Let this brain scientist optimize your morning routine
Struggling to focus throughout your workday? You’re not alone. We live in a world of never-ending distractions, making it harder to concentrate for long periods of time. However, a few simple changes to your morning routine can significantly boost your cognitive functioning. As a neuroscientist, these are the habits that I try to follow each day in order to operate at peak mental performance. Here’s a step-by-step guide to a morning routine that’s kind to your brain.
Step 1: prioritize getting eight hours of sleep
Researchers estimate that the average American slept between eight and nine hours a night in the 1960s. Now, the American Sleep Association puts that figure closer to six hours and 40 minutes. That simply isn’t enough for you to function at your peak (although, interestingly, nine hours is likely to be too much for some people). You should aim to get between seven and eight hours of shut-eye since any less will likely impact on your pituitary function, which regulates crucial hormones governing your appetite, mood, alertness, and eventually your overall resilience. Of course, you won’t always be able to get a great night’s sleep every night, but having a consistent target to aim for is an important first step.
Step 2: Hydrate first thing, and don’t mask it with caffeine
Ever have that groggy feeling when you wake up, and decide to remedy it by downing a double espresso? That’s actually the worst thing you can do for your brain and body first thing in the morning. When you’re still feeling tired after getting up, you’re probably dehydrated, and a high-caffeine pick-me-up acts as a diuretic, sapping even more water from your body.
Instead, start your day with a glass of water, a big mug of hot water and lemon, or a cup of turmeric tea. This ancient spice has been shown to improve memory function and concentration even after a single 400mg dose due to the active ingredient in it: curcumin. Some varieties combine green tea and turmeric for a double brain boost. Green tea, to be fair, does have caffeine, but it contains considerably less than black tea or coffee and is packed with antioxidant compounds that boost brain health. If you add a teaspoon of coconut oil to the mix, you may even get an extra 20-minute brain boost.
Step 3: Stretch
It might feel like stretching is a luxury you can’t afford when you’re rushing to work. But it’s a great way to wake up your brain and your muscles. Doing a mini yoga circuit–like a few minutes of sun salutations–will improve oxygen flow to your brain. Any upside-down poses–even just lying on the floor with your legs against the wall–enhances blood flow and redistributes nutrients to the upper half of your body.
Step 4: Meditate for 12 minutes
Around 80% of the most successful leaders I’ve worked with go through regular mindfulness routines in the morning. Mindfulness meditation can improve your focus and executive function, the higher-level thinking required for effective and flexible problem-solving. These practices also decrease rumination, a type of negative thinking that acts like a brain-energy vampire, especially in the morning. And you don’t need to do it for very long to reap the benefits; a 2010 study using U.S. Marines as volunteers showed that just 12 minutes a day was enough to increase mental resilience.
Step 5: Eat the same breakfast at the same time
Sustained energy is the key to mental performance. Great brain-friendly breakfast choices include eggs, avocado, salmon, nuts, seeds, and berries. Avoid pastries and white bread and sugary cereals, all of which will give you a mental and physical dip a few hours after eating them. Eating your breakfast at the same time every day also helps regulate your circadian rhythm and digestion, priming your brain for peak performance and reducing the need for unnecessary decision-making.
Step 6: Start your workday with the most difficult tasks
Neurotransmitters such as serotonin take a natural 24-hour dip at around 3 p.m. So it’s worth arranging challenging meetings or complex tasks that are likely to be most cognitively demanding, early in the day. That’s the time when your brain energy is at its peak, so make sure you’re taking advantage of it.
Fortunately, doing that doesn’t mean adopting a complicated, lengthy morning routine. Begin by introducing these habits and, if need be, re-sequencing the ones you’ve already adopted; you can start small by making just one change at a time. A morning routine that optimizes your brain for peak performance is as much about what you do after waking up as how and when you do it.