Even though your brain is an organ rather than a muscle, the practices you set up to strengthen your muscles also work to increase your brain power. My preferred system is: Fuel, Resistance, Rest, Repeat.
In the same way that you’ll “bonk” or “hit the wall” at the end of a marathon if you haven’t gotten the proper nutrition, your brain won’t be able to handle increases in resistance if you haven’t prepared it first.
The old saying, “You are what you eat,” applies to the creative process. If you want to be creative and come up with ideas, the best thing you can do is engage the creative ideas that are already out there. Not because you want to copy or emulate them, but because creative ideas catalyze other creative ideas.
Use your idea muscle. Take in ideas, engage things you find interesting, and you will get ideas in return.
You have to consume content to be able to produce content. Listening to podcasts and reading blog posts or other articles gets your brain warmed up and sparks more questions. Follow that curiosity and see what you can produce!
If you want to build muscle, you lift weights heavier than before or run faster than before or jump further than before. You add something new and difficult into your routine that causes your body to exert more effort and possibly even wonder if what you’re attempting is possible.
“Strengthening” your brain is no different. If you aren’t challenging yourself or dealing with new problems, you’ll face stagnation. Even worse, the longer you’re stagnant, the harder it is to grow again.
Practice resistance by making it your goal to feel a little uncomfortable every day. Tackle a problem that you don’t know the solution to. Turn to Google or a coworker to work through the obstacle. Get to the point of initial frustration or discomfort and push past it. Make yourself think on it a little longer before taking a break.
Learning to deal with discomfort is good. Elite athletes aren’t superhumans who don’t feel pain; they’ve just learned to accept it and understand it. Similarly, the best thinkers aren’t deterred by not immediately knowing the answer to a problem. They accept the challenge and settle in for the (possible) long haul of figuring it out.
Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to take a break from it. This might seem counterintuitive to the Resistance section, but it’s not! Weightlifters don’t do squats ad infinitum, and runners don’t run as hard as they can as long as they can every day, either.
If you’ve ever heard of “shower thoughts,” you know what I mean. You take on a problem and flex your brain hard for a couple of hours. You haven’t made much progress, and you feel like you’re just wasting time at this point. To refresh, you go on to another project before taking a break to walk to lunch, take shower, etc.
Then, during that break, “Eureka!” The solution to your problem comes to you. All you needed to do was remove your full attention from the problem and let your subconscious go to work.
And finally, get some sleep! The quality of your brain function (and therefore work) starts to deteriorate after too many hours without sleep. Let your body rebuild and reboot each night to be able to come back the next day and do it all again. I’ve even had the solution to a problem come to me as I was drifting off one night!
The process as a whole is important, and it would be a mistake to only focus on adding resistance to your life. You need fuel and rest to realize gains and avoid burnout. Keep up a steady stream of content consumption and schedule in some restful breaks, and you’ll be prepared to handle the resistance that comes your way.