The Sleepy Leader’s Brain

God created sleep not only to cure sleepiness, but to serve our bodies and brains in many beneficial ways. Unfortunately, many leaders, especially pastors, try to lead without getting  adequate sleep and live with a sleepy leader’s brain. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains don’t work as well. Thus, we don’t lead at our best.

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So what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, besides feeling sleepy? Here’s what the experts tell us happens to our brains when we don’t get adequate sleep.

3 Morning Habits Guaranteed to Boost Brain Power

I have a passion for the brain and how applying newly discovered brain science can impact leadership and spiritual growth. I even wrote a book about it. Now into my sixth decade of life, I want to maximize my brain power as I (and everybody else) faces inevitable cognitive decline. In this post I share the bad news about what aging does to our brain (starting in the 20’s) and then share 3 morning habits you can build into your routine to boost your brain power and stay mentally sharp.

human brain with arms and legs on a running machine, 3d illustration

The bad news about aging and the brain

Unfortunately, just as we can’t avoid death and taxes, we can’t avoid how aging affects our brains. Here’s what happens to our brains as we grow older.

  • Our brains literally shrink. We lose about 5% of our brain matter per decade beginning in our 40’s. In fact, our frontal lobes, where executive functions like short-term memory, abstract thinking, and emotional control lie, reach their peak in our early 20’s.
  • Our brains slow down. Brain cells (neurons) work primarily through a chemical-to-electrical process. When the neuron ‘fires’ it sends an electrical impulse down a fiber called an axon. Like a wire with insulation, material called myelin also wraps around an axon providing insulation. As we age myelin thins which slows firing which in turn slows mental speed.
  • Our brains don’t remember as well. Over time memory fades due to loss of neurons, especially in the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory. And our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds, called working memory, degrades as well.
  • Command of our vocabulary shrinks. A typical 30-year-old has command of an average of 30,000 words whereas an 80-year-old has command of only about 10,000.
  • Peripheral vision diminishes, hearing degrades, yada, yada. Enough of the bad news.

Even with this bad news, science is now showing us ways that we can slow cognitive decline well into our later years. Everybody is not doomed to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

3 Morning Habits that can Boost your Brain Power

  1. Brain training
    • I just added this to my morning routine. Several companies provide software for your smart phone or computer to help train your brain. Several peer-reviewed studies now show that these brain games don’t simply help you get better at playing the games. Rather, scientists are discovering a clear crossover effect beneficial to cognitive health. I use brainHQ from Posit Science. I’m now doing about 20 minutes of brain training 5-6 days a week. For brain training to work, it must tax your brain and you must keep doing it. Doing a game here and there probably won’t make much difference.
  2. Exercise
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  3. Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation that I practice as part of my daily devotional time. It’s setting aside a time to be still before God to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our mind, but filling our mind with thoughts of Him and His Word. It helps us disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions and simply be in God’s presence. Last year over 400 studies were published that showed multiple body and brain benefits to mindfulness including increased brain volume in the memory and in the self regulatory areas and decreased volume in the brain’s fight and flight centers. I also use an app that reminds me to take short one minute mindfulness breaks throughout the day.

So, even though aging naturally diminishes brain function, a disciplined approach to brain healthy habits can keep your brain sharp for God, for others, and for you.

How do you keep your brain in shape?

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4 Brain Hacks that can Make You a Better Leader

I love leadership and I love learning about the brain. I just finished an executive masters in the Neuroscience of Leadership. And a few months ago my fourth book was published, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. As I’ve immersed myself in learning how our brain affects life and leadership, I’ve learned a few short cuts, or hacks that have helped me lead better. Consider these 4 brain hacks that just might make you a better leader.

Information concept: Blue Head Whis Padlock on digital background, 3d render

Brain Hacks that can Make You a Better Leader

  1. Minimize multi-tasking.
    • Research has shown that multi-tasking, trying to accomplish multiple tasks at once, is a myth. We can’t truly pay attention to two things at once, even though we may think we can.

      Actually, when we think we are being efficient by multitasking (answering email while working on a project or presentation while checking a text) the opposite happens. Every time we switch from one task to the next, our attention does not immediately follow. A bit of our attention remains with the previous task. It’s called attention residue. However, when we work on a single task a longer time without switching back and forth, we perform better (see number 4 below). You can read more about multi-tasking here.

  2. Complete a mini-goal.
    • God wired our brains to repeat behaviors that give us pleasure. When we eat a piece of chocolate cake, learn something new, or check something off our to-do list, they feel good because the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure center (the nucleus accumbuns). When we feel good we want to repeat what made us feel good which provides a boost of motivation. Sometimes we experience a lull in our daily routine. When that happens, find something to do that you can complete in a short time. It might be to clean off your desk, send that email you’ve been delaying, or make a call you need to make. When you accomplish such a task, you’ll get a nice boost of dopamine which can help get your motivation back on track for the day.
  3. Strategically use caffeine.
    • In this post I explain how caffeine works and how if used in moderation, it can help us be more effective as leaders. Although some people are addicted to it (not good), if you use it strategically, science has proven that it blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine) and increases dopamine and adrenaline that can boost both motivation and attention.
  4. Strive for ‘deep work’ 4 hours a day. 
    • Cal Newport, author, professor at Georgetown University, and a really smart dude, recently wrote the bestselling book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In his book he uses science to back up his assertion that truly productive people focus about four hours of their work day on their most important tasks. The unimportant ones, like surfing Facebook and answering emails, get too much of our time. He says the brain is able to focus about four hours a day on ‘deep work,’ what he describes as meaningful work with a minimum of interruptions. So, calendar your day to reflect four hours of your ‘deep work.’

What brain hacks have helped you be a better leader?

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How Caffeine Might Make you a Better Leader

I’m a leader. I want to maximize my brain power. And I care about how I treat my body. I don’t drink coffee or tea, yet I do strategically use caffeine with diet caffeine drinks and 5-Hour Energy (Disclaimer: I am in no way related to the company who produces 5-Hour Energy). I believe my strategic use of caffeine has helped enhance my cognitive resources as a leader. In this post I look at three areas: what caffeine does to your brain, cautions about its use, and how to strategically use it.

Colorful info-graphics: caffeine production and usage.

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, consumed primarily through coffee consumption. The National Coffee Association says that nearly 2/3’s of Americans drink coffee. We also consume it through tea, weight-loss pills, chocolate, and energy drinks. It has gained the moniker as a,’waker-upper.’

How does caffeine work? It affects the brain in three ways.

  1. It blocks a neurotransmitter that makes us tired (adenosine). Neurons have tiny receptors where adenosine binds. Think of adenosine (or any other neurotransmitter) like a key and a receptor like a lock. So, when it ‘binds’ the ‘key’ goes into the ‘lock’ to create the tiredness effect by slowing down brain cell firing.
  2. It stimulates the brain to tell the adrenal glands to release adrenaline which gives us a boost of energy and increases attention.
  3. It improves mood by increasing the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a brain chemical related to pleasure, attention, and motivation. It also helps dopamine hang around longer in our brain.

What cautions should you consider?

  1. You can become addicted to it. It’s addictive because dopamine feels good and when we get addicted to it, we want more and more caffeine to maintain the same pleasure level. You will know you’re addicted when your try to stop because for a few days you may experience a dull headache, lethargy, sleepiness, and even depression. Most experts say the average person can manage 400 milligrams of caffeine each day, the equivalent of four cups of coffee. A bottle of 5-Hour Energy has about 200 mg.
  2. You can develop a tolerance for it. Regular caffeine use actually creates a need for even more caffeine because it increases adenosine receptors in your brain. Thus, you need more caffeine to block the tired effects of adenosine.
  3. Too much caffeine (more than 500 mg) can really mess up your body by causing such issues as muscle tremors, sleep difficulty, upset stomach, nervousness, and dizziness.
  4. Caffeine too late in the day can disrupt your sleep patterns. Its half-life (how long it takes the body to eliminate 1/2 of it) is 3-5 hours and its effect can last 8-12 hours.

How can you strategically use caffeine?

  1. First, I never use caffeine to wake me up in the morning. I try to get sufficient sleep so that I don’t use caffeine as a fall back for lack of sleep. I live in Canada and the winters can be brutal and overcast so I’m now using light therapy in the morning which appears to give me a nice natural wake up boost. I use a portable Philips blue light to give me 20 minutes of light when I wake up.
  2. Consider a nap first. A 10-20 minute nap can clear out adenosine and give you a nice mental boost without caffeine. If you can’t take a nap at work, perhaps these other suggestions below will work for you.
  3. Consider a nap-caffeine combination. It takes caffeine about 20 minutes to get into your gastrointestinal track and bloodstream. So, a cup of coffee or tea, a diet soda, or 5-Hour Energy just before your nap can give you a one-two punch.
  4. When I’m studying to put a sermon together, I find that 1/2 bottle of 5-Hour Energy about mid-morning gives me a nice mental boost. About 2 hours later I will finish the bottle off so that I’m only getting about 200 mg per day.
  5. About 30 minutes before I speak on Sunday mornings I drink a half of a bottle. I find it helps give me a bit more mental focus during my sermon.
  6. On days when I need lots of mental focus in meetings, I will split a bottle of 5-Hour Energy between mid-morning and early afternoon. I find that I’m more focused later in the afternoon to give those in my meetings my full attention.
  7. I seldom if ever use it after 3:30. Remember, it can stay in your system many hours.

I recognize that many readers may prefer to stay away from any caffeine. I respect that as I used to avoid anything with caffeine in it. Only in the last few years have I discovered that moderate use has helped improve my attention, concentration, and ability to think more clearly.

How have you used caffeine in a strategic way?

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5 Proven Ways to a Better Brain in 2016

God created a magnificent part of our body, the brain, as our command and control center. With 100 billion brain cells, it weighs a mere two to three pounds, yet it require 20% of our body’s energy. Since God expects us to take care of bodies (1 Corinthians 6.19-20) it naturally follows that we should take care of our brain, since it’s part of our body. How do we do that? As you think about how to make 2016 a great year, consider these 5 proven ways to a better brain in 2016.

the brain with hands and utensils in front of an empty plate

5 Proven Ways to a Better Brain in 2016

  1. Fertilize it with the brain’s Miracle-Grow.
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  2. Strengthen your brain’s muscles with mental stimulation.
    • The brain is like a muscle. The old adage, ‘use or lose it’ applies to our brains as well as to our physical muscles. And the best way to strengthen it is to challenge yourself mentally, outside your normal mental challenges. As a pastor, I read a lot of biblically based books. Although that challenges my mind, I also read in other fields, specifically neuroscience, which challenges my thinking. So to maximally exercise your brain, chose mental tasks that are novel or outside your normal mental routines.
  3. Sleep your way to a better brain.
    • Often we try to get more out of our day by skimping on sleep. But sleep is a powerful brian booster. It benefits us by improving mood, enhancing creativity, increasing our ability to pay attention, and by clearing out our brain’s toxins while we sleep. Read more about the benefits of sleep here.
  4. Stomp out excessive amounts of the brain shrinker, cortisol.
    • Cortisol is called the stress hormone and is secreted by our adrenal glands that lie atop our kidneys. We need cortisol to help us deal with challenges and crises and to help us pay attention. But when we live under constant stress, cortisol actually causes part of our brains to shrink, especially the memory center called the hippocampus. So, managing stress if vital to a healthy brain. Learn here 10 ways to manage stress.
  5. Feed it with a brain healthy diet.
    • Too much sugar and fat can actually inhibit production of BDNF (see number 1 above). However, a healthy diet that limits refined sugar and saturated can benefit your brain. While a brain healthy diet limits those two, it should also include elements of what is now called the MIND diet proven to help keep your brain healthy: lean proteins, healthy fats, beans, whole grains, and fruits and nuts. Taking a fish oil supplement can also help.

So, as you look to make 2016 a great year, why not resolve to keep a healthy brain.

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