You have a big deadline looming but you’ve been bingeing ‘90s sitcoms on Netflix for the last four hours. Or maybe you get totally overwhelmed by the slightest bit of emotional stress, even though rationally you know it’s not a big deal.
This behavior happens to everyone, and it definitely isn’t weakness on your part — it comes down to how your brain is wired.
Without training, your brain is reactive. It seeks comfort above all else and chases whatever is right in front of you. Getting your brain to do difficult things — working, staying calm, dealing with stress — takes effort, especially if you aren’t in the habit of controlling it.
Fortunately, your brain is extraordinarily pliable, and with the right tools, you can rewire your brain pathways to respond better to challenging situations. Read on to learn how to reset your brain — at a biological level — for more focus and calm.
In a recent Bulletproof Radio podcast episode (iTunes), developmental molecular biologist John Medina discussed two of your brain’s functions that play a major role in helping you perform at your best:
Executive dictates your ability to plan ahead and think rationally. Your prefrontal cortex oversees executive function and impulse control — how well you can delay gratification. Strong executive function is essential for focus and productivity.
If you struggle to plan ahead — and to delay gratification now so you can reap rewards later — you’ll end up procrastinating and your productivity will tank.
Run by both your amygdala and prefrontal cortex, emotional awareness decides how fully you can feel and handle strong emotions without letting them overwhelm you. Emotional awareness is essential for feeling happy and keeping stress in check.
When you’re reactive to the challenges in daily life, you release cortisol, your body’s stress hormone. Cortisol is damaging; if you’re reactive and pumping it out consistently, it subtly drains your energy and leaves you exhausted.
Executive function and emotional awareness support each other, and they’re both key to living well.
Neuroscientists have a saying: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
When you do something over and over and get the same result, it quite literally builds a neural pathway between the action and the outcome. If you eat donuts every time you’re stressed, you’ll start to associate donuts with comfort, and the two will begin to wire together in your brain. As the neurons in that pathway strengthen, it’ll become more and more automatic to reach for a donut when you’re agitated.
On the other hand, if you go work out every time you’re stressed, you’ll begin to associate exercise with relieving stress, and you’ll default to working out when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
This process of coupling action with outcome explains why building good daily habits is so powerful. It also explains why breaking bad ones is so challenging: you are tearing down existing brain pathways and building new ones.
You may have heard that it takes you 21 days to form a new habit. That’s pop science, to a degree. The real number is closer to 66 days. Don’t get discouraged, though: every time you do something, it lights up a neural pathway and strengthens it. Each time the pathway gets stronger, it gets a little bit easier to stick to your habit.
Researchers have quantified it: by day 66, you’ve grown a strong new brain pathway, and what started as a struggle has become almost automatic, or at least as automatic as it can be.
With that in mind, here are four daily habits you can use to build a calmer, more focused brain. They work together, and you can even build them all into a morning routine to start your day off right.
Try out these four strategies for the next 66 days to make them into habits that will sharpen your brain and calm your mind:
Endurance training — consistent, moderate-intensity exercise like long-distance running or swimming — dramatically increases a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) for several hours after you work out.
BDNF is an extraordinary molecule. It enhances your ability to learn and stay focused — so much so that researchers dub it “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Endurance training also wires your prefrontal cortex so you can better deal with discomfort and keep going — a trait that applies to all parts of your life, including emotional stability. That’s a lot of cognitive benefit that comes from jogging.
Start your morning with a quick run; you’ll be more mentally efficient for the first half of the day, and over time, you’ll become more emotionally resilient, learning to deal with life’s challenges in stride. A mile or two is enough to get the cognitive benefits. If that distance is daunting, start slowly and work your way up over time.
Going without food for 12-16 hours also increases BDNF levels, which could explain why so many people report enhanced focus when they fast.
Pair a morning run with skipping breakfast to double down on your BDNF and supercharge your brain. You’ll also strengthen your willpower muscle, which will translate to better emotional processing — the desire to snap at someone and the desire to break your fast early are both rooted in impulse control.
Bulletproof Intermittent Fasting is a great way to upgrade regular fasting. It gives you many of the benefits of a traditional fast, plus extra energy and clarity to help you power through your morning.
Meditating every day increases your ability to focus and resist distraction over long periods of time. It’s also great for stress relief. Even 5 minutes a day can do wonders for your sense of wellbeing and soothe your nervous system. Try this guided meditation to get started.
Have you ever felt peaceful and relaxed after a cup of green tea? That’s L-theanine at work. It’s a natural component of tea leaves that eases psychological stress. L-theanine also works synergistically with caffeine: together, the two sharpen your reaction time and memory and increase your mental endurance. The result is calm productivity.
You can drink tea — which has moderate amounts of caffeine and L-theanine — for a gentler mental boost. For a stronger effect, pair 200 mg of a quality L-theanine supplement with your morning Bulletproof Coffee.
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