09 Jun
Improving Cognitive Function And Performance - How to Structure Your Day Like a CIA Operative

As a busy woman juggling multiple facets of life, like many others, I am often looking for ways to improve my daily routine to maximize performance. Recently I came across an interesting approach frequently applied by military personnel and intelligence operatives. It is evidence based and easy to follow. Best of all, it does not involve waking up at 5 am to waive a smudge stick around, drinking raw egg whites, eating 2kgs of steak, jumping on a trampoline or taking an ice-cold shower. Instead, this approach breaks the day up into three basic categories: morning, afternoon and evening. Here are some tried and tested, simple things you can do to keep yourself healthy and performing optimally. 


  • Ideally, you want to let your body lead you rather than be dependent on your alarm clock. 99% of what you have been told about sleep is nonsense and how much you need is a personal matter. Your body will tell you how much sleep you need. If you find you are sleeping and waking up feeling tired, as obvious as it sounds, that is a good sign you need to sleep more. If you feel fine and function well with 5 hours sleep per night and are consistently going to sleep and waking up at a regular time each day, chances are you are getting enough sleep. You need to study your own internal clock and work with it. Try to tap into your natural rhythm.
  • Once you do wake up, the first thing you MUST do is reach for is water. That is right, not coffee. WATER. Drink a minimum of 500 ml the moment you are up. The rapid consumption of water will jump start your nervous, digestive and immune system. Within 10 minutes of drinking a reasonable amount of water, you will feel more aware, and mentally active. This will also help to reduce your cortisol levels and enable you to settle into the day in a gentler manner.
  • The next thing you really need to do is get quiet. Your brain has two key functions and can’t run both at the same time; absorbing information and indexing information. Your brain automatically goes into absorb mode when you use any one of your five senses. As such, intelligence operatives are often trained to avoid anything that causes sensors to be engaged in the first 30 minutes to hour of their day. This is also believed to reduce cortisol levels, which translates to less anxiety, frustration and irritation throughout the day. Your brain needs an opportunity to index first thing in the morning, so give it some water and quiet time. Ideally, you want to be somewhere that is neutral to your senses. This approach will help you get more out of your day. Let your brain do some indexing before you move into motion.
  • Now that you are awake, hydrated and indexed, it is time to turn to ideation. Ideation is like advanced creativity. Give yourself a little time to get creative. This does not mean you have to do an interpretive dance sequence in front of a mirror or pull out some paint and canvas. Of course, you can do both if you wish. However, creative ideas are much simpler and can just involve sitting down with your thoughts to combine some existing concepts into new ideas. It is a process of intentionally carving out some time to develop ideas you have not previously considered. This process will alter the way your brain functions and tap into its natural way of expanding your capacity to think and create new neural pathways (i.e. neuroplasticity).


  • The next thing you need to do is eat something more substantial than what you consumed to break your fast. After you finish your quiet time, eat some fruit or a small snack of vegetables. This will prime your gut for more food. Soon after, eat something that has some protein in it. A boiled egg or protein shake. Try not to have a super heavy meal. The best approach is to eat small amounts of food every 2-3 hours. This has been scientifically shown to enhance digestion, prevent hunger, help you stay lean and improve sleep.
  • Once you have eaten, carve out some time to focus on learning something new. For example, learn something academic, a new instrument, basics of a new language, or a new defense tactic. Believe it or not, the worse you are at something, the more stimulating it is for your brain. Be kind to yourself and let yourself be horrible at something as you give this a go. Bonus points to you if you can cultivate more self-compassion and humility as a biproduct of accepting how terrible you are at something new. The idea is to give yourself an opportunity to grow and develop. Laugh, then try harder. It is really that simple and will aid you in strengthening your brain.
  • The afternoon has been shown to be one of the best times to workout. This has both mental and physical benefits. It will switch your brain back to index mode and help your body reduce its sensory demand as it enters a trance-like state.
  • Though it may sound silly, you should aim to stick to this routine, then break it. Then resume it. Then break it and continue to repeat the cycle. The idea is to keep yourself in a state of discomfort. Breaking your routine does not have to be drastic. You could take a break while you are on holiday for example. Or, alternatively eat at a slightly different time for a few days or munch on a different sort of food. You want to train yourself to sit on the edge of your growth zone rather than in your comfort zone.


  • Once nighttime rolls around, one of the best things you can do to maintain your mental edge is stay away from your mobile phone and other screens. Do a digital cleanse by placing your phone on silent, leaving it in another room and not using it unless you absolutely have to. There is nothing worse that prevents indexing more than constant beeps, vibrations or other alerts and notifications. These problems are easily avoided by putting your phone on silent and away from you. 
  • Try to create time for human connection. This is a very natural way to put yourself into ideation mode again because it forces you to consume, process and respond to information in real time. This is different to how your brain works when it is engaged with a digital device.
  • Create romantic time. Truth is, your brain and body needs romance and sex. You should be doing this as much as you can at nighttime with your partner. Romantic times help your brain flood with oxytocin, a hormone that boosts attachment, and happiness. Your brain struggling through the process of romance has enormous capacity to enhance and benefit your mental edge.
  • Finally, the last thing you should strive to do is develop a consistent pre-sleep ritual. It can be as simple as taking a shower, locking the doors and jumping in bed with a cup of tea to read a few pages of a book. If you are really committed to enhancing your mental edge, you need to stick to your rituals and give your brain 10 – 15 minutes to index all that has happened throughout the day. In doing so, you ideally want to remove all stimulus from around you so you can obtain more mental sharpness and clarity.
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