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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The “Measure Up Mentality” in Today’s Church

I’ve served in full-time ministry for over 35 years in churches in many places in the U.S.: the south, the southwest, the far west and the mid-west. I now serve as lead church in Ontario, Canada. I’ve noticed that a church’s expectations of a pastor varies depending on the region. And when that church, culture, or pastor gets caught up in a ‘measure up’ mentality, it can be deadly. Consider these thoughts on the ‘measure up mentality’ in ministry.

Illustration of a tape measure

The Measure Up Mentality:

When I served a large church in the central valley in California several years ago it seemed that I could easily meet the church’s expectations. Yet in another large church in another part of the U.S. I found that meeting others’ expectations was extremely challenging, especially among church members successful in business. I attribute that to both the business environment there that required you to perform at a high level and to the fact that that church was located near four well-known mega-churches with world class leaders and preachers. Comparison came with the territory.

However, here in Canada, I don’t seem to face that same mentality as I did in that region of the U.S.

Every ministry leader deals with this ‘measure up mentality’ to some extent. Although we can’t avoid it, we can choose how we respond to it.

Some unwise choices include…

  • thinking we can please everybody
  • morphing into someone we are not to get everybody’s approval
  • using “I can’t please everyone” as an excuse to be lazy, not work hard, or avoid difficult problems or people
  • obsessing over those you can’t please

I admit that at times the ‘measure up mentality’ has sucked my joy out of ministry. But I’ve applied some simple ideas below that have helped me keep my joy even when I felt I didn’t measure up in the eyes of others. Perhaps they will encourage you as well.

  • God made me who I am. I may not be a world-class leader, a ‘blow you a way’ preacher, or as creative as some, but I must appreciate, embrace, and faithfully use the gifts and competencies He has given me.
  • He has placed me where He wants me to be. I must accept that and do my best with the opportunity He’s provided.
  • I must not dismiss or cutoff those with whom I don’t measure up.
  • It’s ok to take care of my valid needs. I can’t change what other people think about me, make them like me, or force them to approve of me, but I can take care of the body, soul, and spirit God has entrusted to me. In doing so, I then become the best pastor and leader He has created me to be.

This old King James Version verse has encouraged me as I’ve faced the ‘measure up mentality.’

Psa. 62.5 My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him. 

In my third book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I deal extensively with how to manage this ‘measure up mentality’ as it relates to the temptation to people please.

How have you handled the ‘measure up mentality?’

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The Well Placed Question – an Often Overlooked Leadership Tool

As a pastor and a leader I guide the process to help our church set and accomplish goals, move us forward into a preferred future, and make progress. And it seems like I do a lot of telling. I wonder if we leaders sometimes miss how a well placed question can enhance our leadership. Consider these thoughts about leadership and asking questions.

illustration of 3d character with question mark on an isolated white background

The power of a well placed question:

  • We cast vision by telling.
  • We craft strategies by telling.
  • We set goals by telling.
  • We recruit leaders by telling.
  • We manage staff by telling.

Unfortunately, our fast-paced world often tempts us to give quick answers. In Mark 2 we can see a pattern in Jesus’ response to those who questioned Him. That chapter records four unique questions posed to him. Three out of four times Jesus responded with at least one question. In those responses He didn’t immediately tell them an answer to their question. Rather, He sought to make them think about what they asked by asking them a question.

When we build into our churches and ministries a culture that encourages questions, these benefits result.

  • We see reality more clearly. One more well-placed question may surface an important issue you otherwise might have missed.
  • Innovation. Questions can spur new ideas and solutions to problems.
  • Self-reflection. Simply telling someone an answer may stifle his need to think through the answer for himself.
  • Perspective. A good question can open up a fresh perspective to a perplexing dilemma.
  • Focus. Questions can help a group or person focus on the real issue.

However, when we use questions as we lead we must avoid these unhealthy patterns.

  • Defensiveness: using questions as a defense mechanism, a ‘tit-for-tat’ response.
  • Aloofness: using questions to avoid answering a valid question because you think it is beneath you to answer.
  • Ignorance: not answering a valid question about which you have no knowledge in order to hide your lack of knowledge. In that case it’s best to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Controlling: using questions to put another into a corner to embarrass him or shut him down.
  • Deflecting: using questions to move a valid conversation to another subject.

Asking questions can become a potent tool in our leadership toolbox.

How have you used questions in your leadership?

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Do Pastors have Blind Spots?

Bill Hull, one of the most prolific writers on discipleship, shared a profound insight that stirred my heart. “At age 50 I found myself successful but unsatisfied. I was hooked on results, addicted to recognition, and a product of my times. I was a get-it-done leader who was ready to lead people into the rarified air of religious competition. Like so many pastors, I was addicted to what others thought of me.”[1] Sometimes I’ve found myself struggling with those same unpleasant struggles Bill described that are often blind spots. I’ve learned the concept below that has helped me ferret out what may be behind those feelings.

Basic RGB

A counselor friend helped me understand how our hidden areas influence what we think, feel, and do. He drew a diagram on the white board in my office that psychologists use to help people become more self-aware in their relationships. It’s called the Johari Window pictured here.
pastors - gain self-awareness

You can see that the blocks in the right column picture areas in our lives about which we are not aware. The ‘blind spots’ are known by others yet not by us. The ‘unknown’ is hidden both to us and to others. The lower left hand block represents those areas that we know about ourselves, yet others don’t. If we honestly and appropriately disclose our struggles (the ‘hidden’) and if we humbly seek to become more self-aware (the ‘blind spots’) we will lead and serve more effectively.

Unfortunately, we pastors don’t do so well with self-awareness and awareness of others. As an example, a 2006 Barna research report discovered that pastors believe 70% of adults in their churches “consider their personal faith in God to transcend all other priorities.”[2] A contrasting survey of church people revealed that less than one in four (23%) named their faith in God as their top priority in life,[3] a large awareness miss for pastors.

Russ Veenker, an expert in pastoral health, told me in an interview with him that lack of self-awareness tops the list of pastoral problems he has seen in the hundreds of pastors he’s counseled. He said pastors should pay more attention to the truth in Romans 12.3, Be honest in your estimate of yourselves. (New Living Translation) He also stated that those who are more self-aware become much more healthy pastors.

Another survey on body care reinforces our apparent lack of self-awareness. The vast majority of us pastors describe our health as good, very good, or excellent. Yet the data from the same body-mass index survey indicate that 78 percent of male pastors and 52 percent of female pastors are either overweight or obese.[4]

Finally, in a study by Ellison Research of 870, Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, noted the difference between how pastors see their own family health and how they see the health of other clergy families. “Ministers apparently have a much more optimistic view of their own family than they do of the families of other ministers,” Sellers stated. “When one out of every twenty ministers feels his or her own family unit is unhealthy, but one out of every seven ministers believes the family units of others in their denomination are unhealthy, there’s a disconnect.”[5]

So, blind spots are something every pastor must honestly face. What is a step you can take to discover your blind spots?

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[1] Bill Hull, It’s Just Not Working, LeadershipJournal.net, 7/1/05. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2005/summer/6.26.html.

[2] The Barna Group, Survey Shows Pastors Claim Congregants are Deeply Committed to God, The Barna Update, 1/10/06. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/165-surveys-show-pastors-claim-congregants-are-deeply-committed-to-god-but-congregants-deny-it.

[3] The Barna Group.

[4] Rev. Dr. James P. Wind, The Leading Edge: A Fresh Look at American Clergy, Congregations, May/June 2002. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?q=printme&id=3290, 2.

[5] Ellison Research,  New research shows pastors may not have a realistic view of the health of their own family, July 19, 2005. http://www.ellisonresearch.com/ERPS%20II/release_17_family.htm.

Spiritual Leadership: Are you a Lion, a Lamb, or some of Both?

I love Henry Nouwen’s writings. When you read his books you realize this man walked with God and oozed wisdom. I ran across this quote that caused me to think about the qualities of my spiritual leadership. He incisively uses the metaphor of a lion and a lamb. Read this quote thoughtfully and ask yourself about your leadership.

A Lion and lamb laying together in peace

“There is within you a lamb and a lion. Spiritual maturity is the ability to let lamb and lion lie down together. Your lion is your adult, aggressive self. It is your initiative-taking and decision-making self. But there is also your fearful, vulnerable lamb, the part of you that needs affection, support, affirmation, and nurturing. When you heed only your lion, you will find yourself overextended and exhausted. When you take notice of only your lamb, you will easily become a victim of your need for other people’s attention.

The art of spiritual living is to fully claim both your lion and your lamb. Then you can act assertively without desiring your own needs. And you can ask for affection and care without betraying your talent to offer leadership. Developing your identity as a child of God in no way means giving up your responsibilities. Likewise, claiming your adult self in no way means that you cannot become increasingly a child of God. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you can feel safe as a child of God, the freer you will be to claim your mission in the world as a responsible human being. And the more you claim you have a unique task to fulfill for God, the more open you will be to letting your deepest need be met.

The Kingdom of peace that Jesus came to establish begins when your lion and your lamb can freely and fearlessly lie down together.”

-From, Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessing into One Joyful Step, ed. Michael Ford (Notre Dame, IN: Ava Maria press, 2005), 156.

When I read this quote, I asked myself which do I neglect, the lion or the lamb. How about you?

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