If your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, your first thought might be to reach for a cup of coffee or a Red Bull. But there are some serious drawbacks to relying on caffeine for a brain boost. It’s only temporary, it usually results in a crash, and it can be pretty expensive in the long run.
A John Hopkins research study (PDF) found some truths about caffeine dependence in addicted coffee drinkers.
Caffeine use can be associated with several distinct psychiatric syndromes: caffeine intoxication, caffeine
withdrawal, caffeine dependence, caffeine-induced sleep disorder, and caffeine-induced anxiety disorder.
Quitting coffee or managing your intake can be a good idea for boosting productivity. Then again, instead of relying on caffeine, try one of these six alternative brain-boosting strategies for firing up your brain when you need a lift.
This is the first strategy in this list for a reason — it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s free, and it works. You may not think that exercise will help if you’re lacking energy, but going for a quick walk or spending five minutes stretching will do wonders for your mental energy and acuity.
Some studies show that standing up can increase the blood flow throughout your body (including to your brain) in just a few seconds. Voluntary exercise can also influence gene expression to improve learning and memory. How cool is that?
Going outside and walking for 15 or 20 minutes should be your go-to strategy, but that’s not always an option. Walk around the office if you can, or walk up a few flights of stairs to get your blood flowing and your mind working again. Apps like Healthier will even display a prompt on what to do during your break, so you don’t have to make a decision.
Sitting for long hours is bad for your health, and taking the time to move around a bit will help reduce your risk of all sorts of complications — but it will also get your brain working again. Don’t underestimate the power of a quick walk!
Solve a Puzzle
Sometimes your brain goes into a low-power mode when you’ve been working on the same task for a long time, and you need to jar it out of complacency. Riddles and puzzles are great for this — they won’t distract you as long as playing a game will, but they’ll get you thinking in new ways and get your brain back on the right track.
Even jigsaw puzzles, which seem rather simple compared to some of the other puzzles out there, have been shown to activate all the parts of the brain, priming them for use and helping strengthen them for the future.
If you’re a fan of jigsaw puzzles, you can hit up JigZone.com to work on a small one for a quick break.
We’ve discussed many great riddle websites, many of which have short individual levels that you could work through. My personal favorite for puzzles is BrainBashers.com, where you can get random logic, word, and other kinds of puzzles to complete with a click or two. You can even select an easier difficulty if you only have a few minutes. And r/puzzles and r/riddles are constantly updated sources of puzzles for you to work through.
If you’re not into straight puzzles, you can check out some apps that blur the lines between puzzle and RPG or download a crossword app if you like that sort of challenge. Try Teazel’s Cryptic Crossword app for a brain-bending challenge, or download Puzzazz for a wide variety of word-based puzzles.
Use Better Posture
We’ve talked about the benefits of good posture before (as journalists, we spend a huge portion of our days sitting), and it bears repeating — better posture is good for your health. But it can also help you stay awake and alert.
It also affects your mood, which is good for being happier (and who doesn’t want that?) as well as managing stress better. Turns out sitting up straight can actually make a pretty big difference in your day.
Doing exercises for posture is a good long-term solution, and I recommend working on that on a regular basis. But just shifting your posture for a few minutes can help you wake up. For example, you need just three minutes to improve your posture with this technique.
It could be because it improves blood flow to certain areas of your body, or it could just be a mental thing. Either way, it works.
So next time you’re feeling a little foggy, put your feet flat on the floor and sit straight up for a few minutes (or longer). You might be surprised at how much of a difference it makes!
Read Something Interesting
This may or may not work, depending on what you find compelling. Sometimes you just need something that’s interesting and gets you out of your brain rut. There are all sorts of interesting things to read online if you know where to look.
For example, a lot of the sites that I listed in my article about written alternatives to popular podcasts are engrossing. There are too many options to choose from.
- Medium is always a popular option for finding interesting stuff to read.
- With Tumblr’s recent changes to their interface, it’s looking like that could be a solid place to go.
- Reddit’s Today I Learned sub-Reddit has all sorts of fascinating things to read.
Just make sure you don’t get sucked into these things too deeply, or you’ll never get back to work! Set a timer or use some other sort of system to make sure you read just enough to get your brain running again.
Listen to the Right Kind of Music
If you’re feeling a bit sluggish, putting on some music can help a lot. If you know the best kind of music for your productivity, you may want to consider saving it for the times when you need it most. For example, I listen to metal and hardcore when I’m writing, but if I start to fade a bit, I’ll put on some poppy punk tracks for an energy boost.
Although I generally tend to listen to loud music, studies have shown that listening to quiet music — especially classical music — is best for benefiting your creative process as well as increasing the secretion of some neurotransmitters.
Of course, not everyone is as motivated by music as I am. You may want to consider putting on a podcast instead if that’s what gets you going. You could listen to a podcast about productivity to get inspired, or dive into one of our staff favorites. Whatever works best for you. (If you’re not sure what will work for you, do some exploring on Player.fm, where you’ll find a huge collection of podcasts on a variety of topics.)
Research indicates that listening to music might be even more effective if you sing along. That may not work in your office but, at least mouthing the lyrics might be beneficial!
Use a Productivity System
There are a lot of productivity systems out there, but one that we’ve written about on a regular basis here at MakeUseOf is the Pomodoro system, in which you work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. After four repetitions, you take a longer break.
It seems like taking a break might get you out of the zone and make you more distracted, but researchers have actually found that the opposite is true and that brief diversions significantly increase your focus. When you get back to work, you’ll be more focused, more attentive, and better able to get work done after a short break.
A system like this can help you keep going when your brain isn’t in the groove. It might help you regain some energy, and it might not, but in my experience, it helps increase your productivity. So even if you don’t feel better, it will be helpful.
If Pomodoro doesn’t appeal to you, you can create your own time management system to deal with tasks — again, whether or not it will help perk up your brain when you need it depends a lot on how you work. But no matter what, it will help your productivity!
Boost Your Brain the Caffeine-Free Way
There are times when caffeine is a good thing (I’m not one to turn down a cup of coffee in the morning). But coming to rely on it as a pick-me-up isn’t good, and could have some serious effects on your productivity and health. Next time your brain needs a boost try one of these six strategies instead of reaching for a soda or a coffee. You might be surprised at just how well they work!
What do you use to boost your brain when you need to hit the ground running? Share your favorite strategies and tips below so we can all stave off mental fatigue!