Science of Success

A top CEO shares 3 daily exercises that help rewire his brain for success

Criene | Twenty20

As the CEO of one of the largest housing specialty firms, much of my day is spent reviewing economic data and financial reports. Yet even though I have a mathematical bent, I know what's most important to my firm: Making sure the minds of my employees stay in top shape.

Researchers have found that improving brain structure and cognitive function can help you perform better at work. And you can actually engage in brain exercises to make your mind more agile.

For example, every morning during my commute, I try to recall and say aloud a list of my most important tasks, so that I can maintain focus on them throughout the day.

If you want to enhance your mental capacity, it can be difficult to know which brain exercises to adopt. Thankfully, the experts at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas came up with a useful exercise.

They call it the "2 + 5 + 7 = Improved Brain Health." It's not a scientific formula, but more of a mental mnemonic, which you can remember to practice every day to help you boost your brain capacity.

Including this exercise into my daily routine — and encouraging employees to do the same — has helped significantly, and hopefully it can for you, too.

Here's how it works:

2x Daily: Engage in 'expansive thinking'

"Expansive thinking" is a way of thinking about big, audacious problems or situations and seeing multiple ways to solve or improve them. One example: important personnel decisions, such as recruiting senior leaders who will help shape and steer the direction of our company.

This can help advance any large-scale initiatives over the course of weeks or months. Because these issues may require a lot of time and attention, it's wise to structure your day so that you have designated periods, around 45 minutes each, to wade through these items.

5x Daily: Take a brain break for three to five minutes

Your brain needs time relax and restore itself. Instead of booking back-to-back meetings, leave yourself a few minutes to recharge before starting your next commitment.

This can mean talking a short walk, closing your eyes and meditating for a few moments, or even just socializing with colleagues about topics unrelated to work. Experts recommend disconnecting from technology or avoiding emails, phones and texts all together for a few moments. Sit and embrace the silence.

To be honest, I've had difficulty doing this during the workday, so I've started dedicated a few minutes during my morning and evening commutes. These moments of peace help center me for what always happens to be a busy day.

I can now empathize with what legendary investor Ray Dalio has professed for years: that it's important to engage in mindfulness practices. When you're more aware of your thoughts, you don't react as emotionally, and you tend to make smarter decisions. Indeed, Dalio credited meditation as the "single most important reason" for his success.

7x daily: Practice 'innovative problem-solving'

Actively try to reframe problems or see issues in a new light. This will help boost your cognitive flexibility and strengthen your ability to solve problems using an indirect and creative approach, researchers have found.

One way to practice "innovative problem-solving" is to take something that you accept as status quo (e.g., how a meeting is run) and see if you can rethink how it's done.

Perhaps you can ask new employees about their perspectives on your organization, as they might see things that others accept as rote. I like to ask people in one department about their perspectives on the challenges that another one is facing.

Don't evaluate these "innovation moments" by the number of minutes you spend on them. Rather, maintain a list of the seven times you've tried to "think differently" about an issue that normally you or others took for granted.

The 2 + 5 + 7 formula is a helpful suggestion with which you can structure your day. Write it on a sticky note and place it on your desk. A reminder such as this may help you perform job better and enjoy it more, creating a virtuous circle for those at your organization.

Sanjiv Das is the CEO of Caliber Home Loans, one of the largest housing specialty firms. From 2008 to 2013, he was the CEO of CitiMortgage. Prior to joining Caliber, he served as Executive Vice President, Global Financial Solutions at First Data Corporation.

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