Get mentally stronger: 10 ways to upgrade your brain

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Hit the gym more

Doing the right thing is easier if you turn it into a habit. Research by US neuroscientist Dr Ann Graybiel shows that neural activity in the region of the brain responsible for habits is triggered at the beginning (cue) and end (reward) of a habit. During the habit itself the brain runs on autopilot. Place your gym kit by the door (the cue) and enjoy a post-workout smoothie (the reward) and you’ll progress to a regular morning gym routine (the habit).

Drink less booze 

Make better decisions using ‘implementation intentions’. Formulated by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, these resemble if/then plans: ‘If I’m offered a drink, then I’ll order half a pint’; ‘If I’m still in the pub at 9pm, I’ll drink water’. They automatically override fragile intentions.

Work smarter 

Willpower is a finite resource. In a 1998 study in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology some subjects were allowed to eat cookies while others were told to resist them. They were then set a tough work task in the form of a geometry puzzle. Those who resisted the cookies gave up 12 minutes earlier. Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse so tackle your hardest tasks before lunchtime or at the start of the week.

Run further

The secret to forming good habits is to start small, according to Stanford University’s Dr BJ Fogg ( ‘If you don’t make your behaviour tiny you will almost certainly fail to create a daily habit,’ says Fogg. His method involves starting small to release positive emotions through success, and anchoring your habit to an existing routine. Fogg started a habit by doing two press-ups every time he peed. Now he does 100 press-ups a day. Begin a running habit by putting your trainers on at the start of every lunch break. Then move on to running up one street and gradually begin to go further. Your run will quickly become absorbed into your daily routine.

Eat better lunches

Changing your lunch environment can improve your food choices. A 2005 study by Duke University in the US revealed that 45% of habits are repeated in the same location. ‘Most people don’t realise that the reason they eat fast food at lunch is because those actions are cued by their daily routines, the sight and smell of the food or the location they’re in,’ says psychology professor Wendy Wood. Eating a meal in a canteen rather than at your snack-friendly desk or steering your lunchtime walk away from that row of takeaways will smash the bad habits.

Boost self-discipline

Exercising regularly – not sporadically – will automatically upgrade your ‘self-regulation’, or in other words your capacity to override undesirable responses. Regular exercisers made fewer impulse buys, lost their temper fewer times, watched less TV, missed fewer appointments and even did more washing up, according to a 2006 study in the British Journal of Health Psychology

Think more clearly

Ever wondered why Barack Obama only wears grey or blue suits? ‘You need to focus your decision-making energy,’ he once said. ‘You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’ He’s right: an American study revealed that subjects who were asked to make lots of small decisions on a questionnaire made more errors in subsequent calculation tests. Skip petty everyday choices, such as which shoes to wear or what flavour of yogurt to buy, and you’ll free up mental bandwidth to ponder the important stuff. 

Shop sensibly

A study by Brigham Young University in the US revealed that shoppers with a heightened sense of balance automatically chose a mid-range product from a range of options. ‘If you're someone who tends to overspend… maybe you ought to consider shopping in high heels,’ says study author Professor Jeff Larson. Fortunately the heels aren’t strictly necessary: the researchers obtained their results by asking shoppers to make buying decisions while leaning back on two legs of a chair or while standing on one foot. The study suggested that balance is ‘metaphorically linked in the mind to the concept of parity’. Try a few physical balancing drills when you shop and you’ll instinctively be more mentally balanced too.

Save more money

Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist and co-author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, believes that financial problems lead to short-term tunnel vision, which means we struggle to see beyond our present predicament and ruins savings strategies. ‘The psychology of scarcity engrosses us in only our present needs,’ says Mullainathan, whose studies have shown that money worries can cause an IQ drop of 13-14 points. To outwit the bad habits of your money-troubled brain, he suggests you save money by setting up a default system that automatically siphons off a little each month – consider it an ‘electronic habit’. Mullainathan’s studies also show that financial security elevates your problem-solving skills, so you’ll automatically upgrade your brain power as well as your bank account.

Snack more healthily 

You can master your cravings by building new neural pathways, according to Loretta Breuning, author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals ( Neural pathways can be built by ‘rewards’, such as the fat and sugar in chocolate, which release happy chemicals, but they can also develop through repetition. ‘If you repeat a new behaviour for 45 days, the electricity in your brain will start surging down the new path you’ve created for it,’ says Breuning. Start eating a handful of nuts whenever you crave a snack and you’ll soon have bulging neural superhighways that always equate snack time with healthy, protein-rich nuts.  

Former contributor

Mark Bailey is a features writer and interviewer who contributed to Coach magazine in 2015 and Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach, until 2019. Mark has also written for national newspapers including The Telegraph and The Financial Times Magazine, as well as magazines and websites such as Cyclist and Bike Radar.