“The goal of cross-training is to awake you to the enormous potential of your mind.” — Stephen D. Eiffert, Cross-Train Your Brain

Photo of a 3D wooden puzzle.

Wooden puzzles challenge your visualization skills

Like the body, the mind can also grow and develop through training. But while many of us attend to the needs of our body by exercising regularly and eating right, fewer people recognize “the need to train our minds in the same manner.”

In their daily struggle to maintain a consistent output, many creative professionals don’t recognize the benefits of mental cross-training. Beset as they are by deadlines, milestones, project overload and time management challenges, mental cross-training is often forgotten or ignored completely.

But a healthy mind, like a healthy body, improves your quality of life, and cross-training your creativity is one way to get there.

Brain teasers and puzzles

My favorite types of puzzles are the 3D wooden puzzles you find in saturday markets and boutique toy stores. I own about a dozen of them and have taken them all apart and put them back together hundreds of times. After that much practice, I can visualize on command how two oddly shaped pieces fit together.

There are many ways to improve mental fitness. Crossword puzzles, sudoku, riddles and brain teasers are also a good way to challenge yourself. Doing mental hurdles with the aid of puzzles helps you build new connections in your brain.

“For seniors, solving crossword puzzles can fortify memory and ability to focus, according to studies,” says Dummies.com.

But, as with every exercise, your mental fitness is only improved when the puzzle is a challenge. If you can finish Monday’s crossword puzzle in 20 minutes it’s probably time kick it up a notch. Try Sunday’s puzzle and see how far you get.

Gaming trains your brain, too

This might be just the excuse you need to plop yourself down in front of the XBox for a mindless night of fragging. Research suggests, however, that you might be getting more than you bargained for.

“A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception. The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability.”

You can read more about this study at this Wall Street Journal article, but the short of it is that gaming is a modern-day electronic brain teaser.

Of course, the danger is that gamers prefer the dimness of their living room and the soft glow of a television to sunlight and physical exercise. And a lack of physical exercise has other unhealthy effects on your brain and body, often leading to lifestyle diseases such as obesity, heart disease or diabetes.

It may be a pleasure to park on the couch for a night and coordinate raids with your friends, but as in all things one must try to strike a healthy balance.

Do the manager shuffle

In Cross-Train Your Brain: A Mental Fitness Program for Maximizing Creativity and Achieving Success, along with a bunch of fun exercises, Stephen D. Eiffert gives examples real world situations where mental cross-training has been effective.

One such situation he describes is when a company moves a manager into an unfamiliar or new department. “Research indicates that the most successful managers have been rotated in this manner an average of nearly four times in their careers.”

When a manager is successful in a new department, Eiffert explains, it is the “pattern-making right” brain that is (at least partially) responsible for their success. An unfamiliar stimulation forces the manager to innovate and problem-solve in ways they were not challenged to do so before. One senior manager told Eiffert that their manager-shuffle has been both “fun” and, more importantly, “productive to the company” (Read it for yourself at Slideshare, page 98).

Of course, one supposes that a strong sense of competition and a desire to win in whatever department they are placed also helped these managers to succeed, but we can give it to the pattern-making right brain this time.

Writing as a cross-training exercise

“Writing is probably the best cross-training tool available in aiding us in the discovery of principles. It provides us with an awareness of ourselves and our environment that few other exercises can. Simply through the process of daily writing one can uncover the negative processes that limit one’s potential and begin revealing the process of self discovery of our unlimited potential. We discover the greatest changes when practice is sustained over time.”

This quote is also from Eiffert’s book. Anyone can write, he says, but the secret to using writing as a cross-training tool is the “daily” part of the prescription.

Like all exercises, it is most effective when it becomes a habit. Over time, keeping a journal will make you more aware of your lifestyle, your thought process, even your desires, allowing you to pinpoint ways in which you can improve yourself.

All of this is a long way to say you should not be afraid to try something new. Training works because it’s a challenge. Not only will the mental cross-training stimulate your brain in new ways, but the new connections and patterns your brain makes in the cross-training will improve your quality of life and your ability to do your job well.

  • Cynthia Bigrigg

    Fantastic article. As a former instructor of adult literacy, I cannot stress enough, the importance of life-long learning, cross-training your mind and challenging your mental “routines.” The activities you have mentioned go an extremely long way toward keeping us mentally sharp and effective, now and into our senior years. Additionally, it has been shown that the skills people acquire through these activities make them more efficient and desirable employees, and enhance their quality of life.

    • Thanks, Cynthia! I bet you got to see a unique perspective on mental fitness being an instructor of adult literacy! Writing, reading, thinking, it’s all intertwined.

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