We're all buried in an avalanche of information, but few of us ever act on that information. Knowledge is power only when we put it to use. Whether we're reading books, consuming blogs, watching TED videos or attending presentations, how many of us make notes of helpful advice and then put those notes into action? The percentage is low.
In The Little Book of Talents: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, author Daniel Coyle says, "Learning is reaching. Passively reading a book—a relatively effortless process, letting the words wash over you like a warm bath—doesn’t put you in the sweet spot. Less reaching equals less learning." The fact is, our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing or reading about them.
Research also shows that our brain is constantly recording information on a temporary basis. If the information doesn't come up again, our brain dumps it, and we forget 50 to 80 percent of what we learned.
A very smart habit to get into is to take notes on the information you find interesting, then put those notes into action. To help you get started, here are five scientific discoveries that can help you make full use of your brain's potential.
Put the Zeigarnik Effect to Use
The Zeigarnik Effect—named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik—is our tendency to have intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete. Zeigarnik studied this phenomenon after her professor, sitting at a restaurant in Vienna, noticed that waiters only remembered orders that were in the process of being served and had little recollection later of orders that were completed. During her research, she discovered that an incomplete job, or unfinished business, creates a discomfort within us. It's in our human nature to want to finish what we start and, if it's not finished, we experience dissonance.
How can you benefit from this information? Think about the projects you need to work on but are putting off and simply start now, even if you only take a small step. The Zeigarnik Effect will likely kick in, and you'll feel a need for closure, which will increase your chances of completing the project.
The University of Kansas reports that more than one-third of American adults use the snooze button at least three times every morning, and more than half of all people aged 25 to 34 hit the snooze button on a daily basis. If you're in the habit of snoozing your alarm clock to get an extra few minutes sleep in the morning, stop this habit now. Research has shown that when you hit the snooze button, you enter another sleep cycle. By interrupting this cycle, you not only hurt your health, but you end up waking up feeling tired and groggy, which will cause you to perform poorly.
If you need more sleep, just set your alarm for a little later and bypass the snooze button altogether. Think "mind over mattress," and get yourself out of bed promptly. If this is difficult for you to do, get the Alarmy (Sleep If U Can) app, available at the iTunes Store. This app forces users out of bed by making them register a place at night and when the alarm goes off, they have to go to the registered place and snap a picture before the alarm clock will turn off.
Try Power Posing to Lower Your Stress
Amy Cuddy, social psychologist at Harvard Business School, studies nonverbal behavior such as postures of dominance and power. She discovered that there's a link between adopting such postures and our hormonal levels. In her TED talk, Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, she reports on her findings and says that adopting an expansive power stance (such as spreading your legs, placing your hands on your hips or striking the "CEO" pose, which is legs resting on desk and arms behind your head) for as little as two minutes increases the level of testosterone in your body, making you feel more powerful. At the same time, it decreases the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your bloodstream. Here you can see Cuddy's power poses visualized.
If you're prone to anxiety prior to an important presentation, use this information to help you decrease your stress level and give yourself a psychological boost so you can present with power. Rather than hunching over your speaking notes as you review them, you're better off going to a private place and making yourself as big as you can by spreading your legs and stretching your arms out as far as you can. Do this for a few minutes before going to the front of the room, and see what happens.
Know the Optimal Time for Making a Big Decision
In the just-released book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin says the information age is drowning us with an unprecedented deluge of data, while, at the same time, we're expected to make more decisions, faster, every day. This leads us to be mentally fatigued at the end of the day.
“Each time you make a decision, it uses some neuro-resources," Levitin says. “If you spend your day making a bunch of little decisions and it comes time to make a big important one, you’re neurologically depleted.”
How can you benefit from this information? If you're scheduling a meeting during which you expect to make a big decision, you're better off holding the meeting in the morning when you're not prone to what Levitin calls "decision fatigue."
Other research reported in a Scientific American Mind article, "Sleep On It: How Snoozing Makes You Smarter," shows that while we're sleeping, our brain is busily processing the day’s information. It engages in data analysis, finding hidden relations among memories and coming up with solutions to problems we were working on while awake. Sleep even weeds out irrelevant details so only the important pieces remain. This helps us to consider an issue with a clearer mind in the morning. The old adage of "sleep on it" seems to have a scientific basis to it.
When you have an important decision to make and you're unsure how to proceed, think about delaying the decision until the next morning. Chances are, you may be able to see things more clearly.
Spend 12 Minutes a Day Meditating
Research reported in a recent Scientific American article, "Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime," shows that as few as 12 minutes of meditation a day helped prevent the stress of military service from deteriorating the working memory of Marines. If it does this for Marines, can you imagine what it would do for you to boost your resilience in the face of daily stress?
If you're not self-motivated to start your own meditation routine, try some meditation apps such as Buddhify, Headspace and Universal Meditation. You can also sign up for the free 12 lessons in meditation from The Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. There are also many online meditation videos, such as the one offered by the Mayo Clinic.
There's a wealth of information resources at our fingertips that can make us happier, healthier, more productive and more successful. Two quick gateways to these resources are TED Summaries and Useful Science.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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