We all wish we could be a little sharper, a little quicker, or have a better memory. Like when you read a paragraph over and over again and it still doesn’t make sense. Or when you walk out of a meeting and immediately draw a blank on what the takeaway was. Or you swear you could finish that task if you could just make yourself focus.
The good news is that after decades of research, there are some science-backed ways to strengthen your cognitive abilities. The less good news: Just like with physical health, there are no hacks or shortcuts to a better mental performance. In fact, the best thing for your brain is also the best thing for the rest of your body: exercise. Study after study shows that breaking a sweat can improve attention, memory, and overall cognition. The reason is that exercise may be the only thing that helps new neurons grow in the adult brain.
Another biggie is getting a full night’s sleep. This one is less about positive benefits and more about avoiding negative ones. Simply put, you’re never less sharp than when you’re a sleep-deprived zombie.
Fortunately, even if you’re not exercising or sleeping quite as much as you should (though try if you can!), there are some relatively quick changes you can make to give your brain a boost. Some of these strategies actually rewire your brain to make it a little stronger and faster; others take advantage of the right tools to make things easier on your noggin. The key is tweaking your existing habits, and maybe adding a new one or two, to help you and your brain work smarter.
The pen is mightier than the keyboard
We’re so used to rapidly tapping out our thoughts on keyboards or smartphones that it can seem like the devices are an extension of our thinking. But it turns out the best tool for writing is one that makes us slow down.
Research has shown that when people type up notes, the speed they gain compared to writing by hand can be disadvantageous when it comes to remembering the material. In 2014, psychologists found that college students who took notes longhand were better at remembering complicated concepts presented in a lecture than students who typed notes on a laptop. The two groups did equally well on straightforward fact-based questions, but the writers had an advantage over the typers on the more conceptual questions.