We all know that outdoor time can do wonders for our performance. But there’s a surprising new reason: a bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae, which lurks in the soil. When biologists Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks fed this single-celled bugger to lab mice, the animals became calmer and navigated mazes twice as quickly as those that weren’t exposed—an edge that lasted more than a week. The bacteria, which are often inhaled when we are in contact with dirt (gardening is one potential route), influence the “gut-brain” axis and stimulate neuron growth. (Matthews and Jenks found evidence that the new neurons produce the anti-anxiety neurotransmitter serotonin.) While research is under way on how M. vaccae may similarly retune our brains, consider trekking your way to the top.
2. Unspilled Beans
Say you have a goal—to lose your love handles, go to law school, pen the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Bravo! Now keep it to yourself. When others know your grand plans, especially when those plans have something to do with defining your social identity, you’re much less likely to carry them out—so found a study led by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer at New York University. (After making their career plans public, volunteers showed less resolve to, say, study or seize an opportunity.) Problem is, once others know your goal, you get a premature sense of having accomplished it—and on a subconscious level, that reduces your drive. A better strategy, advises Gollwitzer, is to come up with a concrete “if then” plan. For instance, if your goal is to cut back on sweets, you might tell yourself “If my boyfriend orders dessert, then I’ll order espresso”—a reward system that relies on an external cue, not on how others perceive you.
3. A Punctuation Mark
Can something as simple as switching the order of words you say when you “self talk” help you achieve more? Yes, says Daniel H. Pink in his book To Sell Is Human—when adding a question-mark punctuated “shaft of doubt.” Pink describes a study in which problem solvers had to change their inner voice from the usual pep (I will solve this) to one with a self-questioning tone (Will I solve this? Will I?). On average, he reports, “the self-questioning group solved nearly 50 percent more puzzles than the chest-beaters. The interrogative, Pink writes, “prompts you to summon the resources and strategies to accomplish the task” and motivates you from within.
4. Sleeping Baby Seal Pups
Good news here if you already like to ogle baby pups in teacups, kittens in knit caps or any other big-eyed, bobble-headed baby creature. After four minutes of cuteness overload, you may be able to focus much better on your work and be more dexterous—just like the women (and, yes, men) in a study at the Hiroshima University. (Incidentally, viewing “food porn” or adult animals did not improve performance.) The mood boost acts as a “powerful stimulant for motivation in wider contexts,” the researchers reported. And the laser focus—it’s vigilance, a result of protective instincts that normally emerge when we encounter cute baby humans.
5. The Confab in the Dairy Aisle
Chat up a total stranger for 10 minutes right before your next big presentation or negotiation. You’ll be sharper by the time you say goodbye, found researchers at the University of Michigan. After volunteers had friendly getting-to-know-you conversations, they scored markedly higher on tests for executive function (associated with planning ahead, self-monitoring and staying on task) than those who didn’t socialize or had a competitive interaction. The neural circuitry of social cognition (reading others’ minds and taking in their perspective) overlaps with executive function; the “transfer benefit” is quick-wittedness, better recall and a boosted ability to ignore distractions. A bonus: You never know where a chance encounter may lead….
6. An Early-Model Obi-Wan Kenobi
This is for the 1 out of every 5 of us who hasn’t yet found her “career guru.” The best person to learn from might not be the usual Yoda and Mr. Miyagi type, found a study on mathematician mentors led by data scientist Dean Malmgren. Overall, the best advisers—those whose protégés went on to train the largest numbers of their own mentees, a measure of success—were actually in the first third of their careers. One explanation is that as mentors gain stature, they have less time to teach and nurture others. While research is needed on professions outside academia, Malmgren says he has a hunch that young mentors would continue to outperform older ones in any job where incentives disappear due to tenure (job security), including schoolteachers and attending physicians in hospitals.
7. A Well-Timed Gulp
Grab a sweetened drink (no caffeine necessary). Chug it. Now negotiate your raise or broker a deal. Only after quaffing soda were volunteers in a University of South Dakota study more willing to strive for more money in the long term than to settle for a lesser sum in the short term. The reason: Decisions are influenced by our “body-energy budget.” Subconsciously, we become more future-focused when we have surplus energy, as we do when glucose levels soar. If blood sugar is low, as it was among diet-soda drinkers and the empty-stomached, an energy-crisis mindset prevails—and we tend to settle too soon. (Note: While soda increases glucose levels almost instantly, healthier alternatives such as apple juice could suffice.)
8. The Feel of Fall in the Tropics
Here’s one more thing that we usually don’t factor in to success: room temperature. But we should, because most of us are our most productive and error-free at a surprisingly balmy 72–79 degrees Fahrenheit, with a sweet spot at 77 degrees (25 degrees Celsius), than at cooler temps—so found researchers in a month-long experiment at Cornell University. At 68 degrees (think ice-cube-tray cubicles in over-air-conditioned offices) workers were significantly less productive and made 44 percent more typing mistakes than when the room was warmer. The worst time is the “post-lunch dip,” between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., when body heat and hormone levels drop—and energy that could go into spreadsheets or blazing insights is wasted on staying awake and warm.
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