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How to Improve at Anything

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When you realize how easy it is to improve your performance at anything you care about, you're going to be as grumpy as I was.

Maybe you've embraced the mindfulness lifestyle and living in the moment is your goal. Maybe you want to be a better executive, play better golf, or beat your brother at the card game he always wins. Maybe you want to be a better parent or partner.

It can be done in minutes, naps, and bites, and we just didn't know it. New research reported in the New York Times reveals that if you meditate for 12 minutes a day, your attention and working memory improves. These findings by Dr. Amishi Jha from the Univeristy of Miami were tested and validated with Marines preparing to stay focused and resilient during war.

I've always mediated. I've always believed in 20 minutes, as I was taught by the Trappist monk with whom I studied. But have I been doing it every day? Well...

Cara Wellman at the University of Indiana has figured out that the dendrites in the frontal lobes grow and retract based on stress. Do something good for you, like rest, exercise, or read, and your thinking center gets more connected to the rest of the brain. More connections, more brain power to stay calm and confident. Stay stressed, your brain gets stuck in the reactive short loop (imagine an angry dog snapping its teeth and growling) because the pathways simply aren't connected.

We all know that we need to do more things that are good for us, but did you ever think that taking a nap or reading a novel would make you better at your job or on the putting green?

My new favorite brain thinker is an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania named Dr. Robert Kurzban. He has debunked the myth that tragically I've taught and promoted, that glucose fuels willpower. The old theory: You want to be better at something, consume sugar.

Turns out it's not an issue of glucose, but the reward system of the brain that allows us to perform better. In a study, athletes who merely swished sweet beverages without actually consuming the calories experienced improved performance. What Kurzban does emphasize concerning glucose is that people who have eaten recently are better off than those who are starving in measurable ways like concentration.

Fun stuff, because what Kurzban tells us is that if we want to perform better, we need to eat or reward ourselves. I've been telling executives and athletes to have a peppermint or a piece of dark chocolate around for when they feel overwhelmed or unfocused. Turns out that's still good advice, just not because of the glucose. It is the reward or perception of reward that matters (even more when you've had an apple an hour earlier).

What most of us haven't been diligent about are the simple things that can make us better at what we really want to do. So here's the solution based on the latest brain science.

Want to beat your sister at tennis? Want a promotion at work based on a better performance review? Simply want to feel better?

Meditate for 12 minutes a day. Then, take a nap each day or get a little more sleep at night. And finally, reward yourself with little treats to stay more attentive and clear. Your brain is happy when it knows good things are happening.

Meditate, nap, and eat a piece of chocolate: That's a recipe for improved performance almost any of us can practice.

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