It’s a myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. “That idea is not only inaccurate, it doesn’t make any sense,” says Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Even the simplest behaviors engage much of our brain."
But while that old 10% dictum is bogus, it’s true that many of us have some untapped reserves of mental acuity that, if harnessed, could sharpen our powers of insight and analysis. The key to accessing those reserves, Miller says, is to stay focused. “The main thing that impedes our cognition is distraction."
Distractions are powerful drains on the brain's ability to focus, and one of the best ways to get more from your mind is to give yourself the gift of uninterrupted stretches of time.
Think of your mind as a muscle that can be strengthened with exercise. But the latest science suggests that "exercise" doesn't mean app-based brain games or activities like Sudoku, but bouts of prolonged, uninterrupted concentration, Miller says. Put simply, a distracted brain is a dumb brain. Unfortunately, “our brains are curious and are always interested in what’s going on around us, so it’s very hard to ignore all that and to stay focused."
Distractions are ubiquitous, popping up as email alerts, text messages and social network updates. “People think that they can multitask and check these things without losing their focus, but we have lots of studies showing that task-switching leads to mistakes and back-tracking, and that it wastes a lot of time,” Miller says. And all of these interruptions seem to be getting in the way of more creative, profound insights. When your brain is bombarded by distraction, “your thoughts are more superficial, and you’re not getting as far down that path to where new ideas emerge."
Other experts agree. Switching between tasks can result in a phenomenon called “attention residue,” according to the work of Sophie Leroy, assistant professor of business at the University of Washington. When you ask your brain to quickly shift from one task to another, it struggles to cleanly discard the first and move on to the next. “Let’s say I work on a project right up until I have a meeting,” she says. “I may be at the meeting, but my brain is still trying to find closure on that project I was working on, so questions and ruminations about that project are interfering with my ability to concentrate.”
The more tasks you ask your brain to perform in a short period of time, the more that cognitive clutter accumulates, and the more your performance declines. Calvin Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of the book Deep Work, puts that performance decline in real-world terms. “Anecdotally, it seems like most people experience a 50% drop in productivity and cognitive capacity when in a state of distraction,” he says. And even though a quick peek at your inbox or social feed only takes a second, "the duration of those checks does not correlate to the magnitude of the distraction,” Newport says.
Newport realized just how much those quick checks were tanking his brain’s performance when he wrote his last book. In an effort to be more productive, he started scheduling blocks of time to check his phone or email, while committing the rest of his day solely to his book or his research duties as an academic. “I should have had less time for my usual work because I was also researching and writing this book,” he says. “But the number of peer-reviewed papers I published that year went up by a factor of two.”
One of the best ways to sharpen your focus—and therefore enhance your brainpower—is to schedule this sort of uninterrupted time to focus on the cognitive tasks that matter to you. “It’s not uncommon for people who do this to talk about their productivity increasing,” Newport says. Research suggests that meditation may be another way to strengthen your brain’s ability to concentrate.
It's also important to complete one mental task before moving on to another. “If you have a meeting at 11, most of us will work until 10:59 and then rush to the meeting,” Leroy says. “That doesn’t give the brain time to figure out what it’s accomplished or what else needs to be done, and so there’s no closure.” Your brain needs that closure, she says, in order to transition effectively to its next chore.
She recommends taking some time between mental tasks—even a minute or two—to consider the work your brain just performed. "Write down where you are and what you want to do when you return to the task,” she says. In one of her experiments, people who followed this protocol improved their performance on a decision-making test by 79%, compared to people who hadn’t taken any time to collect their thoughts between tasks.
Another simple-sounding—yet challenging—recommendation is to inject more boredom into your life. “Don’t pull out the phone when standing in line, and if you’re sitting alone somewhere, try it without looking at a screen,” Newport says. Most of us need these breaks if we hope to stay focused on anything for longer than a few minutes. “The brain has to be comfortable not getting some shiny new stimuli from a device every few seconds," he says.
Indeed, a little digital break goes a long way. “I think being connected all the time is a lot like sugar: it’s easy for us to get accustomed to it and to want more,” Leroy says. “If you’ve been spending a lot of time multitasking, it’s going to take time to teach your brain to maintain focused attention."