I am putting together a list of recommended gear, software, and books to help you improve your mental performance and productivity.
This list is carefully curated. I only include items that I believe can make a substantial difference for your capacity to learn, focus, and do cognitive work.
Earmuffs are my favorite “hardware” for improving attention and focus. By blocking noise you can improve your cognitive performance by 50% or more. Multiple studies have shown that most people do a lot better at math, memorizing, reading, proofreading, and writing in a quiet environment. Earmuffs are the most economical performance enhancement tool I have come across yet – and they are completely legal. There is a reason why you see competitors in memory championships wearing earmuffs!
I use two different pairs of earmuffs.
The 3M Peltor X5A: They are comfortable and block noise across the whole range of human hearing extremely well. This includes rumbling traffic noise, music, office noise, and human speech.The downside is that they make you look like an airfield worker or, if worn out of place, like a geek.
I use them at home for reading and for meditation.
The 3M Peltor X4A: These have a much flatter profile and can easily be mistaken for Bluetooth headphones. They still block a lot of noise, albeit a bit less than the X5A. Earplugs and noise-isolating earbuds are no match for them! I use them while on the go, in busy coffee shops, in airports, and even in the library. They are a lot lighter and more compact than the X5A.
Which pair should you get? If you work or study a lot in the presence of other people and care about your looks, get the X4A. If you are very sensitive to noise or want to experience almost complete silence while studying, reading, or meditating, get the X5A.
Bose Quiet Comfort 35 noise-cancelling headphones
I used to think little of noise-cancelling headphones, having previously owned a pair that only slightly attenuated constant humming sounds.
Purely by chance, I came across the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 (QC35) headphones. A friend let me try them in a noisy coffee shop that played loud music with a rumbling sub-woofer bass. After putting them on, it was as if the sub-woofer had been disconnected. I was truly impressed, but also truly intimidated by the price.
Still, I bought them a couple of weeks later and have since used them extensively:
The QC35 almost completely eliminate low-frequency noise, including rumbling traffic noise. Low-frequency noise can significantly increase stress hormone levels in people sensitive to it. I am one of them! What’s more, stress is a memory killer.
They are great if you commute a lot on public transport, live close to a busy road, or are exposed to other low-pitched sounds (air conditioners, etc.) in your work or study environment. If you are bothered by this kind of noise, they might take the world off your shoulders.
They do attenuate voices, but not nearly as well as earmuffs. I use them in combination with white noise to block out speech and higher-pitched sounds. White noise often helps me to focus for longer. They are also great for listening to online lectures, podcasts, and of course, music.
What’s more, the QC35 are quite bit more comfortable than earmuffs and I can take phone calls while wearing them. (They are Bluetooth headphones that can connect to two devices, such as a phone and a computer, at the same time.)
If you are feeling lost in the woods of your daily work, this complete task management and filing system can get you out of there. David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) is a comprehensive yet straight-forward system to manage your inbox, tasks, projects, and life. It takes you from a 30000-feet altitude view of your life and work down to the nitty-gritty details of deciding fast what to do with any item in your inbox. “Get it out of your mind, so that it doesn’t occupy valuable mental resources.” While originally conceived for business leaders and office environments, GTD is also great for students and homemakers. Use Evernote or OneNote to implement GTD.
This book by me (Helmut Sachs) provides a complete yet concise toolbox for students and life-long learners alike. It lays out the techniques and computer tools I suggest you use to learn faster, improve your memory, and manage the information you need to enhance your knowledge:
- Classical memory improvement and mnemonics
- Techniques to improve concentration and attention span
- Strategies and apps for effective note taking, self-testing, and recall practice
- Tutorials and software tools to extract, organize, and re-find information from all kinds of sources.
With his book Thinkertoys, Michael Michalko has assembled the cookbook on creativity techniques. Thinkertoys contains 39 chapters filled with idea generation and creative problem solving techniques employing intuition, forced connections, random stimulation, imagery, and other building blocks of creativity. The book contains techniques for both aspiring creative geniuses and corporate work groups. Whether you want to come up with the next light bulb, plan to travel to Mars, or are just looking for a name for your new book or company, just open the book on a random page and apply the techniques laid out in front of you.
Time boxing is a great technique for staying focused throughout the day and getting things done. Take a timer, set it to 30 minutes (a time box) and work on the task before you. Block out all distractions during the time box. Anything that comes to mind during a time box goes on a list. After the timer rings, get up from your chair and move. Apply these simple steps for a few days, even if you hate time management systems.
With his book The Pomodoro Technique, Francesco Cirillo popularized the idea of time boxing (he uses 25-minute time boxes) and created a complete time and task management system around it. Let the book inspire you and decide for yourself how far you want to take it.
Remembering Traditional Hanzi and Remembering Simplified Hanzi
Are you planning to learn the Chinese characters? Then you should take a look at these books.
In Remembering Traditional Hanzi and Remembering Simplified Hanzi, James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson introduce the Chinese characters using mnemonic stories and a unique ordering approach. You progressively build your character memory based on previously learned primitive elements rather than rote memorization and writing each character 50 times.
The books are based on Heisig’s earlier work, Remembering the Kanji. Having just arrived in Japan as a visiting research fellow, Heisig learned nearly 2000 Kanji (i.e., the Chinese as they are used in Japan) in one month of full-time study. For each character, he learned its key meaning, how to recognize it, and how to write it from memory. That is pretty impressive indeed.
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