Beyond Meditation: Improving Brain Health And Performance

Image Source: Medicalxpress

Brain health is a fascinating topic. We know so little about our brains yet they drive everything we do. Meditation and the concept of mindfulness are popular topics, yet we don’t understand how we arrive at the benefits that everyone talks about. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of us don’t know how our brains actually work.

The good news is that we’re in new period of health and wellness where doctors can accurately see how our brains function, and even pinpoint the specific areas where our brains malfunction. This is very different from the traditional, assumption-based approach to making diagnoses in mental health. We are also learning that in many cases, real treatment doesn’t require the help of chemical drugs in order for us to find balance or heal.

 The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. is an informative read that focuses on brain elasticity. He presents the concept that that we can redesign our brains by understanding how they work from a mechanical perspective.

For example, you know when you have trouble recalling a memory, or a specific word? Blame it on the gradual neglect of the brain’s attentional system. In short, our brains become noisy. When this happens, the signal for a new memory can’t compete against the background electrical activity of the brain. This causes a signal-to-noise problem.

Using practical explanations paired with real-world stories, Doidge covers topics ranging from healing through neuroplastic therapy to everyday practices for preserving our brains.

In Change Your Brain, Change Your LifeDr. Amen calls out the main issue with  mental health today – we are “throwing medication-tipped darts” at issues unproven through science.

He relies on a technology called SPECT  to discover which areas of the brain over or under perform. Unlike an MRI or CAT scan,  a SPECT scan shows the electrical activity happening within your brain as it functions. Based on this, he is able to find the cause of a problem through factual evidence.

A SPECT scan is expensive – it’ll set you back $3,500. In Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, he presents methods for anyone to improve their brain health. Treatment methods are broken into four core areas, or 4 overlapping circles, where we can take a balanced approach to assessment and healing.

  1. Biological – how your body actually functions. This is the physical aspect of how your brain and body work together. Factors include nutrition, exercise, sleep, hormones, genetics, and overall physical health.
  1. Psychological – developmental issues and how you think. This includes how we talk to ourselves, self-concept, body image, traumas, upbringing, and significant developmental events.
  1. Social – social support and your current life. This includes the quality of one’s relationships and current life stressors. For example, depression is often triggered by stressful life events involving others, and the health habits of the people with whom we spend time with have a dramatic impact on habits and well-being.
  1. Spiritual – your sense of meaning and purpose. Having a sense of purpose allows us to reach beyond ourselves to affirm that our lives matter.

Mental health is a topic we tread lightly, as though we are somehow considered “broken” or “weak” when addressed. The irony is that our brains are actually the CEOs of our bodies –  influencing every thought we have, each action we take and the behaviors we choose to express. If we treat mental health in a reactive way rather than a circumstantial one, we can break these taboos and become higher functioning human-beings in the process.

Meditation Can Literally Rewire Your Brain

Photo: WoodlyWonderworks, Finding Balance

Photo: WoodleyWonderworks, Finding Balance

I’ve been meditating on and off for the past ten years. It wasn’t until late last year that I started getting consistent about my practice.

There are two big reasons why I made it a daily habit. First, I joined a group called The Catalyst Collective. As part of the 8-week pilot program  we were asked to do the following things daily: write, get 20 minutes of physical exercise, and meditate.

I’ve always liked meditation. In theory it’s so easy – just sit there and breathe? No problem! I quickly came to notice that dropping into a meditative state is not as simple as it seems. With personal coaching from Palomi Sheth I’ve been able to take my sessions deeper through regular practice mixed with a variety of visualization exercises.

Step 1: Calm and center the physical body. A solid technique for this is to do a body scan.

Step 2: Become aware of your mind’s activity.  Notice, then release, the crazy parade of thoughts and feelings going through your mind. Releasing these thoughts is key and tends to be the most challenging part of meditation, for me at least.

One technique that’s worked for me is to imagine each thought as a balloon. After identifying the thought, I acknowledge it – then release the balloon from my head space.

Another successful technique is to view your thoughts as a film reel. Observe the film as it plays, then move yourself further from the screen.

These first two steps usually take me twenty minutes or more before I drop into a meditative state.

Some nights it doesn’t work at all. In the Catalyst group we talked about even doing a few minutes of deep breathing to get the habit going. And it worked! I saw results – those few minutes spent sitting and breathing helped me relax and recenter right away.

Since then, I’ve made an effort to meditate every evening right before bedtime. Many people find that mornings are equally if not more effective. Here are three ways meditation has helped me and how it can be beneficial to your lifestyle.

  1. Stress reduction.

I’ve been coping  with high levels of anxiety my entire life. In the past few years I’ve discovered new ways to manage and avoid compounding it. Some would call it a flaw, others a feature. Either way, meditation has helped me to remove myself from the craziness. It helps me to learn that the things I fret over are not worth worrying about at all.  

  1.  Promotes mindfulness.  

One of my favorite exercises is to visualize a set of Jenga blocks. When I see the initial stack, the blocks are all out of order. They form a jagged tower and it’s about to tip over. As I continue to breathe, the blocks align.  This exercise is incredibly centering and  goes great after steps 1 and 2 above.

  1.  Improves focus and concentration.

It’s ironic that during meditation, I focus on nothing at all. Yet in my daily life, meditation helps me to focus on one thing at a time and give it 100% of my energy.

There are countless other benefits. Meditation has been proven to support the immune system,  increase happiness, and slow  the aging process. If you’re new to meditation don’t worry about doing the right type or having the right tools  (i.e. the latest app).

The best technique is age-old and strips everything else away: simply sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe.

Smart Watch Review: The Vector Luna

Vector Smartwatch synced to iPhone app

Vector Smartwatch synced to iPhone app

As far as smartwatches go the Vector excels in both design and technical prowess.

It does exactly what ones assumes a smartwatch would do. It notifies the wearer of the info he or she wishes to receive. It also serves as an elegant and reliable timepiece — nothing more, nothing less.

People tend to converse about smartwatches in the same way they do about Google Glass. What’s a smartwatch other than another digital device stealing our time and attention? Do we really want another barrier to real human connection, especially one that from the very beginning appears to be somewhat gauche?

In our information-crazed society where FOMO is a real thing, aren’t we distracted enough?

I’ve written about why I’d prefer not to wear one. I even went so far as to wear a sweater with an 8-bit Tamagotchi across the chest that pays homage to William Gibson’s Tamagotchi gesture.

In a 1999 essay from Wired describing his obsession with buying traditional timepieces on eBay, Gibson says:

Mechanical watches partake of the Tamagotchi Gesture: They’re pointless yet needful, comforting precisely because they require tending.

I don’t disagree that a timepiece requires tending. Sure, the Vector needs tending – it needs to be charged. And maybe at some point I’ll swap out a wristband or two.

From a moral perspective, isn’t the watch disturbing with all its notifications? Doesn’t it add to the level of digital noise instead of help reduce it, given that we’re already trying to turn down the noise (be it mental or digital) to begin with?

Let’s back up for a second. If digital distraction is the topic here, the iPhone is a lost cause. Think about it: it’s basically a computer we keep in our back pocket and program to go off all the time.

The smartwatch enables one to filter out everything except for the absolutely necessary.

And the phone can be put away.

The only notifications I have set up are incoming calls, text messages, Facebook messenger (the only reason outside of groups I still use Facebook), and Uber. Those are enough. All of the messages filtered to come through are from those I actually know.

I can also put the device in silent mode. That way I can move along with the activities and tasks that are truly important without worrying that no one can reach me. (Yes, a luxury problem that didn’t exist thirty years ago.)

The watch doesn’t interfere the way phones do, as long as we set them up to act that way. 

It’s also helpful to simply, well, glance down. For example, I can look down at my wrist and learn that the friend I’m meeting for brunch is five minutes away. There’s no need to dig out the iPhone, unlock it, and swipe. This literally eliminates at least two, three, possibly more actions taken depending on your setup and use.

I got the Vector Watch for several reasons but mostly, because I wanted to attach myself to something beautiful.

And the Vector is just that. The hardware is sleek and fully customizable from both an interface and hardware perspective. You can choose from several faces, bands and sizes.

You can essentially design a timepiece that looks like a classic mechanical watch. From a distance one barely notices that it’s a smartwatch – it’s that discreet.

When I got my Vector in late 2015 there were only a limited number of digital watch faces available. The file sizes must’ve been larger then, too — I was only able to download a handful. They must be iterating quickly, or maybe it’s because they’ve opened up their platform to developers because many more have rolled out since then ranging from classic to abstract. They even offered a heart-themed face on Valentine’s Day.

While it’s stream features are somewhat limited at present (and this may be intentional) the smartwatch offers basic functional features like a timer, alarm, weather info and news. For those who like to dabble in quantified self one has the ability to measure steps, calories burned, and hours of sleep, although there is no Fitbit-like interface for digging more deeply into the data.

The battery life also falls short of expectation (it’s closer to three weeks versus four). Other more nuanced personal grievances revolve around display resolution and storage.

The vector is cross platform, meaning that it’s compatible with both Android and iPhone devices. I tried it out on both and it worked just fine.

All in all, the Vector is a beautiful marriage between form and function; a high quality product that hasn’t glitched on me yet in the five months I’ve had it.  Sleek, intuitive design meets helpful technology – this is where the Vector truly shines.

Will it last five years though, as a traditional timepiece would? Probably not. It’s certain to say that in five years there will be a more sophisticated device taking its place. It will be interesting to see if there will be long-term debate about mechanical versus digital, or if they will simply be treated as separate species.

Within the former the mechanical watch will almost certainly win every time. Within the latter, the traditional watch will take home the categories of reliability and tradition as the smartwatch continues to dazzle on.

Getting To Inbox Zero In 3 Hours Or Less

Photo Credit: Liane Metzler via Unsplash

Photo Credit: Liane Metzler via Unsplash

I always thought “inbox zero” was an urban myth. How is it possible that one’s inbox could have literally no emails in it whatsoever?

The last time I checked there were around twenty-thousand messages. Incoming ones starred for later, bookmarked newsletters going back to the beginning of time begging for acknowledgement — the dutiful read, watch, response, purchase or listen that may or may not make our lives slightly more whole.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a hoarder of information. I’m pretty much obsessed with emailing myself several times daily — links to recipes, lengthy thought pieces, cute shoes — never to be opened at the fabled moment for where there’s actually time. Let’s face it, emails generate more work than pleasure. And if the case was in fact pleasure, my pocketbook surely wouldn’t be pleased.

I also have a terrible habit of staring at my inbox for moments on end. I sit unblinking and motionless, eyeballs glossing over the never ending list. Whether starred, marked as “important and unread,” or falling within the categorical everything else, without moving a muscle the meter on my forehead goes from full to hovering near bone dry.

One Friday evening I decided to take matters into my own hands. It was time to part with these missives from the past. They were slogging things down, preventing crystal-clear clarity in order to have a more fulfilling, energized, and productive day.

Here’s how I finally reached the ever-so-elusive Inbox Zero in less than three hours.

1. I took to e-mail management tools.

Basically, if there’s a way to cheat through technology I’m going to do it. In this case the enablers were Sanebox and Boomerang.

I implemented Sanebox to filter out everything that wasn’t urgent. Most emails were automatically delivered to a new inbox called “SaneLater.” Urgent e-mails, as defined in this case, arrive directly in my main inbox from the fingertips of human beings I actually know. Anything and everything else goes to SaneLater.

I made use of Boomerang, which I’ve had installed for years and never actually noticed. I scheduled starred emails to return on the day an action item was due. The original message was then archived.

2. I took the plunge.

The great thing about Gmail is that all your archived emails are still searchable (via the nav bar at the top). They live in a far-off place you don’t need to visit unless absolutely necessary, far away from your actual inbox.

Sanebox offers a simple and useful methodology for e-mail management: Delegate, Defer, Delete, Respond, and Do.

After responding to, rescheduling, or filing away everything timely I could find, I did the unimaginable. I selected everything in my inbox — I mean everything — and *gulp* clicked Archive.

Sanebox has a tiny learning curve when it comes to additional features. Part of the fun is leveraging them for specific needs.

For example, I don’t always need a message to return if I don’t hear back from the recipient. I do, however, need constant reminders in order to follow up with people within a reasonably courteous timeframe and/or get things done by a specific date. Having the message go away then reappear when the timing is relevant is a hack that’s been working massively well for me so far.

After it was all said and done, my inbox looked like this!

IMG_4517

Day one went flawlessly. By removing the clutter I felt immeasurably energized and ready to do the deep work instead of staring at the screen in an overwhelmed stupor. I didn’t miss anything about the old e-mail workspace. I found myself attacking the “to dos” — the major bullseyes of the day that mattered most.

Email became secondary to workflow. Actual work came first. By using chunks of time specifically set aside for e-mail I now manage inbound communications tactically (while attempting to avoid becoming obsessed with the notion of persistent zero!). This week was noticeably more productive — my headspace has been clearer and I found that my mood was actually better.

All in all, the tedious effort was worth it in the end.  Inbox Zero for the win!

Now, does anyone have any tips for keeping it this way?!

8 Ways Minimalism Can Increase Your Productivity

I’ve moved a handful of times in the past few years. In order to make each transition go smoother than silk all efforts were made to donate or sell as much as humanly possible. (The word I used on repeat was “…catharsis!”)

In the end, it felt great to donate all those clothes I’d never wear again. I was initially sad to part with all the books I secretly knew I’d never read, knowing they’d find a better use in the end. The cooking supplies I’d barely use and stacks of house records I was holding onto for reasons only the vinyl gods know why — all of those things I simply didn’t need any more. They were a nice to have, but didn’t define or help me grow in any significant way within the present tense.

Change can be tough, but it has its silver linings. In the end, when I moved from New York to San Francisco my things were narrowed down to two suitcases and ten medium-to-large boxes. I could’ve pared it down even further but for some reason felt inclined to retain a shred of comfort found in the semblance of “stuff.”

After landing in San Francisco I moved into a studio apartment with only those two suitcases. I’d live there for two weeks as the boxes were in transit. On day 2, I realized that I’d packed a (mostly fabulous) wardrobe in those two suitcases but nothing more. So, I went to the store and purchased basic silverware, a cup, two plates and a french press. I then realized that if the boxes never arrived I’d be okay with that — there was something freeing about living with just the basics.

It was then I made the decision to bring new things into the apartment only when absolutely necessary. If something new was acquired, something old had to go. A year later, I’ve managed to keep my studio apartment fairly clean and relatively clutter free even after the boxes finally did arrive. This approach has done wonders for my head space too.

Here are eight ways that living a minimalist lifestyle has helped me to become better organized, slightly more focused and increasingly productive. I hope it helps you in some ways, too!

1. Your priorities are in clearer view.

When my space is very simple I am better able to focus on what needs to be accomplished in the present moment. Focusing on only the essential in the physical realm has helped me do the same in business. I pick two to three targets and use them as “bullseyes” to hit for the day. Like “stuff,” the challenge then becomes re-prioritizing the rest of the incoming noise trying to get in.

2. Less physical clutter = less mental cutter.

This sounds like a no-brainer but is truly revelatory when put into regular practice. You’ll be able to focus more when there’s less around you to visually and mentally take in.

3. You’ll spend less energy decision-making.

My diet is mostly vegan — on busier weeks I’ll order from a service like Hungry Root and other weeks cook simple dishes with slight variations at home. My closet consists of a  basic color palette of all neutral colors (black, white, gray, navy blue). I have go-to outfits for board meetings and other events for when it’s necessary to step it up a notch. Having quality pieces ready to go removes my mind from the details of getting ready, and instead puts me in the mindset of whatever it is I’m preparing for for the day.

4. Quality becomes a priority.

Back when I was buying things to satisfy a temporary need it was perfectly fine to buy cheap, throw-away items. Clothing that would fall apart in the wash, poorly made furniture, rickety kitchen appliances. I look at things now as more of an investment to buy only once.

5.  You’ll save tons of time.

I’ve been able to dedicate more time to the important things like investing in personal projects or in meaningful relationships with others. You’ll save time on housekeeping to-dos like cleaning and maintenance. Not to mention, the urge to “shop” or “run errands” completely goes away. All kinds of extra time opens up for the things that matter most to you.

6. Your pocketbook will thank you.

‘Nuff said!

7. There is literally nothing holding you back.

I have a home but don’t feel tied to it. I can comfortably travel, spend the weekend at my S/O’s, and feel happy and content knowing that if I need to move again at a moment’s notice — or have the opportunity to travel the world! —  I can easily do so. A tie no longer exists to  physical things that restrict me from moving around the world with ease.

8You will find yourself living a simpler, more conscious lifestyle with more intention and clarity than ever before. That’s the goal, at least! : )