We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.
Our brain is basically a muscle. (I say basically because I’m no scientist—here’s what the internet actually says on this topic.)
So why don’t we treat it as such? Why don’t we care for it like we care for the rest of the muscles in our bodies? Hold your answer to that and let’s say for a second you decide to make your mind just as high a priority—what would you do differently?
You’d Protect It
Just like we wear a coat when it’s cold, our brains need protection (and not just the helmet kind).
Protection from what, you ask? We’ve all faced hardships—whether it’s losing someone we love, finding ourselves in a new and terrifying place, or facing an obstacle we’ve never come across before.
We may not be able to predict when these things happen or have all the resources to avoid or solve them—just like we can’t predict when we’ll trip and scrape our knee—but if we develop our emotional and mental strength, we’re more likely to make it through unscathed (or less scathed).
Protect your brain (and ultimately, your heart) by preparing yourself for the worst when you’re at your best. Maybe that means learning how to manage your expectations, or working on your confidence, or giving yourself some distance from things that make you unhappy.
You’d Stretch It
Our bodies can handle a lot. Just look at Olympic swimmers, or contortionists, or people who hike the Appalachian mountains and you’ll agree the human body’s a remarkable machine.
But so is the brain (and chances are those people couldn’t do those things without a solid head), and it needs to be challenged just as much as your physical being. In fact, that’s the only way it’ll continue to grow and stay strong.
This means giving it the resources (and time) to be stretched in different ways: reading books and articles, writing, listening to podcasts, solving puzzles, taking on new responsibilities, working on a different schedule, in a different place, or with different people, and engaging in conversations that challenge your beliefs.
Of course, you never want to stretch it too far or for too long. Which brings me to my next point...
You’d Rest it When It’s Sore
Back when I was dancing 10-14 hours a week, I’d occasionally pull a muscle. I’d be tempted to stretch the pain out and get moving again, but my instructor warned me that this would only make the recovery longer. So, I had to suck it up and stop for a couple days.
Your brain works the same way. You can’t keep stretching it when it’s already hurting—that’ll only make it harder to get back to a normal, comfortable, productive state.
When you’re tired, you can’t keep staying up late and skipping out on sleep. When you’ve been staring at a computer screen for 12 hours, you won’t be any more effective at coming up with new ideas if you keep staring at it.
Know when it’s time to stop and rest, and take it. Your wounds will heal, and you’ll get back to work faster and better than ever.
You’d Give it Regular Check-ins
We make it mandatory that we schedule a physical every year, visit the dentist every six months, and go to a specialist when we have we can’t shake a bug.
But our brains don’t have a slot on our calendar for a check-up—this is something we have to do all on our own. Otherwise, we’ll get behind and cause more damage to our mental health, like the person who develops a cavity because they haven’t gotten their teeth looked at in two years.
Find your medium for giving your brain a chance to reflect, regroup, and refresh. Even more importantly, notice the symptoms when your brain isn’t at its best and give it the attention it needs to recover.
Finally, if we treated our brain like our body we’d factor it into our decisions more. Just like someone doesn’t jump head-first into a shallow pool because they know they’re likely to injure themselves, we don’t want to make decisions that won’t end well for our brains—things like saying yes to everything all the time, choosing not to unplug on vacation, or forcing ourselves to work until the crack of dawn.
It’s not always easy to spend time thinking about our brains, but as the Olark quote suggests, it’s the most important thing we’ve got—so we better make sure it can last for the long haul.
Photo of person thinking courtesy of Westend61/Getty Images.
Previously an editor for The Muse, Alyse is proud to prove that yes, English majors can change the world. She’s written almost 500 articles for The Muse on anything from productivity tips to cover letters to bad bosses to cool career changers, many of which have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Inc., CNBC's Make It, USA Today College, Lifehacker, Mashable, and more. She calls many places home, including Illinois where she grew up and the small town of Hamilton where she attended Colgate University, but she was born to be a New Yorker. In addition to being an avid writer and reader, Alyse loves to dance, both professionally and while waiting for the subway.More from this Author