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Upgrading Your Brain for Higher Performance, or Hacking Human Nature


I recently discovered a corporate strategist and neuroscientist Dr Robert Cooper, who’s devoted his career to researching and improving human performance via what he calls “hacking human nature”.

I thought it would be valuable to summarize and share some of the key nuggets from his main keynote presentation (you can watch some highlights here).

Your brain is not your friend, immunity to change and habituation

First, some sobering background on how the brain works. One of Cooper’s core lines is that “your brain is not your friend”.
The human brain has been structurally the same for the last 200,000 years (Scientific American: How the Human Brain has Evolved). It consumes so much of our energy and thus is designed to automate tasks, react and provide only bursts of focus.  Cooper posits that the human brain defaults to stepping down to a lower state of operation and performance which he calls downwiring. This is the opposite of his principle of upwiring.
He mentions the work of Robert Kegan which concludes that humans have an “immunity to change”. The perfect example; a study showed that when doctors tell heart patients they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully.
Even with all the drive and willpower in the world–what some researchers are calling “total motivation”, and the ultimate significant and compelling goals, they will only last in your brain for minutes and then your brain will habituate to them and look for something else to occupy its attention.

Always Be Upwiring, or “Habits Eat Good Intentions for Breakfast” 

Enough bad news, what can we do?  The answer begins with five countermeasures, which upwire your brain (and life) into higher performance. While each of these could be a post or book in themselves, I will summarize them quickly.

Countermeasure 1: Mind On / Mind Off

I first came across this principle in The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, which claimed that managing energy is the key to high performance and personal renewal.   The principle is simple yet profound; that we need to cycle our periods of engagement and high intensity focus with disengagement and switching-off, and that most of us don’t do this very well.  When we are at work, we aren’t fully engaged.  When we are at home, we aren’t fully disengaged.  Being able to switch fully on and off is a critical skill to develop.

Countermeasure 2: Speed to Habit

Building new habits can be deceptively simple and easy. As little as 59 seconds or 3 repetitions (spaced by 10 minutes) can form new habits. The main idea of this countermeasure is to be constantly creating and using opportunities to build new, better habits, everywhere you go.

Countermeasure 3: Metabolic Momentum

Your metabolism is how your brain and body create energy. A nice perspective to adopt is that your metabolism is constantly on standby for signals from you on how much energy to produce. You should create a habit of sending signals at every possible opportunity for it to be more switched on–by how you breathe, how you move, how you sit and stand, what you think about, what you eat and drink etc.
This principle reminds me of the TED talk by Amy Cuddy (the second most viewed ever) that referenced her research that adopting a powerful posture for 2 mins can increase testosterone (the awesomeness hormone) by 20% and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) by 25%.

Countermeasure 4: The First 22 Minutes

One of my personal favorites – this principle is all about setting up your day by designing / engineering the first 22 minutes after waking to be as awesome as possible, and constantly trying to beat your previous day(s). The claim is that how you start your day upgrades or downgrades the rest of the day. Didn’t manage to grasp why it’s 22 minutes-but here are some ideas for your morning ritual / routine from mine.
  • Meditation
  • Write down things you’re grateful for
  • Read spiritual text
  • Drink 500ml water
  • 1 teaspoon of salt / morning supplements
  • Make bed
  • Exercise
  • Journal your dreams
Cooper claims that if you can learn to manage this window, everything will shift for you.

Countermeasure 5: Primetime

According to Cooper, the most productive hour of your day can out-produce the entire rest of your day. Quote unquote those minutes are two-to-one-hundred times more valuable than the other minutes, they should be blocked out on your calendar and managed carefully for maximum effectiveness.
I’m trying to identify my primetime, I encourage you to do the same and once you have, to make sure you leverage it to the fullest extent.


I’m sure you will agree that these are some life changing ideas, I hope you will find ways to implement them and a big thanks to Dr Cooper for his work!

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