One thing you will learn once you graduate and get into your everyday adult life is that work doesn’t stretch your mind in the same ways that school did. Your job will obviously be something a bit more specialized based on what you studied, or specific skills you taught yourself, and so parts of your brain will turn to mush—it’s great.
In my own college and high school experiences, I talked with friends and teachers/professors a lot about becoming a lifelong learner, and how important it is to maintain a growth mindset in regards to how much you can learn.
Most likely, before you graduated, you were learning the material for your classes because you wanted to avoid getting bad grades—you wanted to get your degree then get out and get your dream job—but your motivation to do well and learn (probably memorize) the lessons was because you were trying to avoid penalty, not because you actually wanted to learn the material—in most cases.
Once you graduate though, what you learn—whether related to your job or not—is entirely up to you. Now you can follow your curiosity as deeply as you’d like, and this can be really freeing.
However—a quick disclaimer—you’re also probably used to pulling all-nighters and comparing how many cups of coffee you’ve had with your classmates to see who was most dedicated to getting the best grade on your exam, but if you continue doing things like this when you start working, you will go crazy and you will feel awful all the time. You cannot put your work before your health. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, drink enough water, and get enough exercise. So, if you’re already feeling like your brain has gotten foggy and maybe turned to jello in your head, focus on your physical health first. Everything that follows in this blog post is extra-curricular!
8 Ways to Sharpen Your Brain After College
The most obvious thing you can do to sharpen your mind is to read more. Reading reduces stress, allows you to learn new things, and if you start reading more fiction, it helps you to be more empathetic and compassionate.
I’ve noticed that if I go on reading binges where I just read all weekend or I take a week and read in all of my free time, my brain will feel like it was doing reps at the gym. If you grab one or two books that on the NYT bestseller list or some other top 10 list, you also increase the likelihood that you’ll have one more topic to bring up as you’re making new friends in that big city you moved to without knowing anybody.
While living in New York, I found that podcasts (and audiobooks) were sometimes easier to read on the train, because you will be packed like sardines in that rush hour subway car, and you can’t really turn pages and hold onto a bar at the same time. Many days you’ll also have to hold a book right up to your face because of how little room there will be in the subway car. So if you like to read during your commute, look into podcasts. There are so so many good ones. Podcasts are another great talking point in conversations with new friends, and you can learn so so much from them—sometimes listening to a podcast episode can give you enough information about a specific topic in a shorter amount of time than reading a book, so if you’re just sort of curious about something, try a podcast first and then if you still want to learn more, look into books on that topic. Podcasts also nice because it’s just like you’re listening in on a conversation and that’s much easier to pay attention to on days when you’re feeling kind of tired.
3. Learn a New Language
If you’re interested in traveling and seeing other places around the world, then while you’re saving that bread from your job so that one day you can backpack across Europe, you can also use the time while you’re saving up to learn new languages that will come in handy on that trip of yours!
There’s so many ways you can learn a new language for free (or use things you already have and pay for like Netflix/the internet). You can use apps like Duolingo, rewatch your favorite Netflix shows in your target language, find Youtubers that will not only inspire you to keep learning new languages, but others that also created videos in your target language(s) (one of my favorites is Damon and Jo!).
There’s also just like vocab sheets and stuff that you can find online, just google like French food vocab and then you can make quizlet flashcards and have those on your phone and while you’re waiting for a train or waiting for friends to meet you for dinner or something you can just flip through some of your vocab!
In big cities like New York, you can also find restaurants and cultural centers to find events to go to and support the center and make friends who speak the language you’re learning. There’s also groups that meet (you can find them on flyers in coffee shops or on apps like MeetUp) to help you pair up with someone who wants to learn the same language as you, or a native speaker in your target language who wants to learn your native language.
4. Keep Track of Your Questions
This might sound a little vague—let me explain. Maybe you hear something on the news and you realize you’re not totally certain why relations between certain countries are so fraught, or you wonder what more you can be doing to support causes you care about—catch these questions and take note of them, because these are things you can dig into.
There’s probably a lot of information that you learned and knew in high school that started to fade after you stopped thinking and talking about it with your classmates. By keeping track of questions that pop up, you can find your weak spots and then find resources to refresh that information or to learn about things that you never learned in school.
Once you figure out topics to dive into, you can find open courses from colleges like Yale for free online, or use websites like Coursera or Teachable, and if you’re interested in more skill-based knowledge you can use websites like Skillshare.
It’s no surprise that meditation makes this list! It seems like we are chronically overstimulated—with notifications one our phones and our laptops and tablets constantly diverting our attention from what we’re watching, reading, or working on, even for brief moments, it makes sense that even when we’re not on our phones or laptops our ability to focus and think clearly would have been negatively impacted.
Meditation—whether you’re just sitting on your own and focusing on your breath, or using an app like Calm or Headspace—is a great way to take back control of your ability to focus and think clearly, because you’re spending time practicing two things. First, you’re learning to observe and separate yourself from your thoughts as you gently redirect your focus to your breath again and again while you’re meditating. This helps in your daily life when you get sidetracked with distractions by allowing you to catch yourself before you’ve lost too much time and energy focusing on something inconsequential. And second, you’re also learning how to use your breath to manage stress and emotions—you only need to endure stress for a few days or weeks to recognize how it negatively impacts your body and mind. You only have to mismanage stress once to learn how negatively it can impact your body, and how foggy it can make your brain feel.
For a quick way to try to get your brain working more sharply just get a bit of exercise. Take five minutes in the morning or before you need to tackle a bigger, more complicated project, and do 25 push-ups (with breaks) to get your heart rate up. If you can get more blood—and oxygen—to your brain you have a better chance of thinking clearly. Getting in the habit of going for a walk or run and doing some yoga everyday will help your mind stay sharp all day.
7. Go to Events
Right now, a lot of the kinds of events I’m talking about are still online due to COVID, so you don’t need to live in NYC or another city to attend, and if you haven’t already, this is something to take advantage of! Attend as many events as possible that spark your interest. More often than not, just listening to someone else who has written a book or studied a topic talk about their work and their interests, this will spark tons of ideas for you. And as creative people, new ideas are addictive! In order to feel the most like ourselves and to live out the dreams we have for our creative ambitions, we need to be exploring topics that excite us, thinking about our projects, and working out our creative muscles. Finding other thought leaders and friends (other people who attend the same events) who are interested in the same topics, tensions and stories that you are will be endlessly inspiring.
8. Have a Clear Plan
There’s nothing that can sabotage the best intentions and the clearest thinking like a vague plan. I can’t even tell you how many times I told myself I’d wake up and “write before work” only to get up the next morning and have to spend twenty minutes figuring out what part of a story or my novel I wanted to work on—if I ever got started. It’s much easier to get derailed from your intentions when you don’t know exactly how to get started. To alleviate any foggy thinking around your projects at the time when you need to be working on them, clarify EXACTLY what you will be working on—if you’re writing, make a list of scenes you’ll work on, and when/where you’ll do so (check out implementation intentions from James Clears’ Atomic Habits).
It can be an awful feeling when you realize that you’re unable to think as clearly as you used to in school, but by implementing a few mind-maintaining habits into your routines you can reclaim your ability to think clearly—and your creativity will come back to you stronger than ever!