I was brandishing a pair of fingernail clippers as my daughter ran out of the bathroom screaming. She didn’t want her fingernails trimmed.
“Come back!” I called. “You know it’s got to be done, so let’s get it over with.”
She groaned and came back into the bathroom.
“Okay,” I said. “Give me your foot.”
“My foot?” my daughter gasped.
I don’t normally call hands “feet.” Seriously. It just slipped out before I could think about it.
It would have been one of those odd and funny mistakes, except that it was happening more and more. My brain was short-circuiting…
And it was getting me into trouble.
Most of us don’t have to help our brains do their job.
Our brains convert our thoughts into words and actions all on their own.
When we need to think, our brains put those connections together. Neural circuits round up relevant information and process every possible outcome so we can make the best decision.
But about seven years ago, my brain stopped doing that.
I thought it was “pregnancy brain.” I’d hoped to finish several major writing projects before my daughter was born, only to find myself sitting at the computer with nothing in mind. I couldn’t compose a simple sentence. Emails took forever.
My brain didn’t come back online after I gave birth, either. Friends told me that breastfeeding was the culprit. I’d get my mental sharpness back as soon as I stopped.
I joked that having a child was like having an enormous app running in the background of my mind. If she was away at school, the app only used a little memory. But when she was home, the demands of the app slowed down the entire system.
What was I going to do with my obsolete brain?
My Brain Fog Journey
That was the beginning of my journey to claw back my mind.
What I really wanted was to be as sharp as I was in my twenties. My youthful brain could handle anything I could throw at it. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask to be able to have a conversation, listen to my GPS, and navigate driving on an unfamiliar road all at the same time?
Some suggested supplements like ginkgo biloba, fish oil, B12, vitamin D, acetyl-L-carnitine, ashwagandha, and rhodiola rosea.
I even tried Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee with chaga and lion’s mane after productivity expert Tim Ferriss raved about it. The coffee tasted fine (no, it doesn’t taste like mushrooms), but I didn’t notice a boost.
I was already eating well, exercising, and avoiding digital devices for at least an hour before bed. What more could I do?
Well, I could start listening to my body.
And here’s what I discovered.
4 Steps to a Better Brain
Step 1. Goodbye, multitasking.
Most of us think that multitasking makes us more efficient. What we don’t know is that multitasking is changing our brain.
Folks who heavily multitask—think of the guy who can hold a phone conversation while typing an email and ignoring the notifications popping up on his screen—are less productive and efficient than people who do just one thing at a time.
But here’s the catch:
Multitaskers FEEL like they’re more productive and efficient. Multitasking gives them the illusion of getting a lot more done, even while they’re doing worse.
That illusion is costly. The work we do while multitasking is never the same quality as focused work.
One way you can boost your brain’s performance is by asking less of it.
If you’re going to watch a movie, watch the movie—don’t text and check your Instagram at the same time. Turn off the TV or radio when you need to concentrate. Give your brain the space it needs to focus on what’s important.
Step 2. Pay attention to digestion.
If there’s one thing I knew I needed to avoid, in order to escape that dreaded afternoon slump, it was eating a big lunch.
Digestion chewed up resources I needed for my brain.
It turns out that your gut health is intimately tied to your brain health. Bad bacteria in the gut release histamine, a compound that can cause brain fog. Some people find relief with a low FODMAP diet.
Other research has found that taking probiotics, or “good bacteria,” can cause abnormally high levels of D-lactic acid, temporarily impairing cognition.
So look at what you’re eating if you find your brain getting foggier after a meal.
For me, the solution wasn’t changing what I was eating. It was changing WHEN I was eating.
People who do intermittent fasting condense their food intake into a small window of time, which means they tend to skip a meal.
I found that my body thrived on eating two meals a day rather than three. I skipped breakfast and ate my first meal of the day at lunchtime. I had dinner early, too, so my body had plenty of time to digest all that food before I went to sleep.
Eating fewer meals gave my body a rest from the hard work of digestion and helped my mental clarity.
Step 3. Work with your brain’s rhythms.
My brain is ready to rock from the moment I get up in the morning.
By 2pm, it’s already shutting down. My creative juices dry up.
So I plan my work accordingly. I schedule difficult work for the morning and rote tasks for the afternoon, when it’s hard to think. If I can manage it, I fit in a workout right when my energy starts to slump, so that my brain gets some time to recharge.
Even though that’s just a workaround—I’m not actually boosting my brain power—it helps me feel less stressed.
Stress is lethal to cognitive performance. According to the HearthMath Institute:
Our ability to focus, concentrate and remember has a lot to do with how much emotional stress we are experiencing.”
So if being unable to think is making you stressed, and the stress is making you even more unable to think, you’re getting caught up in a negative spiral. Make life easier for your brain by tweaking your schedule.
Step 4. Take time off.
Are you among the 1 in 2 American workers who don’t take all their vacation time each year?
Not only do Americans get fewer vacation days than folks in other countries, but they’re afraid to use them.
In today’s fast-paced world where employees know how replaceable they are, no one wants a holiday absence to jeopardize their career.
Americans are more likely to take short mini-breaks, such as 3-day weekends, rather than extended blocks of time off.
And all that work may be detrimental to their mental well-being.
That’s definitely true for me. Nothing impacts my cognition more than working through the weekend.
I work those extra days to catch up. I expect the extra effort will get me ahead. Instead, I pay for it. I spend the following week feeling exhausted. I take twice the time to do normal tasks. I forget things.
In the end, I’m no further ahead than if I’d taken the weekend off.
Time off protects us from overwhelm. It gives our brains a chance to reset. Long blocks of holiday time are better for the brain than short breaks, because it gives you a chance to fully unwind.
So if you’re struggling with feeling as mentally sharp as you did when you were in your twenties, check out the obvious culprits first. Get a medical checkup. Ask about the side effects of your medications. Eat a clean diet with plenty of omega 3s. Make sure you’re exercising, getting sunshine every day, and sleeping 8 hours.
But if none of those things works, start listening to your body. Find out what your body needs from you.
You may find that intermittent fasting gives you a mental boost. You may find that you do better when you put your phone away and focus on one thing at a time. You may simply need more of a break from work.
Brain performance does decline in certain areas as we age, but that doesn’t mean we have to take it sitting down.