one hand, you see, people believe that stress is bad. I can argue that. Stress is a very good thing. It pushes us to break through our own walls and limitations, it forces us to leave the couch and take some action. It forces change and improvement. It forces our inner power to rise to the surface, and we discover hidden strength that we weren’t even aware of it.
The problem in our culture is not about having too much stress. On the contrary, all the great breakthroughs and evolution that has happened since the dawn of time is because of some form of stress, that forced things to change. The problem lies in not recovering after stress. All the progress and growth comes in the relaxation after the stressful period, after the deadline ends and your brain starts relaxing. We need this recovery period, in order to be able to handle the next stressful period. Every athlete knows that it’s in those resting periods that their muscles are rebuilt and grow in capability.
And this led me to another realization: Everything in nature works in pulses and cycles. Our heart beats in pulses. Our brain, our endocrine system, and everything in our body, the seas, the earth, our planet, the moon, our solar system and everything in universe, works in cycles and pulses. I had first met this “Sprinter” model by the writer of The Monk who sold his Ferrari, Robin Sharma. Schedule time for relaxation and renewal. It will VASTLY improve your focus, your mood, and reconnect you with the grander scheme of your life. It will make your life juicier, and at the same time will leave you with enough space to improve your own self. This will allow your brain to switch gears into the creative, pause & plan mode.
As long as you are working, no worthy ideas will come. But you’ve may noticed that when you start daydreaming or going for a walk, or on vacation, this is when most of your big ideas come. It is in those periods of relaxation that creativity arises and offers you a whole new field of possibilities and solutions, that if applied could take your relationships, your career or your finances to a whole another level. You can start applying this pattern in your days by having a predetermined time that you STOP working and start relaxing and rejuvenating, so that you’ll have in mind that this is when is you’ll be able to relax, not now.
While relaxing, it’s FORBIDDEN to work, otherwise it’s not relaxing and your brain knows it. Apply it in your weeks by having 1-2 days that no work is allowed. It’s not true relaxation if you work or do the things you do the other days!!! Do things that really re-create you. Apply it in your months by taking a week off every 3-4 weeks if it is possible. When you overdeliver value the weeks that you are working then you deserve a week off to renew. Remember: that’s not slacking. That’s not inertia. This is where you grow in your capability, and this is entering the field of pure potentiality and creativity.
According to Parkinson’s Law, “your work will expand to fit the time available”. So if you set a timetable, and do your best to make it happen, you could really fit the work of weeks into days. It’s said that work and women follow the law of gas volume: they will expand to fill the volume available. And it’s completely true for both of them. You can check out also this article on productivity tips for software developers, especially those on batching and timetables, and reducing the distractions, as well as this article on Weekly Scheduling.
Tip 3: Focus is more important than Intelligence
“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from his book Flow
What’s the point of being smart if you can’t control what you are focusing on? Laser-like focus is what distincts excellence from mediocrity. People who succeed in whatever area of their life, are masters of their focus on that specific area, and they are guarding it like their most precious gift. They know what specific things they have to do in order to get “in the zone” or “flow”, and what things might get them out of it, so they proactively block these in advance. When you lose your focus, you lose your power. We are living in an era of distraction. Advertisements, demanding people, social media notifications, everything is trying to grab your attention. But when you lose your focus even for a second, you get “off the zone”, and most of the times you will need many minutes in order to refocus again. The whole area of Emotional Intelligence is about learning how to control our emotions, but in reality, it’s more about learning how to control your focus. What we focus on, is what we experience. So everything is a matter of focus or better, a matter of entering a state of flow, and maintaining it as long as we want.
“Lack of direction [of focus], not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.”
~ Zig Ziglar
Indeed, we all have 24 hours in our days. But then, why some people become Leonardo Da Vincis, Steve Jobses, Bill Gateses, Michael Dells, Brendan Eichs, Larry Pages and Sergey Brins, while others die in mediocrity and invisible? They are smarter? The had more resources when they begun? They knew what to do and how to do it? Of course not. It was what they FOCUSED on in these 24 hours that made the whole difference. There are many ways we can train our brain to improve its focusing abilities. The first is the questions I aforementioned, because what we ask (focus on), we receive. I will give you one more, which is by far the most powerful way:
Meditation although is something that most of us here in the Westernized world thing as voodoo stuff and weird things some monks do in the East, here is a quote I found recently… From Fortune:
“Meditation devotees include junk-bond-king-turned-philanthropist Mike Milken; Bill George, the former Medtronic CEO; ad industry mogul Renetta McCann; and NBA coach Phil Jackson. Silicon Valley is full of meditators, such as Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, and Larry Brilliant, head of Google’s philanthropic efforts. Naturally, a crew of Google employees has organized twice-weekly open meditation hours, at which it has hosted Tibetan monks and a team of mind-science researchers.”
Ok, now that I have your attention, let’s explain in simple terms what this meditation thing is all about:
Meditation will boost your ability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time, while at the same time doing some incredible things at your body: it boosts melatonin (the sleep hormone – improving the quality of your sleep), improve your memory, improve your ability to control your emotions, and also put you in a Creative / Resourceful state, making it easier for you to download new ideas and have breakthroughs.
When you meditate it’s like connecting to a database of Ideas and start downloading. Pieces come together, you link together seemingly different things, and you come up with ideas that if consistently acted upon, could really bring you millions.
HOW do you do it?
You sit in a comfortable chair, with your spine straight so that the brain’s bloodflow is maximum. You close your eyes, select a thing to have as an anchor for your focus – maybe your breath, your heartbeat, or a sound, or a word or something, and you focus only on that one thing. When your mind wonders – and it will – don’t start blaming yourself or whatever. It’s what is supposed to happen. You just return your focus on your anchor. And again. And again. And again. For as long as you like. Every time you return your focus on your anchor is like taking a push-up for your focus. You strengthen it with each repetition.
And that’s it. Weird eh? Don’t think so. Try it. Just start with 5 minutes or just 1 minute, but do it consistently for some days. Remember: Consistency is more important than Intensity. Do it as long as you feel comfortable doing it, but schedule a chunk of time for it and do it daily.
For more on the benefits of meditation, you can read a post I had written some months ago: The 7 most powerful benefits of Meditation, and why you should start it today!
Its most staggering scientifically proven result is the major reduction of stress, and improvement of your sleep’s quality. You can dig deeper in the above article if you want to find out more.
You can also meditate while at the same time doing the next tip, which is…
Tip 4: Focused, Diaphragmatic Breathing
Breathing has been shown to be THE fastest way to amp your brain performance. Why? Neuroscientists and peak performance scientists tell us on their recent findings that the function of our brain is controlled by the variance of the rate of our heartbeat. This is called HRV or Heart Rate Variance, and it’s the variance of the rate in which our heart’s BPM is changing. When we are frightened or depressed, it’s not just the depth of our breathing that reduces the oxygenation of our brain, but it’s also the loss of rhythm of our breath that reduces our ability to think clearly and perform as good as we want to. When our breath is rhythmic and even, then our HRV follows a beautiful sinusoidal curve and THIS is when our brain performs at its best. Its not the rate at which our heart is beating. It can beat fast and we may be fully excited or scared as hell. And it can be slow and we may be serene and peaceful but with our mind going 200mph, or clinically depressed. The sole difference between our ability to think clearly and perform at our best is in our ability to keep a steady and even breathing rhythm and a beautiful harmonious HRV.
The exercise that you might want to try here, is to take some breaths rhythmically and evenly, like 5″ inhale and 5″ exhale, or 6″-6″, or 8″-8″, or even 2″-2″ or 1″-1″ if you want (these fast breathing is called “fire breathing” and it’s a breathing exercise in yoga to boost your energy). Do it for 5 minutes, or 100 breaths or so. You can build up from there. Do it daily (even twice or thrice daily if you like), in order to habitualize and ingrain into your nervous system this breathing pattern, so it can become more natural and effortless. By doing this breathing exercise, you also meditate at the same time, either you want it or not, because you are focusing on one thing, and every time your mind wanders, you have to bring it back to your breath counting. So you gain all the benefits from the meditation tip too! This exercise will surely boost your brain’s clarity, focus and also give you more energy and vitality, by further reducing your body’s stress levels. Try it out, I’m sure you’ll love it. If you want to dive deeper on this breathing + HRV tip, you can start your research here.
Tip 5: Skip a meal or two
If you didn’t know that our digestive system is the most energy consuming system of our body, it’s time to learn it. What you eat, how you eat it, and how much you eat, will influence big time your brain’s clarity and focus. And so it will also influence your results and your income. There are two states for our digestive system: Fasted and Fed. In our culture today we are used to being in fed state all the time. And it’s not how our bodies are designed to work after centuries and centuries of evolution. Most of us don’t know what real hunger is. It’s to not have eaten anything for the past weeks and still not to know when you will get something to eat. What we think of as hunger, is simply our psychological need to eat. We eat by the clock and in the simplest hint our gut is about to empty.
In the recent years many scientists are studying the crazy benefits of intermittent fasting ie fasting for 14-24 hours. You can benefit by doing it just for 14 (if woman) or 16 (if man) hours, just once per week (or like me, daily! – it’s called “just skip breakfast” method). Besides the crazy benefits it has for our health and body (lower body fat, increased fat burning, increase in human Growth Hormone and much more), by just giving our digestive system a short break, there is also a slight side-effect I noticed when fasting. After my research, it seems like everybody noticed that fasting also gives you crazy amounts of mental clarity and focus, amplifying your overall productivity. Not to mention the extra time you get for not having to buy / cook / order / eat and digest food.
By fasting you will notice that there will be less distractions. You will notice the brain fog you were used in having all that time will lift and leave you some space for clear thinking. This brain fog is the result of the ups and downs of our blood’s levels of glucose. By fasting, or by eating some healthy oils (like coconut oil), you blunt more and more these ups and downs, having a more stable brain performance. Fasting has been shown scientifically to increase the production of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), brain protein that is instrumental to neurogenesis (development of new neurons) and the formation of new synapses (connections between neurons).
Essentially, your body while fasted is making you smarter in order to find some food, but of course, you can use that clarity and focus wherever you want! The human body (and ESPECIALLY the brain) is highly reactive and affected to the kind of stimuli we give it. Just remember this quote: “sleep is more important than eating” and repeat it over and over, till you start believing it. It’s THAT important. Just remember to drink more non caloric fluids (especially water or tea, but don’t overdo it with coffee) because without food in the gut, there is not much water retention and you can easily dehydrate yourself. You can learn more for intermittent fasting here and here. Remember:
- You can only live a few seconds without Oxygen.
- You can only live 3-4 days without water.
- You can only live some days more without sleep (but with serious brain dysfunctions and problems).
- You can live some weeks and in most cases more than a month without food.
So let this list clarify your priorities, and you can research it further if you like. Which leads us to the next tip:
Tip 6: Sleep is MORE important than Eating
We all know that sleep is needed to regenerate our body, but what it especially regenerates, is the brain, so it may continue to function optimally. But after periods of sleep deficit, neurons begin to malfunction, visibly effecting a person’s behavior. What we can observe is slurred speech, stuttering, speaking in a monotone voice, or speaking at a slower pace than usual. Also sleep deprived test subjects have difficulties thinking of imaginative words or ideas. Instead, they tend to choose repetitious words or clichéd phrases and they can’t deliver a statement well. That’s because the frontal part of our brain (the Frontal Lobe) which is associated with creative thinking and speech, begins to malfunction.
This means that even programming (which is a language) becomes more and more difficult as the time goes by. When you are sleep deprived, you can’t possibly come up with any good and original ideas, you can’t speak or write or even code properly, and what you can only do is mindless low-value work. Sleep deprived people have a more difficult time reacting well to unpredicted rapid changes, which means if someone who has hired you to do a job calls you or emails you and wants something to change or needs something else you will most likely pick an unoriginal solution. You also won’t have the speed or creative abilities to cope with making quick and logical decisions, nor you will have the ability to implement them well.
What lack of sleep further impairs is one’s ability to simultaneously focus on several different related tasks (multitasking), further reducing the speed as well as the efficiency of one’s actions. Not only men have lower multitasking abilities than women, but also by being sleep deprived it’s getting even worse. Part of the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, has several functions specifically coupled with it. Judgment, impulse control, attention, and visual association have all been related to this region of the cerebral cortex. Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) activity can drop as much as 11% after a person has missed sleep for only 24 hours. Which means you will be less able to handle your impulses and your emotions, you will be less able to focus and you will eventually start hallucinating when eventually sleep deprivation will stack up, possibly leading to temporary insanity. This region regenerates during the first stage of sleep, giving a person the ability to feel somewhat refreshed after only a short nap, so if you can’t possibly sleep, at least take a short nap.
Sleep deprivation also depletes our brain of our “feel-good” chemicals like DOPAMINE! I really can’t over-emphasize this enough. Paul Ekman on his book Emotions Revealed emphasizes the importance of sleep and how sleep deprivation messes with how our emotions are being triggered and decrease our ability to control their expression. What follows is irritability, anger and violence. In fact, if the brain does not receive a break it will soon begin to shut down for periods of microsleep. This means that your brain will go to hibernation whenever it wants for some seconds or even minutes, leading you with gaps in consciousness. I certainly wouldn’t experiment driving like this.
One of the possible side effects of a continued lack of sleep is death. Usually this is the result of the fact that the immune system is weakened without sleep. The number of white blood cells (guards) within the body decreases, as does the activity of the remaining white blood cells. Remember, please: Sleep is MORE important than eating. And eating on an empty stomach (or eating some healthy fats and a bit of milk or some slowly digestible source of protein) will lead to a HIGHER quality of sleep. Meditation also increases Melatonin levels and reduce cortisol levels, further improving the quality of your sleep. From all the above I hope you’ve really understood by now that:
Tip 7: You need to transform your Health and Fitness
If you want to transform your brain, your behaviors, your work, your income, your results and your whole life.
1- Remember to drink Water!
I can remember so many times when my brain was fogged and I couldn’t think clearly, because I had forgotten to drink some water. You don’t need to wait for thirst to set in, in order to drink water. That’s far too late. The first symptom of dehydration is a dry mouth, and the second is the brain fog. And third is thirst. One last simple, small, but effective health tip is to just add lemon in your water. Although we think of lemons as having acids, when they metabolize in our gut, they provide alkaline pH in our blood and body. This is good. The more alkalinity in your blood and brain, the healthier, clearer, more energetic and more focused it can be.
2- Avoid Soft Drinks!
They are not as soft as you may think. You may want to research about them more. But, almost all of them are messing with your brain. The ones that have sugar, after the sugar flood comes the insulin flood, which drops glucose levels of your blood lower than before, so your brain gets fogged. Not to mention all the hormone imbalances they trigger. You generally don’t want to mess with your blood sugar levels, because it messes with your clarity of thinking. The “sugar-free” ones, almost always have a sweetener called Aspartame, which is scientifically labelled as neurotoxic. It literally kills your precious brain neurons. Also, soft drinks create acidity in your bloodstream, clogging bloodcells together, and reducing the oxygenation of your organs, which apart from reduction in energy, it ages them (you) faster. Not good. Acidity also adds to your stress level, making you feeling even more energy-depleted (you don’t experience it instantly if they have caffeine inside).
3- Get up and MOVE! Start Exercising!
To say that exercise does good to your brain health is a cliche. But I just want to mention WHY it’s really THAT important. Our brain is the most malleable organ in our body. Everything we do affects it in some way, but some things also improve or reduce its ability to learn more, be more, do more. In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey MD mentions the fascinating story of Naperville Central High School in Chicago, where everyday, the first class of the day is Physical Education. This was started as an experiment in the 1990′s, and the results are staggering. In 1999, the 8th grade-students were not only among the healthiest in the nation (3% obesity rate vs. 30% national average), but they are also some of the smartest in the world.
Exercise, besides the better oxygenation of the body and brain, also releases endorphines (meaning literally endogenous morphines – our feel good chemicals) it also releases even more BDNF, which can also have a synergy effect with the fasting mentioned above. This will lead to more clarity, more focus, more productivity, and more free time. It will add years in your life, and also life in your years. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, by exercising daily, and especially first thing in the morning, you will have even more energy to spend throughout the day (if you don’t overdo it of course)… This is what daily exercise is about. When I found out about this, (it was by sheer luck), one day I was in a hurry so instead of being in the gym for 2 hours, I did a quick workout and left in half an hour. I was surging with energy afterwards for the rest of the day. It was like that day had double hours or something. After that, I experimented a bit. I did it again. Same results. And again and again. I love exercising daily till then.
It can be running (especially sprinting – for maximal HGH & BDNF release and fat-burning effect), weightlifting, or as simple as doing some push-ups and jumping jacks. Just doing some jumping jacks, clears our head and oxygenates our body, and offers an instant boost of energy. Bonus points if you pump up your jumps with some great music. You can even try Burpees, pull-ups, chin-ups, squats, and even handstands!!! :) All these don’t require any equipment at all and can be done at home, with your own bodyweight. I recently started learning how to do handstands (childish dream). It’s A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. :)
I know most of you don’t exercise because you don’t have enough time. I understand, it’s really difficult with all these deadlines and projects running at the same time. But please, don’t make exercise a huge thing in your head. It doesn’t have to be complicated and big. It’s easy and simple. You don’t have to exercise daily 2 hours to get all the above brain and body benefits. If it’s intense, you can do just 15, 10 or even 5 minutes of exercise. Just remember to BEGIN, and after that, to push your limits. These are the only 2 things you need to be aware of. We all can just fall on our feet and do 1-5 pushups now and then. It will take you what? 5 seconds? maybe 10 seconds? It’s not a big deal. And the benefits will astonish you. Remember to pump up your body, in order to pump up your mind!
Hope all of these helped and broadened your awareness. Because don’t forget that with better awareness, we make better decisions. And with better decisions we get better results! At least my awareness surely increased tenfold, by writing this lengthy article! Thank you for your patience and reaching through the end :)
The information on this article is designed for educational purposes only. This information does not constitute medical advice and it should not be relied upon as such.
But how can we tap in that genius more often? How can we be more creative and resourceful? How can we find solutions to problems that seem completely unsolvable? In this era of dramatic distraction and overload of information, how can we overcome feeling overwhelmed? Many times we think we lack the resources, when in fact what we lack of is the awareness of our resourcefulness.
In his (short) book “Problem Solving: 33 Ways to boost your Brain’s Natural Creative Ability!”, Theodore, after many years of extensive research on the brain and how we can improve it, is answering these questions and more, giving not just 33 ways, but also more problem solving techniques, skills, many activities and problem solving strategies that will really boost this innate ability when acted upon. They are all grounded in sciences (Neuroscience, Sociology, Biology, Psychology) and personal experiments, with many scientific references to research further.