Five-a-day mental habits

Andy Gibson of School Of Everything (disclosure: I’m an investor and board member) pinged me via this post. I was asked to list five things I do to keep myself mentally well (which I do below), to link to the Mindapples site (which I just did) and to invite, publicly,  five others to do the same (which I will do at the end of this post).

1. I go for a 30 min walk daily, varying my route as much as possible. Before I set off, I try and gauge how many steps I will need to reach my destination. This involves visualising the route, breaking it down into estimable chunks and then rounding it off. Then I try and keep count of the steps while thinking about other things. At the end of the walk I learn something about my estimation capacity, as also my ability to do foreground and background tasks in parallel.

2. Every night I will read for at least two hours, online and offline. Often it is more, but the minimum is two hours. At any given time I tend to be reading a number of books, sometimes as much as ten. Some I would I have just started, some would be nearing their finish. When I read at night, I try and switch between books a couple of times, just to learn about keeping switching costs low.

3. In the morning, on my way to work, I write down the things I want to get done regardless of other calls on my time. Then at the end of the day I look at the list, see how I’ve done and then throw it away. I never look at the list in between. The idea is to establish priorities very clearly in my head, priorities that will stand against the vagaries of the day. I have always been bemused by how people tell me about the importance of fixed and variable costs and keeping them in balance, and then they proceed to fill their day up weeks in advance. Don’t understand. So I keep a lot of white space in my day, the challenge is to make sure that I get the fixed things done while adapting to what comes in. And that’s all in the mind.

4. Before I go to sleep I spend a little time counting Fibonacci sheep. This is where the sheep go 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…… or a variant. The idea is to set a goal, to reach a term between 20 and 30. I like the way it stretches me, to remember something while throwing something out. To make sure I don’t land up memorising the answers, I change term 1 and make it 4 or 97 or something like that.

5. Throughout the day, intermittently, I give myself tasks of things to recall and then promptly change tack, move to something else. The idea is to get my brain to have some sort of offline agent, doing information retrieval work for me while I do something else. When I was young, I regularly experienced the weird feeling of trying to recall something, failing to recall it quickly, and then finding it came back to me much later, when I wasn’t trying. Now I try and train that facility, asking my brain to do something for later delivery.

Weird stuff? Told you I was confused. Let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’m going to tag Kevin Marks, Kathy Sierra, David Weinberger, Steven Johnson and Clay Shirky. And use Twitter to let them know I tagged them. How else would you do it?

BTW, if any of you want to get in touch with me, I tweet as @jobsworth.

12 thoughts on “Five-a-day mental habits”

  1. Thanks much for sharing!! There’s always something to learn from your posts.

    Although, I’m surprised there isn’t a music related item on your list…

  2. Thanks Al. I managed to keep away from food, music, crosswords and cricket. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to stop at five….. so I tried to share the ones I felt would have wider appeal.

  3. Thanks JP!

    I’m fascinated by your first pick: I tried meditation for the first time last week and found it quite a stretch (although I think that’s the point…), but the idea of walking whilst focussing my thoughts really appeals to me as an alternative approach. I love walking around London, so I may well give your technique a try.

    I’m also interested in number 3, because it chimes with Euan’s point about ‘Getting Things Done’. I’m personally very bad with to-do lists, I tend to hold things in my mind. But it never occurred to me that I could treat this as a muscle to be exercised and improved.

    So thank you, very enlightening.

    And I’m loving the Fibonacci sheep. :-)

  4. JP:

    As I read this, I wondered about my own mental habits and found that containing them in 5 and prioritising would be hard. But then it would also serve to focus one’s mind to do this exercise.

    You are a kind man, JP. I presume this meme is open to stealing. :-) May I?

  5. I blame Andy Gibson. Feel free to propagate the question, but please link back to mindapples when you do so. There is no need to link back to me.

  6. An intriguing list. #2 and #5 lead me to believe that if the Getting Things Done cult are yet to identify their anti-Christ, they need look no further!

  7. I try to see how successful I am at recalling large numbers (anything greater than 8 digits). I don’t know why, but I find it really difficult remembering numbers greater than 7 digits long. This sounds lame, but its helpful for my job.

  8. No wonder you’re way smarter than I am, JP, although I have a tiny bit of overlap in my list. (Sadly, I didn’t seem to have the trouble some of you had in narrowing it down to just 5!)

    In no order of importance:

    1) I now have magnetic whiteboards EVERYWHERE, of all sizes. Some are fixed on the wall, but now I keep a bunch of them just lying around so that they can suddenly appear in a spot I can’t miss. (I finally realized you need to put magnets on the markers or they’ll go to the same place socks and pens wander off to)

    2) Like you, I also read books for at least 2 hours each day. To make this easier, I keep about a dozen books scattered across 4 canvas book bags, and I *always* have at least 1 book bag in the car. I read at every spare moment, and am NEVER without a book when I’m waiting in line. If I’m trying to learn/memorize something new, I occasionally make flash cards and carry THOSE around too.
    I try to balance the book topics out so that there’s always something for when I’m brain dead, something for when I want deep engagement, something for when I want new ideas, etc.
    I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years, and even my kids have the habit of never leaving the house without a book. I reckon a Kindle is in my future…

    3. Exercise. Although what/how I do it changes over the years. I think being outside is important, too, so more and more I try to do something that involves air and sunshine more than the inside of the gym.

    4. Balance–not “life/work balance”, I mean ride-a-skateboard balance. There is some research that suggests balance plays into useful intelligence, because it’s somewhat a “cognitive leak” when your brain is trying to keep you upright all the time. So, I do exercises for my balance almost every day. (Including balancing on my skateboard, a balance ball, or my horse)

    5. I eat almost nothing during the day. This is not a healthy thing to do, I know, but you know that feeling you get when you’re tired after you eat? I have found very little that doesn’t have that effect on me, so during the times of the day I really want to use my brain, I just don’t eat much at all. I start the day with a fruit/protein smoothie, but the rest of the day I just dabble. Again, this is bad advice… but it’s what I have found to work for me for now.

    What a great question JP. I’m making a note on the closest whiteboard to think about this some more :) Thanks for asking.

  9. Thanks for dropping by, Kathy, good to see you here. The balance thing intrigues me, I must try that. So far my primary exercise is walking. Since I’ve never driven in my life, I’ve done a lot of walking, and I love it. But now I shall have to think about balance. Having never ski-ed or skateboarded or ridden, I haven’t done much balance work.

Let me know what you think