How to warm up your brain before you work, and why.

Your brain is the most powerful muscle in your body. Ok, your brain isn’t really a muscle. But it is so powerful it KNOWS that it’s not a muscle! Your most powerful muscles are actually your glutes or your quadriceps, depending on who you ask. And depending on whether or not you are keeping up with Kim Kardashian. You can strengthen these leg muscles doing squats, leg presses, lunges, deadlifts and by delivering refrigerators.

leg-muscles
This is what your legs looks like when they are more naked than regular naked.

Warming up.

However, you should never perform these leg exercises without warming up first. For two reasons.

  1. You could shred your muscles like pulled pork.
  2. You will not perform at your best.

You should warm up your muscles to recruit as many fibers and synapses as possible for the mission. It also loosens the muscles, gets blood flowing through the area and prepares them for action.

Your Brain

Your brain works the same way. When your alarm clock detonates in the morning your brain is cold.  That’s why so many people try to stoke some brainial heat with coffee or tea. But it takes actual mental activity to get your brain primed and ready for work.

I have a trick I use to get my brain ready to perform in the morning. It’s not a drink, a dish or a pill. It doesn’t make you sweaty, stinky or even raise your heart rate.

A great way to warm up you brain.

I am a professional creative thinker. I own an advertising and idea agency, called The Weaponry, where we try to stretch our thinking as far as possible every day. To prepare for creative thinking, I use several different techniques to get my brain warmed up. One of my favorite techniques is to spend a few minutes working on brain games.

I like a challenge that forces me to think through questions from multiple angles, spot interesting connections, or evaluate at a level that goes beyond the obvious. I do this in a variety of ways. Here are 5 options that you can try tomorrow morning before work.

5 Warm up techniques that recruit your brain cells.

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This is a picture of two books on a table. Sorry this caption wasted your time.

Brain Challenges: My go-to morning stimuli are my Mensa Mind Challenge books. (I’m not a member of Mensa. I just play one at the bookstore.) They contain a range of
puzzles, math problems and brain teasers. Discovering the answers opens my mind and helps me view the problem, and thus the world, through a different lens.

Soduko  Puzzles:  These number sequencing puzzles are moronically simple, yet complex at the same time (like me). I really like the fact that I can keep switching my focus to get to the ultimate solve. I’ll hone in on a single number for a while. Then I might focus on a small box. Then a line. I like the fact that I never guess at Soduko. I focus on one small point until I know the answer with certainty before a I declare an answer. This works differently than the Mensa challenges because there is one simple, clear answer for each box, hiding in plain sight. I simply have to force it into focus.

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Great question.  Probably the same person who let the dogs out.

Mazes: These were my childhood favorites. I love the fact that you can think you know where you are going and suddenly you come to a dead-end and have to look in another direction. Many of our life challenges are like this. We think we are on the right path until we know we are not. Then we have no choice but to reevaluate our choices and perspectives. Someone should write a book about this phenomenon. Oh wait they did. (Who moved my cheese?)

 

 

Crosswords: These classics are great because they force you to dig into your broad knowledge base. But they also enable you to employ strategy and technique to help you fill in your knowledge gaps, using what you know to offer clues about the things you don’t know.  Here you can guess the answers without inducing catastrophic failure (see Soduko). I appreciate that they let you develop increasing levels of certainty on your hypothesis as you progress. They also reward you for knowing Tom Jones songs. So there’s that.

Memory Games: I have become increasingly interested in memory challenges. I come from long-lived people (I currently have 198 years worth of grandmothers). So maintaining my memory is going to be an important life skill. The power of the mind to develop visual codes to remember number sequences is fascinating to me. Over the coming years I expect memory games to become a larger part of my routine as I work to fight off dementia (I was born with as much dementia as I will ever need).

IMG_7268
There are many types of great brain games to warm up your thinking. Even ones with pixelated puppies.

The benefit of a warm brain.

Puzzles in the morning get your brain firing. You will feel like you have recruited more brain cells. You will feel alert and ready to think better, faster, stronger, and probably for longer. It’s like Viagra for the brain. Kinda.

Even though I am a naturally creative thinker, these puzzles, games and challenges help me stimulate my brain in a way that reduces creative blind spots. It is easy to fall into a mental rut and use the same type of creative processes, tools and paths over and over again. The morning puzzles can be like opening a mental tool box of problem solving devices. When you see the tools you could use, the tools themselves reveal the paths to various solutions.

Conclusion

I like the way the puzzles stretch your thinking. They help you see different angles and perspectives.  This pays off as you try to solve other business (or life) challenges the rest of the day. The puzzles and mind challenges ensure that your mind is alert, stretched, primed and fully powered to find new possibilities.

These puzzles are also fun. Starting your morning with a bit of fun and play makes your morning more enjoyable. That mood state alone contributes to more creative thinking.

If you are more math oriented consider this: if you could expand the power of your problem solving or creative thinking by just 10% by readying your mind, you will significantly expand the circle of solutions you can uncover.

Try warming up with some puzzles this week. Let me know how you feel afterwards. If you have a type of puzzle, quiz or test you use to keep yourself sharp please share it here. I could use all the help I can get. Especially in the morning, when I am delivering refrigerators.

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My life-altering first lesson in professional problem solving.

When I was in college I spent my summers at home in Vermont working for a party rental company. I set up huge party tents with other college athletes, a few rugged high schoolers and a handful of experienced veterans who had real jobs, but would help set tents on the weekends for extra income (and presumably to show us what brands of jeans were cool a decade ago).

There was lot of beef on that crew. You had to be strong because the job entailed lugging tents that weighed more than you did and carrying all the tables, chairs and dance floors needed to get your party on.  You also had to be able to hammer 40-inch steel spikes into the granite of Vermont and New Hampshire.  This was not a job for the chess club.

Learning the ropes.

The first few tents I set up were in idyllic settings on lush, sprawling lawns. The tents were erected (snicker) in textbook fashion.  You laid the tent out flat. Pulled the ropes straight out from the tent. At each rope you drove a spike into the ground four feet from the tent. You tied the ropes to the spikes. Then you set up a side pole at each rope to support the perimeter of the tent. Finally, you set up the tall center poles in the (surprise…) center of the tent.  I was a pretty smart kid. I caught on quickly.

Then I went on what I thought would be a really easy assignment.  I was sent to set a small 20 foot by 20 foot square tent in a woman’s front yard with one of the veterans. I thought we would be done in twenty minutes.

Then came the problems.

When we got to the house I immediately began to worry.  There was no large field of green. There was what amounted to a small rug-sized lawn squeezed in front of a small house.  There was no 20′ X 20′ space to be found. There was no way to place the spikes back 4 feet from the tent so we could tie the tent down and anchor them properly. In one corner of the yard the porch of the house prevented us from driving any spike at all.

This was not good. A woman was expecting a tent for her party, but we weren’t going to be able to set it up in this space. The backyard had even less lawn. So that wasn’t an option either. I turned to Dave, the veteran, and said, ‘This is bad! We can’t set the tent. It doesn’t fit here.’ Dave was completely unfazed. He said, “Come on Greenhorn.  Let me show you how it’s done.’

The Eye-Opening Transformation

What happened next changed me in ways that will impact my clients for the rest of my career.  Dave found solutions for every single problem. Instead of setting the tent in the standard, follow-the-manual way, he set it in the way the situation allowed.  Dave mapped out a plan that I had completely missed.  He tied the tent ropes, that normally get tied to spikes in the ground, to anything that would hold them.  We tied ropes to the fence. We tied ropes to trees.  We tied ropes to the railing on the front porch of the house. The bushes and flower beds I thought prevented us from setting the tent in the front yard simply ended up under the tent, adding ambiance. And everything looked perfect.  The tent pulled straight and tight and clean, despite the fact that half of the anchor points had been improvised to accommodate for the environment.

It felt like my brain grew 500% that day. I quickly learned to love the challenges of compromised conditions. Over the next three years I became so adept at problem solving I believed there was no problem I couldn’t overcome.

 

Putting the lessons to work.

Today I use the mindset I developed setting tents in my advertising career. At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, we deeply believe there is a solution to every problem. We don’t focus on what we would have done in the best case scenario.  We explore what can be done given the reality. What can be done with the hand we have been dealt.  That means no excuses. We always work to maximize the outcomes given the current situation. Because the key to life is a good plan B or C or D.

Don’t spend a moment thinking about how things should have been done if the situation were different. Focus on how to bake the best cake with the ingredients you have right now. It’s the only way.  Put all of your time, thought and energy into solving the problem in front of you. Recognize your assets. Make them work for you. Just like Dave showed me how to make that tent work in that small yard back when I was just a Greenhorn.

 

The one thing to focus on to be most successful.

Do you know why you are successful?  I know why I am.  Since you are reading this post, I expect you want to learn to be more successful too. So let’s get right to it, after this distraction. And another distraction. Wow, so many distractions before we get to the one thing!  These distractions are ruining this blog post! Or maybe this is an important demonstration of the point of this post.

The common theme of my greatest successes comes down to one word: Focus.

When I have created the best work, come up with the greatest answers or had the most impact on my clients, I was able to focus completely on the challenge in front of me. The same holds true for personal successes and achievements.

Far too often we take on too many responsibilities concurrently, juggling and reordering them like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.  Focus is about concentrating your energy. Taking on too much dilutes your power, potential and performance.

FOCUS = Focus On Completely Until Solved

Focus means prioritizing. It means scheduling so that everything can be the star for a time. Sometimes that means we focus on projects exclusively for a month. Sometimes it means focusing on a challenge for a couple of days. Or a couple of hours.

Scheduling to eliminate distractions is key.  As my friend and excellent business ideator  Duane Nelson often says, ‘Multitasking is a myth.’  But it is such a popular idea it could win the Myth America Pageant (if there were such a thing).  It’s really a matter of how hard we are able to focus. More focus means greater intensity of thought, deeper evaluation and more intelligent solutions.

When I have won major pieces of new business or created work that helped transform the way a brand behaves and spurred transformational growth, I have been able to clear my plate, my desk and my brainium to get the work done.

As we attack client challenges at my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I am always thinking about focus. I want to deploy the thinking power of each member of our team in a way that drives the greatest client results.  That is why we schedule our work  so that every project can play center stage for the appropriate amount of time.

It can be tempting to take on as much work as one human can shoulder to show how tough, capable or responsible you are.  While seemingly helpful to your team and your employer, this load-it-until-the-axles-bend approach doesn’t lead to the superstar performances you will be most proud of. It may, however, lead to broken axles.

This isn’t just a work thing.  Distractions are everywhere. Volunteering, attending events and getting roped into activities in your personal life can detract from your focus too.

Micro focus moves the needle micrometers.  Macro focus can move it miles. So if you are looking for greater performance, greater ideas and greater results find a way to get greater focus on the project in front of you.

*This blog post has not been brought to you by the Ford Focus, a model of Performance & Efficiency. With available SYNC® 3 · Dual-Zone Temp Control · Smart-Charging USB Ports.  It is designed to inspire | Ford.com “Car of the Year Award” – Autoguide.com

Do you have a Think Well?

The most valuable asset on the planet is a new idea. The surprising new solutions to old problems. The reinventions that change our lives and disrupt the way business is done. Ideas make money. And save money. They create competitive advantages, differentiation and wide motes out of model-thin air.

So why is it that a small handful of organizations seem to have a monopoly on great ideas? Nike, Google, Apple and Facebook all seem to pump out new ideas like Kardashians pump out selfies. While other organizations are simply one-hit-wonders, too busy dancing the Macarena with Rico Suave and Mickey to have another 99 Red ideas.

At The Perfect Agency Project we think the problem is simple. To generate great ideas you need two things.

  1. Time to think.
  2. A place to think.

I won’t get into the time issue here. Time is the most precious and most wasted commodity on Earth. Wait, I just got into the time issue.  Backing out now. Beep. Beep. Beep.

To make sure you are creating the best ideas possible you need to have a great place to think. I call this a Think Well, because:

  1. You think well in that space.
  2. When you find your place, ideas flow like water from a well.
  3. It sounds like Inkwell.
  4. I like a good triple entendre.

Does your office have a space people can escape to, that is quiet and relaxing?  Where people can think uninterrupted for a long stretch? Sure, senior executives usually have offices where they can close the door, put their feet up and imagine things like John Lennon did.  But what about the rest of the team?  Maybe you have a Think Well at home. If so, work there more often.

The downside to the open concept work environment, which eliminate offices, is that you decimate the natural thinking habitat. Which threatens the thinking population. Despite their popularity and low-cost per square foot, cubicle farms are not good at growing ideas.

There is a simple way to discover if your office has Think Wells: ask your employees. ( I thought of that in my Think Well). If they say they have such a place, encourage them to spend more time there.  If they don’t have one, send them on a mission to find one. If they can’t find a Think Well, you need to create one.

I’m a big fan of the quiet section of the library.  I’ve always gotten a lot of work done there. The no-talking mandate simply means I start talking to myself, in my head. Which is exactly what thinking is. That’s why every organization should have a quiet, comfortable space where you can go to let your mind jog. Innovative thinking requires pumping the thoughts and ideas from deep in your mind, into your conscious brain, where you can process them, and translate them into physical form.

As Napoleon Hill wrote in Think and Grow Rich:

“More gold had been mined from the mind of men than the earth itself”

So find your personal Think Well. Create a space for others. Then enjoy the ideas and the value they produce. Oh, if you know anyone from Baha Men, please forward them this post. I’m dying to finally know who let the dogs out, and if they ever came back.

 

To have more great ideas stop thinking about it.

I love ideas. New ideas tingle and jump in my head like pop rocks. If that is how crack makes you feel I would like crack. A lot. Ideas are the seeds that grow every kind of human-induced improvement on this planet. Yet many of us don’t spend much, if any time ideating.

I love the entire ideation process. I love loading my brain with information by reading and researching. Great ideas come from rearranging the ingredients in your head in new and novel ways. The more ingredients the more possibilities.

But after you top off your brain with input about the problem to be solved comes the most valuable part of the process: Stepping away from the problem completely. And doing nothing. That’s right. Just let the elements do what they want to do. Not what you want them to do. Yet, deep inside your mind, the ideas are growing. And fermenting. Brewing and bubbling. Forming and frothing. Without any additional effort from you.

This part of the process is like making cheese. Or wine. Or a baby. Well not making a baby. Just the baby-growing part. To the naked eye it looks like you are being lazy. The fun distractions at advertising agencies and other creative environments are great at getting team members away from the active thinking and into incubation. That way you don’t get in the way of the natural process. Think of it like baking a cake. Opening the oven door and jabbing toothpicks doesn’t help transform the batter into cake. Time and heat do the work.

The incubation period is the most valuable step in developing unique and differentiating ideas. Yet it is absolutely free. At The Perfect Agency Project we don’t charge for the time when we’re not actively thinking about challenges. During this phase of the process you can multitask. Or sleep. Or make cheese. Or compost. Or babies. The longer the incubation period the more you compound the interesting.

Unfortunately, for the professional creative, the incubation period is an endangered part of the process. Over the course of my career this valuable time has been disappearing like the Brazilian rainforest. And record stores. A lack of planning on the part of the requester hacks at this time. So does a lack of patience. But creatives thinkers have not done enough to promote the ROI clients earn on this free time. I hope sharing this post is a first step in re-establishing the importance of this step.

To make sure you get the most value out of the incubation period start early, build in time for nothing and let the team sleep on it. I often wake up and find myself perched on a great idea like a hen sitting on a warm egg. Resist the temptation to see work ASAP. You will often get the best results if you see the work ALAP.

So spend less money. Offer more time. Let your team know the outline of the challenge early. And watch the great ideas emerge like popcorn. And wine. And babies.

An idea to make debates useful again.

On Sunday night I watched the presidential debate. It was ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, I was highly entertained. But the debate failed miserably at its sole purpose: helping Americans become better-informed voters. There was so much talk about non-issues, non-answering of questions and unverified fact-spewing that all of America was dumber for having watched it. Entertained, but dumber.

When it was finally over I switched channels and watched the Sunday night football game. Taking in the final 15:00 minutes of the Packers and Giants game was like mental sorbet, cleansing my palette before I prepared to think like a human again on Monday morning.

But a funny thing happened when I woke up the next morning. I had an idea to solve the debate problem.

Let’s make debates more like football games.

One of the great things about a football game is that it follows a clearly defined set of rules. There are pre-established ways to score points. There are also consequences for breaking the rules. The debates should have the same structure.

edhochuli

Instead of having a moderator like, say, Lester ‘Don’t-Mind-Me’ Holt, we would have referees, like Ed Hochuli. Ed is a trial lawyer when he’s not flexing his zebra stripes.  He’s the man we need controlling the candidates.

The Perfect Agency Project’s debates look something like this:

  • Moderators are replaced by referees (didn’t I just say that?): refs put the question in motion, blow whistles to stop the talk and penalize participants for breaking the rules of the debate.
  • Penalties: The ultimate penalty in a debate is air time. If you fail to answer the question, stray off topic or introduce false information, you have to sit out questions. Debaters have to serve there ‘Time Outs’ in a hockey-style penalty box. I would have Martha Stewart design it.
  • Run over your time limit: a whistle blows and your mic is cut off. If we can humiliate Hollywood stars by cutting their mics off during an acceptance speech, surely we can do the same to long-winded presidential candidates.
  • Talk when it’s not your turn: You lose time. This is just like being offsides in football. Or encroachment. Or interference.
  • Unpresidential-like conduct: Your mic is cut off. A third-party candidate walks on stage and replaces you for the next question.
  • Answer a question: score points on a 1 to 7 scale based on the quality of your answer.
  • Don’t answer the question: no points
  • Make false claims: the referees stops the debate, sites the facts, sends you to the Martha Stewart penalty box.
  • Nachos: Let’s all eat them. Just because.

But this is just a start. Now it’s time to add your ideas to the comment box. Don’t mention any candidates by name. It’s not that kind of show. Just the football-style rules we could incorporate to make the debates fair and informative. Points will be awarded for good rules. A flag will be thrown on anything that is offsides. Ready? Set. Omaha!

When Plan A, B, C & D Fail.

I love meeting new people. And I love helping people solve problems. And I got to do both of those things this morning before most people were alarmed by their clocks.

I arrived at Hartsfield Jackson International airport in Atlanta just before 6:30am for a flight to New York City. As I write this I’m flying to meet with a celebrity on the set of her TV show about some upcoming work we will be doing together. But as I stepped out of my car in the parking garage a panicked woman approached me saying, 

“I’m so sorry to bother you. But I just locked myself out of my car. My phone, purse, laptop and suitcase are all locked inside. I don’t know what to do.”

Talk about an exciting start to your day! She said she was flying to St. Louis on an 8:00am flight. So we started going through our options. And yes, I said OUR options. Becuase as a professional problem solver when someone brings me a problem it becomes my problem too. Except for maybe hair loss. With hair loss you’re on your own.

So like a couple of resourceful first world problem solvers we sprang into action. I pulled out my trusty smartphone and we called the airport to see if they had an unlocking service. They didn’t. Boo. But they did offer us the phone number of a locksmith partner that may be able to help. Yay! 

So we called the locksmith. And yes, they could send someone to help. Yay! But not until  9:00am. Boo.

So we looked at other options. 

Me: Do you have a AAA membership?

Kelly: No.

Me: Do you have emergency services through your car manufacturer?

Kelly: No.

Me: Hmmm. Do you have any sevens?

Kelly: No. Go Fish.

Me: What time is your meeting in St. Louis?

Kelly: 11:00am.

Me: So a later flight won’t work?

Kelly: No. And my company is counting on me to be there. We have built a technology product for this client and they are refusing to close the deal becuase they don’t understand it. I need to walk them through how the product works and solves their problem or the multimillion dollar deal will fall apart! (Dun-Dun-Dun!)

Me: Do you have your drivers liscence? 

Kelly: No.

Me: Why don’t we go see how we can get you through security without ID. (Heck, I got into bars in college all the time without an ID. How hard could it be?)

Kelly: (reluctantly) Let me check my car one more time just to make sure I’m not losing my mind.

At this point she walked back to her Ford Edge for another check. And I began searching on my phone for a Ford dealership that may be able to help.

A moment later she returned, slumped her shoulders and said, “You should go and catch your flight. And you can tell everyone on Facebook and Twitter that you met the dumbest woman in America. Becuase I have a Ford Edge. And the Edge has a keypad on the driver door.”

Me: Do you know the code?

Kelly: Yes.

Me: So you’re all set! 

 Kelly Yes!
At this point Kelly and I, strangers only moments ago, hugged, laughed and cheered on the top of the parking deck at the airport in the pre-dawn darkness. We celebrated our victory like we had just won the Showcase Showdown on The Price Is Right.
So I made a new friend this morning before 6:45am. Kelly made her flight. I got a test run on a valuable problem solving scenario. The Ford Edge got serious credit for a great problem solving, flight catching and potentially deal saving feature. And as Kelly said, I got to tell all of my friends on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn about her morning. Have a great day Kelly! I hope you close that deal. But don’t close your car door until you have your key in hand.