13 Easy Ways to Improve Your Brain


You've probably heard before that "Knowing is half the battle."

However, becoming smarter doesn't need to be a battle in itself. The great thing about improving your knowledge is that it can be done on the cheap, providing you one of the highest ROIs you can ever get.

Here are more than a dozen budget-friendly ideas to become smarter.

Expand Your Vocabulary

Like Steve Martin said, "Some people have a way with words, and other people...oh, uh, not have way." The more words you know, the better you are at making your point.

1. Learn a Word per Day From a Dictionary

If you don't have a dictionary laying around your place, then borrow one from a friend or relative. With some old-fashioned dictionaries being so large and bulky, some people are happy to give them away. An alternative is to use free online dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and Cambridge. Make it a habit to tie-in looking up a word to a daily ritual (e.g. drinking coffee, brushing your teeth), so that you are able to commit to this task. Another option is to sign up for a free word-a-day email service or use an industry-specific online dictionary.

If you think a-word-a-day is too wimpy, then you can take your daily word to the next level by adding its synonym and antonym. If you don't have access to a thesaurus, then you can use the free ones from Merriam-Webster, Cambridge or Synonym.com.

2. Read More Challenging Books and Articles

One in four Americans read no books last year. This is a scary statistic, yet very easy to fix. You can commit yourself to read a challenging book per month when you have a specific goal to complete the month after.

In March, for example, you can commit to read a book or series of online articles that helps you finish your taxes on time. In September, read a book that brings you completely up to speed on a character that you are planning to play during Halloween. This a trick that you can repeat over and over.

If you prefer to read physical books, save money by looking for used copies on eBay, Amazon, and Craigslist. Also, once you are done with your books, you can resell them on those sites as well. If you prefer to read online, then skip the magazine subscription and read its available online articles. You may be running one issue behind, but you can increase the amount of magazines you can read per month at no cost.

3. Play "Word" Games

If looking up words sounds like no fun at all, you can spice it up by making a game out of it. Invest in a Scrabble game board (about $15 for a used one on Amazon.com) and play with your friends and family. Not only will you enjoy some quality time, but also you will improve your vocabulary. Keep a dictionary nearby or on a browser on your smartphone to check the definition of new words.

If most of your family and friends live too far away, you can still play Scrabble with them through the free version of Words with Friends (available on Android, iPhone, and Facebook). This is a fun way to discover words you never knew existed!

Ask Questions of Experts

As cliched as it may sound, the Internet truly has made the world a "global village." Having access to experts from all around the world allows you to get them answers, most of the time for free!

4. Use Your Alumni Association

If you graduated from high school or college, then put your alumni association to work for you. Ask for the list of alumni living in your area and keep in the loop about educational events. For example, I have an undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta in Canada and have 65 fellow alumni that live in Hawaii. Through this network, I found out about a great talk on the latest research on geothermal energy happening right in my state.

5. Crowdsource Answers

Just like you use Yelp and Foursquare to crowdsource where to eat out the next time, you should use sites devoted to Q&A's to crowdsource the answer to your next burning question. While there are lots of Q&A sites, you should stick mostly to LinkedIn and Quora. The reason is that both sites seek to maintain a professional tone. LinkedIn ties your answer to your resume, and Quora keeps an army of site moderators. (By the way, you can find me on Quora in case you have questions on email marketing, taking the GMAT exam, or Ecuador.)

Improve Your Health

A healthy mind goes with a healthy body. Breaking a sweat on a daily basis and taking care of your body are important to becoming smarter. Here is how to improve your health on the cheap.

7. Sleep Better

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 25% of Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. If you are one of them, then you can fix this in three easy ways:

  1. Stop drinking coffee, 5-Hour Energy, or Red Bull before noon so that the caffeine can fully wear off by bedtime.
  2. Start eating dinner before 7 p.m so that you have enough time to digest your meal.
  3. Establish a wind-down routine, such as reading a book, doing a facial, or drinking hot cocoa, whatever ritual that allows your mind and body to relax for a better rest.

8. Eat and Exercise Like a Pro

Behind every Hollywood superstar is a great trainer and nutrition specialist. But there is no need to spend the same kind of cash that Gwyneth Paltrow and Gwen Stefani spend to get similar results. Talk with your HR department about the free or discounted gym and nutrition classes that are included through your health insurance plan. Preventive care is on the rise in the U.S., so you may be able to score a free class on the basics of yoga or healthy eating.

Also, turn to the Internet to search for podcasts (e.g. American Society for Nutrition and Nutrition Diva), blogs (e.g. Nerd Fitness and Fit Mama Moxie), and sites (e.g. Men's Health and Women's Health) dedicated to fitness and nutrition.

Get Social

I don't mean to join Twitter or open a Facebook account; I mean to actually get outside your home and start talking to more people. If you want to become smarter, you need to become more social and interact with more people.

9. Join a Club

Learning by doing is one of the fastest ways to absorb information or learn a new skill. For example, as expecting parents of twin boys, my wife and I joined a local group of parents of multiples. By attending the monthly group meetings and talking with other parents of multiples, we have been able to quickly filter lots of information and get those amazing "golden nuggets" of knowledge.

Since two heads think better than one, just imagine when you can get 10 or more in the same room! Not only you are able to cover more research in less time as somebody is doing the work for you, but you also get a different perspective that you may have not considered before. From chess to backyard gardening to conversational Spanish, there are clubs for pretty much everything.

Some groups may require a membership fee, but they often offer you free attendance to the first meeting. Other groups may be completely gratis. Look up groups based on your interests and budget constraints.

10. Start More Face-to-Face Conversations

SMS and email may be killing the art of conversation. The more we use them, the more we tend to avoid people. Even at the office we often prefer to email a coworker who is only three cubicles down. Get into the habit of starting more face-to-face conversations so that you can improve your social skills. Pay attention to your and your partner's body language to figure out how those cues affect the flow, meaning, and tone of the conversation.

Surround yourself with people that have more experience than you in different fields. Don't become intimidated by their superior knowledge, but aim to learn from their experiences. Feel blessed that you have access to smarter people. That hot-shot lawyer that charges $100 per hour to a client may give you some good advice for free. It may only cost you a cup of coffee and an hour of your time. Make it a goal to start five face-to-face conversations every day.

Improve Your Memory

What a great feeling of accomplishment is to go through a full day without having forgotten anything that you needed to do! Your memory is like a muscle, and if you don't flex it often, it will go stale.

11. Write Things Down

Writing makes you smarter because it involves three key skills:

  1. Visual: You develop the ability to focus on what is front of you.
  2. Motor: You work on your hand-eye coordination so that the letters can make sense.
  3. Cognitive: You exercise different parts of the brain to figure out the fastest way to put ideas down on paper.

By practicing these three skills through writing, you become better at recalling birthdates, things-to-do, and names. The surefire way to write more throughout the day is to always carry a small notebook and a pen. Whenever you are on the phone or at a meeting, take notes of key action items and pieces of data. The more you practice, the better you become at taking notes and the more that you will remember.

But don't just stop there. Use your notebook or the notepad app from your smartphone or tablet to make a daily list of things-to-do. Using 10 minutes a day to organize your list of tasks allows you to prepare yourself better, prioritize tasks, and increase your likelihood of completing each task. Besides, there is nothing more satisfying than scratching off the last item from your to-do list and screaming out loud "done!"

12. Use Mnemonics

Mnemonics (the initial "m" is silent) are hints that we use to remember something more easily. By associating information with a visual image, a sentence, or a word, we increase our ability to recall that information.

Here are some useful examples:

  • Acrostics: The sentence "Please Excuse My Dear Aunty Sally" helps Math students to remember the order of operations: Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction.
  • Acronyms: STEM allows you to remember the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
  • Chunking: Group numbers to remember phone numbers more easily. You'll have an easier time to remember 555-789-2143 than 5557892143.
  • Rhymes: "Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November" lets you know right away what months of the year that have 30 days.
  • Visual Imaging: To recall names faster, associate an obvious detail that you can pick up right away when you see it. Some examples are "Golden Locks Mary," "German Accent Peter," and "Tall Mike."

13. Jog Your Memory Often

Just like jogging often prevents you from getting a cramp the next time you go for a run, jogging your memory often keeps it in good form. Test your memory with these two easy tricks.

First, the next time that you have sit on front of a cluttered desk, try to memorize as many items as you can in 30 seconds, and snap a picture with your cellphone. Then, write down on a piece of paper as many items as you can recall within a minute. After the minute is up, check your answers against the picture.

Another cheap way to jog your memory is to literally play the Memory Game. You can buy a Memory Game on Amazon for as low as $13, download a free app such as Memory Trainer, or build your own board game using pictures of your family and friends.

By expanding your vocabulary, asking questions to experts, getting social, and improving your memory, you are working on budget-friendly ways to become smarter.

What other cheap ways do you use to become smarter? Please share in comments!

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