Mental agility is more than just quickness of mind. A person who is mentally agile is able to think on their feet, solve problems and be creative at work. Cultivate this ability and you’ll be more effective at your job, brainstorm better solutions to your teams’ problems and ultimately be more successful in your career.
Some companies work to help employees strengthen their mental agility. Beck Bamberger, founder of BAM Communications, reserves a portion of her team’s weekly meetings for games that help them learn to think, and answer questions, on their feet.
“We throw out a meaty topical question and call on individuals to answer the prompt within 60 seconds,” Bamberger told Fast Company.
“Once you’ve had the experience of answering 30 or so of these tough and unpredictable questions, you’re far more in shape to handle with confidence any questions clients or audience members may throw your way,” she explained.
But, you don’t have to play brain games like this at work to improve your own thinking skills. There are lots of quick and easy ways to advance your abilities.
Here are some tips and tricks for boosting your mental agility:
Agility refers to the ability to be intellectually sharp and quick. It also has to do with moving with nimbleness between ideas. It’s all about being able to think fast and flexibly. It’s really a host of skills and abilities, not just one. Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to strengthen these traits within yourself.
1. Read more
Reading is great exercise for your brain. The benefits are varied and impressive. Reading helps relieve stress and it improves cognitive functioning skills. It’s entertaining, it helps increase empathy and it can even improve your memory. So, while unwinding by scrolling social media during your downtime on your phone might be tempting, try picking up a book instead.
Reading can help protect memory and thinking skills, especially as they start to decline with age. It slows this decline by improving mental flexibility overall and keeping important parts of the brain working. Research from the University of Liverpool found that the brain scans of individuals who had recently read poetry showed increased activity and connectivity.
2. Focus on finding lots of possible solutions, not just the best one
Part of the reason why it can be hard to think on your feet is that you want to do a good job and come up with the “right” answer. You’re setting the bar awfully high when you’re overly focused on trying to find the best solution. Instead, start with a brainstorm. Allow yourself to think of as many potential answers or solutions to a challenge that you can.
A study from 2011 assessed folks’ levels of divergent thinking by asking them to come up with as many uses for a paper clip as they could. Some came up with 10 or 15 uses. But, others generated a list closer to 200.
This exercise can help you sharpen your divergent thinking skills. Practice coming up with multiple answers — not just one answer — when challenges come your way. The more you do this, the easier it will become.
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3. Take a hike
Regular exercise correlates with a host of physical and intellectual benefits. It boosts your energy, improves your mood and helps you sleep well at night. If you want to boost your mental agility, committing to getting more exercise is a great move.
Your exercise routine doesn’t have to be strenuous in order for you to benefit. In fact, studies have shown that walking just two miles a day, five times per week lowers your risk of dementia. And, being in nature also helps to both ease and sharpen the mind. It boosts mood, concentration and overall wellness.
Many people live in urban areas where spending time in nature requires a little effort. Planning to be outdoors, getting exercise, during your time off can do wonders for your mental agility. Give it a try and see if you notice some positive effects.
4. Be protective of your mental energy
Another great way to boost your brain power is to learn to be more careful about how you spend it. Expend your mental energy wisely. Don’t waste it ruminating about things you can’t control.
The past is over and there isn’t anything you can do about it. And, you can’t control what others do or think either. So, instead of spending your time and energy worrying about things you can’t do anything about, focus on only those things you can control. You’ll be better prepared for the future if you spend your energy on finding solutions and making preparations.
Making a conscious effort to shift your focus isn’t as hard as it sounds. The more you practice being protective of your mental energy, the easier it will become. When you direct yourself away from thinking about things you’ve deemed a waste of time, you’ll begin to form new and healthier habits.
5. Try new things
Staying in your comfort zone can be relaxing and restorative and there’s certainly a time and place for that. However, you’re more likely to improve your mental agility if you learn something new once in a while. Trying new things can help prevent memory problems in older adults, but there are many benefits to learning new skills, at any age.
Challenging yourself with activities that exercise entirely different parts of your brain can help keep you sharp. For example, if you love to do crossword puzzles, keep it up. But, maybe learn chess on the side, too — especially if it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do. If you love to read, try picking up a book from a different genre. You might also sign up to take a cooking class or learn to play a new sport. Pushing yourself to do new things can help boost your mental agility.
6. Eliminate distractions
Your ability to focus waxes and wanes according to your environment. It stands to reason that it’s more difficult to think clearly when you’re being interrupted all the time. Still, work environments that are rife with these kinds of distractions are still the norm. Minimizing distractions can go a long way toward boosting your ability to focus and your mental agility.
If possible, set aside a time and place for some quiet and focused work each and every day. It doesn’t have to be for long. Even just an hour of uninterrupted work time can go a long way.
Also, when you are doing focused work, try to do just one thing at a time. The science on this is clear — multitasking just doesn’t work. So, don’t try to get more done by doing a bunch of things at once. It won’t work. You’ll be more productive if you focus in on just one task at a time.
7. Let go of self-consciousness
Nothing kills creativity faster than self-consciousness. It’s impossible to be creative when you’re worried about being judged by others. If you want your abilities to really shine, you have to believe in yourself.
Research shows a relationship between self-efficacy — or, your belief in your ability to perform specific tasks — and workplace performance. It turns out that how you see yourself has a big impact on your ability to learn and perform at your best.
The voice inside your head is more powerful than you might think. If you’re constantly telling yourself that you can’t do something, it’s going to have an impact. And, the opposite is also true. So, if you really want to strengthen your mental agility and perform at the top of your range at work, be aware of this effect and use it to your advantage. You’ll be better equipped to face the cognitive and intellectual challenges you encounter if you do.
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