Mind-Body-Mood Advisor: 10 Strategies for a More Productive Brain

Boost your concentration, memory, and performance with healthy, natural strategies you can follow every day.

May 11, 2010

Better brainpower is within your reach.

RODALE NEWS, LENOX, MA—Many of the people I work with are high achievers. But although they are smart, driven, and successful, they don’t always function at their peak. Like all of us, they sometimes experience fatigue, distractibility, and difficulty concentrating. Frequently, I help them develop a plan to maximize their performance. Here are 10 of my most effective strategies that you can use to optimize your mental performance. They will help to nourish and stimulate your brain, so you can improve your concentration and function at your peak.


# 1: Feed your brain. Glucose is the fuel your brain runs on. So to maintain optimal mental functioning, you need to maintain a consistent blood sugar level. Eat three meals and two small snacks, each of which combines protein and complex carbs. Complex carbs that contain fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, release glucose more gradually and consistently than the refined carbohydrates in foods full of sugar and white flour. Favor complex carbs and avoid refined sugar so your brain has a steady, consistent fuel supply all day long.

# 2: Notice how you feel after meals. If you feel foggy after a big pasta meal, keep pasta to a minimum. If you crash an hour after eating a slice of cake, choose fruit for dessert when you need to be mentally alert and focused. Learn how your body reacts to different foods, and adjust your food choices to optimize mental performance.

# 3: Get an oil change. Since your brain is composed mostly of lipids—fats—you need to nourish it with healthy fats and oils in your diet. You can get the brain-boosting benefit of fish oil by eating salmon, mackerel, or herring a few times a week, and by taking daily supplements that supply you with omega-3 fatty acids.

# 4: Drink smart. Often we pay attention to the foods we eat but forget that the beverages we drink also affect our health. If you drink coffee or caffeinated beverages, keep it to a minimum. One cup may perk you up; two or more cups will cause an initial spike in blood sugar, followed by a crash that leaves you feeling tired and dull. Drink at least 64 ounces of fluids a day; staying well-hydrated boosts your energy level and alertness. Filtered water is ideal. Avoid sugar-laden and artificially sweetened sodas. Save alcohol for times of relaxation, not concentration. Forgo wine with lunch if you want to focus in the afternoon.

#5: Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation impairs concentration, memory, and creativity. If you make quality sleep a priority you help your brain to function optimally. See our stories Get a Good Night’s Sleep with Skills, Not Pills and Are You Getting Enough Sleep? for advice on getting the sleep you need.

#6: Get moving. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to your brain, bringing it more glucose and oxygen. Even if you can’t fit in a workout, getting out for a brisk walk during your morning break or at lunch time will help you be more alert and productive in the afternoon. If you can’t get outside, take a long walk indoors. If you sit at a desk for long periods, get up and move around frequently. And if you spend hours on the phone, use a portable phone or headset that allows you to walk while you talk.

#7: Work smarter by knowing when to stop. Most people’s productivity takes a dive after 60 to 90 minutes of sustained concentration. Rather than soldier on in the face of mental fatigue, take a break. Divide a large task into small chunks that you can complete more efficiently.

#8: Eliminate distractions. Silence the ping of incoming emails. Turn off the Internet or, if you're working online, close any browser windows you're not using. Turn off the radio and TV. Save these diversions for when you are taking a work break. If incoming phone calls disrupt your work flow, let them go to voice mail and return them during a work break. By focusing without distractions in short, highly efficient segments, your productivity will soar.

#9: Be mindful. Mindfulness meditation has been found to increase concentration, attention, and memory after just four days of practice. Over time, the practice actually changes the structure of the brain. It’s an antidote to our culturally induced attention deficit.

#10: Be strategic. Use your brain's own particular rhythms to the best advantage. Are you sharpest in the morning? After exercise? After meditation? If possible, schedule your most demanding work for that time when your powers of concentration are at their peak. If you tend to have a concentration dip in the afternoon, consider taking a nap or a walk to recharge, or doing less brain-intensive activity after lunch.

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. He is the author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The breakthrough drug-free program for lasting relief from depression.

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