How to Get Smarter in 15 Minutes or Less Every Day

Sean Kernan

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My good friend was elaborating on the benefits of transcendental meditation, saying how he felt less stressed and more focused. He added, “All you need to do is meditate for an hour a day.”

That’s where he lost me. An hour of meditation? I’d love to sharpen my mind but that’s a long time to sit and think about nothing, particularly if you are busy.

Our culture places so much value on our ability to think and solve problems. We’ve also been sold this defunct idea that the cards we get are the cards we get. There are proven, tangible ways to improve your mental performance. Here are five quick strategies that only require 15 minutes a day.

Brain games that actually work

Mental exercises don’t just improve the mind, they protect it too. Numerous studies have revealed the importance of mental activity and aging. Many of us take on jobs that have narrow focuses or droning activities, leaving other parts of our brains challenged.

There’s a game that may actually make you smarter is called Dual N-Back Online. It has been shown to reduce dementia in patients. And while many of you don’t have to worry about that now, none of you are getting younger.

Contrary to my own skeptical assumptions, scientists also found that brain games, such as Lumosity, boost cognitive function. Participants demonstrated greater problem-solving ability and capability of switching between tasks in rapid succession. Many games are designed specifically for things you struggle with, such as memory, cognition, and spatial reasoning. The games enhance skillsets that spill over into real-life activities. And even if you are extremely skeptical of these studies, it wouldn’t hurt to try playing, would it?

Pursue knowledge rather than brain metrics

If you’d like to get a better IQ score, you can simply take more IQ tests. That’s proven to show increases via the Practice Effect. But that doesn’t do much for you does it?

People get lost in the endless noise around cognitive ability. It’s more useful to think of intelligence as what you do rather than what you are. As a simple example, if you wanted to become a master at trivia, you wouldn’t sit around doing IQ test exercises. You’d study trivia.

Many people that you perceive as being super smart, aren’t born geniuses, they are just well-read. They use their time to find learn and study things that interest them. Even if you only have 15 minutes a day, spending that time reading not only helps you build your knowledge, it activates neural pathways in the brain. I’ve never met a dumb person who spends their free time reading. Or perhaps I have. But, because they read, they did a good job of hiding it.

A quick creativity drill

There’s a great creativity exercise my writing mentor taught me. The drill is simple and you can do it while brushing your teeth. The goal is to think of two things that are as far removed from each other as possible. You could start simple and say, “Green and blue.” Then you could say, “Tree and astronomy.”

You work your way out from there. For example, you could think car, snail, romance, stenography, sales, alphabet. Then, in the final step, after you think of the two most radically different subjects, you try to connect them.

As a simple example, we could try to connect ‘snail’ and ‘alphabet’. Both can spell each other, a snail with its slime, the alphabet with its letters. Both words have the letters ‘a’ and ‘l’. Both make a good soup. You get the idea. This drill develops your ability to associate unrelated subjects, an ability that sits at the beating heart of creativity. Also, I could never eat a snail.

Meditation has a real impact

I actually do meditate, despite the initial shade I threw at the activity. After doing it consistently for a few weeks, I felt a fundamental change in my brain. It reduces stress and helps my posture. My mind feels calm and the inner noise dies down. I feel still, focused, and uncluttered. Meditation is shown to boost attention and executive function, that part of your brain that gets you to take action.

And just as my friend was raving about it to me years prior, I was doing the same last month with a neighbor. We were working on his car and I asked him, “Have you ever tried meditation?”

His face scrunched up, “No. What is that?” And when I explained it, he looked at me like I was talking about hippie wizardry. He’s an older military guy who isn’t keen on this type of stuff. But his doubt isn’t uncommon. Believe in meditation. The effects are real. It strengthens your mind. I never do it more than 10 minutes a day and it pays dividends. With all of these flashing screens and notifications, it is profoundly helpful to slow everything down. Your brain needs it.

Practice deliberate learning

I would never claim to be some prolific, brilliant writer. But it is worth noting that I was a very average English student. There are so many writers that are way more talented than me. Yet I’ve been blessed to have some degree of success as a writer. I simply fell in love with the craft and took to improving at it. In many ways, writing was like a bad -ex: I loved the familiarity and comfort of it, but hated the outcome. But I was persistent and worked at it every day.

The bigger point I’m making is that human beings have a remarkable ability to become very competent at specific things. And while talent will always play a role, it is curiosity and persistence that unlocks our unexpected potential.

There are too many defeatist ideas floating around, “I’m not good at that.” Or, “I’m just not very smart.” I’d wager that the fact you are here on a paid reading platform, reading in your free time, makes you smarter than the average dot on a scatter plot. Put in 10–15 minutes a day on that one thing you wish you were better at, and you’ll see change.

Remember, believe in yourself and be persistent. The human brain is a magnificent work of evolution. Do any of these things for 15 minutes a day, and your mind will be better for it.

Recap for your memory

  1. Practice brain games and other cognitively challenging games.
  2. Fall in love with your curiosity and learn in your free time rather than be entertained. People that seem smart are often just well-read.
  3. Develop your creativity by trying to think of radically different things in a tit-for-tat escalation. Then, at the end, find a way to connect the two most unrelated things.
  4. Set aside 15 minutes to meditate each day.
  5. Practice deliberate learning. Focus on things you want to be better at. Develop your passion and competency will follow.

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