12 Habits for Making Yourself Smarter

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Yoevelyn Rodriguez10
Eating my way through New York City.
April 14, 2024 at 8:36PM UTC
  • To become smarter, you need the desire to do it and the ability to commit to long-term goals.
  • Planning, problem-solving, reasoning and logic are things you can learn and master with practice.
  • Work on yourself, read 30 minutes a day, take on challenging hobbies, broaden your interests and remember that strategies work.

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Although a person can have a natural ability to understand complex topics, becoming smarter is something all of us can accomplish if we decide to pursue it. Yes, you can indeed make yourself smarter! All you need is the desire to do it and the ability to commit to long-term goals, and the following 12 tips will set you on your way to a brighter you. But before we dive into the details of the things you can do to become more intelligent, we must understand what, exactly, it is we mean when we say "smarter."
According to Nature.com, intelligence, being smarter "is the mental capacity for abstract reasoning, planning ability, logical thought, conceptual complexity and problem-solving. High intelligence is thought to be associated with flexible, adaptive and goal-directed behavior, particularly in new situations." 
This definition is very encouraging because planning, problem-solving, reasoning and logic are things you can learn and master with practice. Moreover, most people don't have the intuition to develop these skills on their own and usually develop them through many years of schooling and exposure to novel ideas. Now that we know what we are aiming to do (namely, develop our planning ability, problem-solving skills, logic and conceptual thinking) we're ready to start. Let's take a look at the 12 things you can implement in your life to help you become smarter over time.

1. Work on yourself; discipline is critical.

Self-improvement demands discipline. The great news is that discipline is a muscle you can grow with repetitive use. If you want to become smarter, there are fundamental habits you need to embrace to help you achieve that goal. But don't be scared; developing discipline is not a zero-sum game. Start with something simple, like reducing the time you watch TV by 10% each week. What if you fail one week? You always have next week to try again, so don't stress.

2. Read 30 minutes a day, and you'll read around 33 books a year.

An excellent way to start developing discipline is to create a reading habit. Thirty minutes a day is all you need, and, depending on your reading speed, you could end up reading between 33 to 55 books a year with this simple habit. Think of all the knowledge you can get into your brain on your daily commute alone! There is a consensus: if you want to become smarter, you must read more often and about a variety of topics.

3. Take on challenging hobbies — challenging pursuits demand more brainpower.

Although practicing what you already know how to do is great for reinforcing neural connections, new, challenging activities enable the formation of new synapses among your neurons. Why is this important? The brain is flexible and can be, for lack of a better word, "reprogrammed" with new skills. New synapses contribute to brain plasticity and better memory, according to research by Markus Butz. And, in turn, higher intelligence is closely linked to better memory and brain flexibility.
For example, let's say you never felt good about your math skills. If your self-talk keeps reminding you of how bad of a math student you've always been, you're reinforcing that image you have of yourself. If instead, you realize you were a poor math student because your teachers never understood your learning style, you can now start carving a path to relearning math. 

4. Broaden your interests; novelty is the spice of intelligence.

New activities stimulate and invigorate the brain. From orbital mechanics to crochet, the topic doesn't matter so long as you consume the information in a way you can digest it. Exposing your mind to a variety of ideas from different domains will help you later in developing abstract thinking. When you learn about principles from one discipline, you may find connections with ideas from another field. And you can only make those discoveries if you're exposing yourself to a wide range of knowledge. 

5. Don't follow the crowd — follow yourself.

People watching is a spectator's sport. The best way to understand humans is by watching other people's behavior and asking, "Why?" 
Why do people do what they do? Often, the masses can behave in irrational ways because of fear, panic or a general misunderstanding of information. A person capable of figuring out human motivation has the advantage of not allowing hysteria to dictate her decision when everybody else is panicking. Watching other people also will enable you to understand what's happening in your environment without the need to ask explicitly. People-watching enhances your critical thinking skills. And, as you know by now, critical thinking is one of the skills you'll need to embrace if you want to be smarter than the so-called "wisdom" of the crowd — or, simply, smarter in general.

6. It's true: you are what you eat.

Your brain uses about 20% of the energy you consume. Think about that factoid for a second. Your heart is a forceful muscle that's perpetually pumping blood through your body as long as you are alive. Yet, your brain consumes more than twice the amount of energy the heart consumes. Of course, the reasons why this is the case are beyond the scope of this article. But suffice to say, the foods you eat will affect brain function. Certain foods like omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish can help support brain function. A healthy brain is better able to recall information previously studied. Because of this, there should be a sufficient amount of these brain-sustaining foods in your diet. Things like coffee and tea, leafy greens and antioxidant-rich berries should be at the top of your food list to consume daily.

7. Watch what you drink (avoid poisons).

The same way the right foods can support brain health, ingesting harmful substances can impact brain function negatively. A widespread occurrence is lead contamination found in drinking water.  Historically, most research on lead's effect on the brain has focused on children. But  "Effects of lead on the adult brain: a 15-year exploration," a 15-year longitudinal study, found that the adverse effects of lead in the adult brain are persistent. Lead affects cognitive function, and, most alarmingly, it can reduce brain volume, too. Be especially vigilant if you live in a building with old, rusty pipes and invest in a water filter.

8. Remember that strategies work, especially if you have a learning disability.

ADD, dyslexia and a host of other learning disabilities make it harder for those dealing with these conditions to take information from books and into their minds. Nonetheless, studying techniques do work for these individuals. 
If you are dealing with one of these conditions, there are things you can do to help you. For example, you can do things like breaking your reading and studying into small chunks. Also, studying in a place where you can minimize distractions is a great strategy. 
Another useful tactic is to use visual aids to explain complicated concepts. And finally, practice repetition to guarantee you are retaining information from the material you're studying. These are a few basic suggestions of what you can do to help you study more effectively. If you have difficulties with these conditions, you're likely familiar with some of these suggestions already. Nonetheless, it's worth it to mention them here because these techniques can be useful to anybody during study time.

9. Commit to learning something new every day.

Just as you should commit to reading at least 30 minutes every day, you should invest in learning something new every day if you want to become smarter. Today, there are hundreds of tools you can use; some examples are:
  • Brilliant.com
  • LinkedIn Learn
  • Skillshare.com
  • MasterClass.com
  • Coursera
Mathematical thinking is especially powerful but takes time and dedication to learn. And the good news is that you don't have to be a physics geek to take advantage of it. Also, this type of thinking doesn't even require solving mathematical operations because your aim is to think about how to solve the problem — not to actually solve it.

10. Master the Feynman Technique: teach me like I'm a 6th grader.

Richard Feynman, a prominent American theoretical physicist and recipient of the Nobel Price in Physics in 1965, had a technique for learning complex topics:
  1. Choose a topic you want to learn
  2. Pretend you're teaching it to a student in 6th grade
  3. Identify gaps in your explanation; go back to the source material, to better understand it
  4.  Review and simplify
Feynman was famous for saying that if you are unable to explain a topic clearly enough for a 6-year old to understand it, then you don't understand it.
People have always known that teaching others is a powerful way to master what you've learned.  Researchers Aloysius Wei Lun Koh, Sze Chi Lee and Stephen Wee Hun Lim found why teaching what you just learned is so effective in helping you learn it well: teaching others forces your brain to bring newly acquired information to the surface and put it front and center as you attempt to explain it to others. 
The extra effort you needed to teach encourages a deep and long-lasting acquisition of the information. But what if you don't have an audience of eager learners for the topic you are studying? An excellent way to practice teaching is to write an explanation for an imaginary audience. A personal blog may be another great way to do this with the bonus of having a catalog of content at the end of your studying sessions. 

11. Embrace lateral thinking because the right answer is not always obvious.

Do you remember how the definition of intelligence at the beginning of this article included the ability to problem-solve? Often, an adequate solution to a problem is not an obvious solution. 
Edward de Bono defined the concept of lateral thinking in 1967. According to de Bono's definition, "lateral thinking is a set of processes that provide a deliberate, systematic way of thinking creatively in a repeatable manner. While critical thinking is primarily concerned with judging the true value of statements and seeking errors." In other words, de Bono's technique codifies creativity in a repeatable process. Although he is the pioneer in the field, there are numerous resources you can access, some of them for free online, to start learning how to think laterally and become smarter in the process. You can check out lateral thinking puzzles to get you an idea of what to expect, but most likely, they won't make much sense until you've completed some training. 

12. Hack your procrastination — there is value in "wasting" time.

Procrastinating has always been seen as the enemy of productivity, and living in a society so obsessed with productivity like the Western culture is, we naturally tend to look at it with a critical, if not scornful, eye. But a little procrastination might not be as bad as we instinctively fear. To most people's surprise, there are positive aspects associated with procrastination as it influences creativity. 
Scheduling your procrastination session sounds like an oxymoron — and it kind of is. Yet, you can often predict when your procrastinating bone will start to tickle. Also, not all procrastination is created equal. Did you know you can procrastinate actively? That is, you could be actively doing other work to delay doing the stuff that needs your attention now. 
How does procrastination make you more intelligent? There's no evidence that the act of procrastinating makes you smarter, even when it contributes to creativity. However, when you start feeling the pull to do nothing to avoid working on that project due in two days, don't feel guilty. Instead, do something to help you achieve your goal of becoming smarter. Grab your laptop and work on something unrelated but conducive to expanding your intellectual pursuits. Remember the math we did earlier about reading 30 minutes a day?
You can make yourself smarter. Becoming more intelligent is more a function of your decision-making than a genetic roll of the dice. And yes, some people do have a natural inclination for retaining information better and faster than others. Nonetheless, by now, you probably realized this process becomes more straightforward and practical when you follow a plan. Remember that developing your intelligence should be a life-long pursuit; as the old cliche goes, "It's not a sprint. It's a marathon." Find a rhythm that agrees with your learning style and pace your learning efforts. Once you commit to a steady, consistent practice, you'll be an unstoppable force on your way to making yourself smarter. 

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