How to Work Smarter, Not Harder? 9 Actions for Improving Your Cognitive Performance Holistically

Cognitive performance is about keeping your brain sharp. But improving your cognitive performance often doesn’t happen through tricky brain-games – it’s a holistic approach involving body, mind, behaviours and emotions. Here you will find our top 9 actions for improving your cognitive performance – holistically. Choose 1-2 that fit your life the best (or get inspired and make up your own).

To make your habits stick, we recommend you try the WOOP framework. The letters in WOOP stand for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles and Plan. These four create the steps for making changes last. Download our free WOOP template and watch our Performance Coach Eleonoora Hintsa explain how you can apply the framework in your daily life.

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Sleep

Research shows that sleep deprivation impairs for example attention, working memory, decision making, and learning, which are all fundamental elements of cognitive performance. Sleep has not only been found to be necessary for healthy cognitive function, but it’s considered a cognitive enhancer.

1. Commit to a bedtime

The secret to good quality sleep is to keep a consistent sleep schedule. So decide on and commit to a consistent bedtime. Can you stick to it for a week? If you need to shift it earlier, don’t change it dramatically tomorrow – instead, shift it by just 15 minutes at a time. More drastic changes than that will make you go back and forth between early and late bedtimes, rather than creating a lasting change.

Source: Dr. Nathaniel Watson, MD, president of American Academy of Sleep Medicine

2. Set a go-to-sleep alarm

Committing to a consistent bedtime is not enough, we also need to stick to it. This tip may help. When we wake up tired in the morning we promise to go early to bed. But once evening comes, the promise is lost – phone, TV, work … we lose hours of valuable sleep. Try setting a (recurring) go-to-sleep alarm for your chosen sleep time. Set an alarm on your phone or bring your alarm clock into the living room – when it rings you know it’s the angel on your shoulder sending you off to bed.

Recovery

3. Define your evening routine

A 2016 study found that 68% of adults struggle with sleep at least once a week. What we do hours before we go to bed, preparing our body and mind for sleep has a great impact on sleep quality. What could your optimal evening routine look like to help you unwind? A few ideas:

  • Make reading before bed a habit – it’s been shown to improve sleep quality (as long as it’s nothing too stimulating)
  • Turn off all electronic devices by e.g. 8:30pm
  • Write: a gratitude list or about your day – research shows you fall asleep on average 9 minutes faster
  • Have a warm drink, like chamomile tea – studies show it helps you relax

Sources: AC Paladini et al (2010).; The Connection Between Writing and Sleep, Psychology Today

Work habits

4. Block out time in your calendar for doing focused work

We often spend our days firefighting, in meetings, on email and responding to demands from others. Only around 2% of the population can multi-task successfully, so the rest of us need to protect our calendars to also get enough time for focused work. Try this: right now, block out a two 2-3 hour timeslots in your calendar for the next week. Reserve it for something important that needs your full attention – planning a project, writing a report, creating a presentation.

Read more: Your Brain On Multitasking, Psychology Today

5. Avoid email for the first hour of the day

73% of the workforce feel they’re expected to be always-on. We check our phones on the way to work and on the way home; before bed and first thing in the morning. Connectedness has its benefits, but it’s also adding to our stress. Try this: take a week when you avoid email for the first hour of every day. Use the time on focused work, family, or something relaxing.

Read more: Device-free time is as important as work-life balance, Harvard Business Review

Improving your cognitive performance requires a holistic approach.

Physical activity

6. Add a 10 minute boost of physical activity to your workday

Research shows that a single bout of exercise can improve executive function, enhance mood and decrease stress levels. Moreover, exercise has been shown to reduce cognitive decline caused be sleep deprivation. This doesn’t mean that you can sleep less if you just move more, but highlights the importance of physical activity for cognitive performance. Try to figure out a way to add just 10 minutes of physical activity to your workday. These can be short low-intensity efforts (no training gear or need to shower), for example:

  • Start your day with a 10 min bodyweight workout
  • Get off one stop earlier on your commute to work
  • Walk to a lunch place further away
  • Aim to walk up five flights of stairs every day

Nutrition

Research on the link between nutrition and cognitive performance is abundant, including how your gut health, sugar, fat, and different kinds of supplements affect your cognitive performance. This is a complex topic and few tips fit all, but the key point is this: do not underestimate the importance of diet on your cognitive performance. You wouldn’t expect your car to run smoothly on unclean fuel, and your brain is no different.

7. Find your rhythm for caffeine & water

A simple starting point for most people is finding the appropriate balance of two liquids: water and caffeinated tea or coffee. With water, it’s simple: you should stay hydrated throughout the day. A 2% reduction in hydration levels already affects your attention, memory and psychomotor skills. Caffeine has the potential to boost our cognitive performance, as long as we follow one rule of thumb: little and often. With a minimum dose (some sources quote 0.3mg/kg/hour) you can maintain alertness, but not overdo it. Remember to have your last cup after lunch so it doesn’t affect your sleep! What’s your optimal daily rhythm for liquids? Try it for a few weeks and see how you feel.

Source: Adan, A. (2012) Cognitive performance and hydration; Wyatt et al. (2004) Low-dose repeated caffeine administration

Emotions

Research has found that emotions can strongly influence cognitive performance, including selective attention, working memory, and cognitive control. Both positive and negative emotions can be beneficial – what’s important is making the most of them.

8. Identify your positive emotions

Positive emotions have been shown to broaden your attention and thinking, increase cognitive flexibility, foster goal-pursuit motivation, and buffer against negative situations. Make it a habit to note one positive emotion, every day. For best effect, write it down. Remember that positive emotions are not just about puppies and rainbows – try these questions to find more stable and long-term sources of positive emotions:

  • What brought you joy today?
  • What are you thankful for today?
  • What inspired you today?

This is an excellent exercise to do just before bedtime, so you can fall asleep happy.

9. Reframe your negative emotions

Negative emotions are by no means all harmful – they serve an important purpose. Stress, confusion and anger can, in fact, in some situations have a positive impact on cognitive performance. In appropriate doses, and when properly managed, these emotions can push you forward. Anger, for example, has the potential to give you a positive boost (as long as it doesn’t linger for too long). Anxiety, on the other hand, has been shown to impair executive function and is cognitively draining.

The key is to learn to regulate your emotions. Try this: every day, try to “catch” a negative emotion early. Pause and think: can you reframe or reassess the situation? This exercise is best done when the emotion arises, but if it’s still nagging you at the end of the day, it’s good to deal with then.


Interested in improving your cognitive performance? Would you like to take your team’s performance to the next level? Let’s have a chat! Leave your contact details below and we’ll be in touch.