The idea that the brain is the seat of thought, emotion, and behavior is familiar to us. But it would have been revolutionary to some with a more historical viewpoint. Notable thinkers like Aristotle believed that the heart was the most important thought-related organ—and the brain acted merely as a system to cool the blood coming through the heart.
However you want to think about it, the brain is a big deal in our day-to-day life. Although it only takes up about 2% of a human’s total mass, it demands 20% of the total energy to function optimally.
While many of us spend our time and effort optimizing and improving every tiny part of our life, from our work productivity to our financial well-being, from our home relationships to our personal health, we spend very little time in training and improving our brain.
If you believe that the brain is a critical part of your day-to-day performance (and even happiness), here are the three habits you can practice to train it.
Mental Habit 1: Meditation
Meditation is an excellent habit to practice and it comes with many benefits. Aside from reducing stress, meditation trains us in managing our attention and focus. This one single ability has been proven to be useful in many life situations.
Practicing mindfulness via meditation helps us stay in the present from time-to-time during the day. It trains us to be fully engaged at the moment no matter what we are doing.
There are numerous studies and a good deal of research showing that meditation is a great way to rebuild our brain’s gray matter. Gray matter is the part of the brain contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies that involve in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
If you’re new to meditation, here are my three most recommended guided meditation applications:
Mental Habit 2: Exercise
Everyone knows exercise is good for their physical health. On the surface, it strengthens your skeletal-muscle system, improves your stamina and endurance, and overall movement ability. But the truth is, regular exercise that pushes you to the edge of your physical limit does more than that.
Just like athletes who work hard enough to break down their muscles, so they can grow stronger, going through tough physical training puts our mind to work, and thus, strengthens it in the process. On the other hand, exercising also produces hormones like Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that stimulates the production of new brain cells.
When looking at exercise as a routine to bend my mind, I focus on three things:
- Mastering the fundamentals. To master the fundamentals, I focus on compound movements and make my posture and form as the top priorities.
- Exploring new movements. Besides weight lifting and bodyweight exercises, I continue to explore movements like yoga, gymnastics, dance, and martial arts.
- Pushing the physical limits. I make sure I push myself close to the edge—whether it’s intensity or volume—so that my body can grow stronger from the recovery.
Mental Habit 3: Cold Shower
Here’s a quote on how to start taking a cold shower by Aubrey Marcus in an interview from Daily Stoic:
“Start small. Take your usual warm shower and then at the end turn the nozzle cold. Almost immediately norepinephrine starts to rise, which drops your chronic stress and will leave you feeling more refreshed and energized.
Two minutes should be your goal, and this should be a daily practice. Then with a little more experience, dive into an ice bath, and experiment with some deep breathing like the Wim Hof Method.
The hardest part of cold exposure is just the willpower to do it—that battle of choice turns lions into lambs, and lambs into lions every day. If you are going to roar into your day, you better be able to handle a little bit of cold water.”
The key is in the last paragraph. While cold showers come with many benefits such as increased alertness, reduced stress, and sped up muscle recovery, one of the most important benefits is that it trains our willpower. This slightly unpleasant exposure is highly effective in helping to maintain our mental state at its peak level throughout the day.
Introduce Discomfort into Your Life
Unlike making a to-do list or reading, these three habits are not something that will produce immediate rewards. You don’t get the same sense of accomplishment when you’ve finished your meditation compared to crossing off an item on your to-do list. And you don’t feel smarter after you’ve completed your workout or taken a cold shower compared to finishing a chapter of a book.
And often, it’s challenging to push yourself into the pain and frustration when practicing the three habits. However, it’s important to look beyond the first-order, immediate reward, and dive deep into the second-order, good consequences.
- When you become better at meditation, you become better at staying focused.
- When you make exercise a habit, you learn to appreciate hard work.
- When you use cold showers, you develop the willpower to make tough (but good) decisions and choices.
These habits are designed to bend your mind a little bit, so it grows stronger afterward. Instead of focusing on the immediate reward, appreciate the grind and focus on the process. This ability alone matters more than any other skill in both your work and life.