There are "on" days, when you feel creative, focused and full of ideas and solutions, and "off" days, when it's easy to get distracted and after a hard day's work, you've barely made a dent in your superlong to-do list. If you're having more off days (totally normal this time of year), here's good news: Research shows that we all have the ability to enhance our mental power now and for years to come, just by making a few simple lifestyle changes. (It turns out, certain habits that we thought would boost productivity may actually slow us down!) Find out which common habits muck up our cognitive wheels, and how to get them spinning full speed again so you can complete your work faster, get home sooner—and spend more time doing the things you love.
1. Brain drainer: multitasking
Juggling multiple tasks is the big thing, as we all text, talk, check multiple screens and try to work at the same time. No surprise, the quality of our work may suffer. "The prefrontal cortex, a region critical to processing info, is optimally designed to do one thing at a time," explains Adam Gazzaley, M.D., director of the neuroscience imaging center at the University of California at San Francisco. "Think of it as the bouncer at the nightclub of your brain: He's paid to let in one guest at a time. If they rush the door, things get chaotic." Dr. Gazzaley suggests that when something requires high performance and focus, shut out distractions. Log out of social-networking sites and email, and turn off your phone. Once you've finished that important task, feel free to share your success with friends on your Facebook wall.
2. Brain drainer: skipping workouts
After a long day at the office, it's tough to summon the energy to lace up your sneaks and get to the gym. But exercise is one of the best ways to stay sharp as you age, according to Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., professor of age-related neurodegenerative diseases at the Salk Institute. His landmark research shows that exercise significantly increases the rate of blood flow to the hippocampus, a brain region vital to memory, which generates new cell growth and improves mental processing. Interested? Follow the lead of the adults in Gage's study, who got about an hour of aerobic activity a day, four times a week. I like to schedule my workouts in the morning before my day gets rolling, so I feel mentally and physically ready for whatever comes my way—and I can chill out after work guilt-free.
3. Brain drainer: nutrient shortfalls
Ever wonder why so many philosophers in ancient Greece were making brilliant observations well into old age? We'll never know for sure, but the Mediterranean diet—high in fruit, vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil; low in salt and red meat—definitely didn't hurt. Mediterranean-diet followers have a 40 percent lower risk for Alzheimer's disease, research at Columbia University notes, and other studies have linked this way of eating with reduced risk for memory loss. Experts claim the diet's powers might be due in part to its inflammation-fighting antioxidants. Try out Med-inspired recipes from Self.com/TK, and enjoy them with a glass of vino—moderate wine consumption is part of the plan. Opa!
4. Brain drainer: putting off your dream vacay
One more great excuse to book that flight to Brazil (or whatever exotic country calls your name): Immersing yourself in a foreign culture can enhance creative thinking. Research has shown that people who live abroad are better at creative tasks such as drawing, writing and problem solving. "Outside their cultural context, they're forced to relearn the meaning of simple things," says study author William W. Maddux, Ph.D., assistant professor of organizational behavior at Insead, a business school in Fountainbleu, France. For example, leaving food on your plate may be an insult in the United States, but it's polite in China. "The ability to look at things from multiple and different perspectives leads us to increased creativity, possibly by changing how the brain is wired," Maddux says. If spending time abroad isn't an option, learning a new language or becoming an expert on a foreign cuisine may strike that spark for you.
5. Brain drainer: weight creep
Seems odd that it has anything to do with brainpower, but excess body fat has been shown to up the risk for memory loss in women. "Fat releases chemicals called cytokines that might produce hormones harmful to neurons," says study author Diana R. Kerwin, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She advises maintaining a body-mass index of 20 to 24. (Calculate yours at Self.com.) Need help getting there? See tips 2 and 7.
6. Brain drainer: lack of sleep
Anyone who's ever pulled an all-nighter knows that focus, recall and rational thought are shot the next day. And although scientists are still exploring exactly how ample rest recharges our mental batteries, new research from Harvard Medical School indicates it may be related to adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that floods the brain during sleep. Dubbed the "energy currency" of life, ATP captures the chemical energy that gets released from metabolized nutrients and makes that energy available for cellular functions. To help ensure your cells get plenty of fuel, aim for seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night.
7. Brain drainer: getting stuck in a rut
Picking up any new skill (rock climbing, tangoing, playing piano) may create new neural pathways or connections in the brain, which can keep your mind sharp over time. The key is choosing something you like. "This is not an ivory tower concept: The more you enjoy something, the more you do it," explains Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., professor of clinical neuropsychology at Columbia University.
8. Brain drainer: staying cooped up indoors
The simple act of getting outside and into the sun (after applying sunscreen, of course!) may help stoke your creative juices. One study found that students were better at writing haiku (as judged by expert poets) and exhibited more flexible, original thinking when they were exposed to bright, full-spectrum light for 30 minutes in the morning. "Light affects the midsection of the brain, where circadian rhythms are generated. As a result, it helps lift mood and energy level, which in turn encourages creative thinking," says the study's author, Alice Flaherty, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
For more ways to keep your head healthy and feel more creative, focused and quick-witted starting today and for years (and years) to come, go to Self.com.