cognitive function
Health & Fitness | Productivity

The Ultimate Guide to Improve Cognitive Function

In recent years I have been on a mission to discover how to enhance cognitive function.

I would notice that some days my focus, energy, motivation and creativity would be extremely high. While other days I couldn’t focus, couldn’t think clearly and had very little motivation to do anything productive.

You can probably relate to this. You have good days and bad days.

But what if there were a way to hack your biology to achieve intense focus, energy and productivity every day?

No more brain fog. No more slumps. No more lack of creativity.

In the movie Limitless, the character uses a fictional drug called NZT. This drug gives users a superhuman level of brainpower. Making them limitless.

I wanted to find a way to get this limitless effect naturally.

There are ‘smart drugs’ like modafinil. And these drugs can give you a big boost in cognitive function. But we really don’t understand the long-term effects of modafinil and other substances.

So I posed the question “how can the modafinil effect be achieved naturally with no side-effects.”

My understanding of the topic is still evolving.

But I have still come up with some ideas that can have a remarkable effect on your cognitive function.

Try implementing some of the ideas in this post. You will probably be amazed by some of the improvements you see in your cognitive performance.

And these improvements can happen very quickly.

This will be a very long and in-depth post. And I will continue to add to it as my understanding of cognitive function evolves.

You may wish to skip over some parts and just read the sections that capture your interest. Then return to this page later if you want to learn more.

Who This Is For

This information is for anyone who wants to achieve peak performance. If you feel like your brain isn’t operating at 100%, this is for you.

It’s for anyone who…

  • Wants to be able to improve their focus and attention
  • Wants to be 10x more productive
  • Wants more energy
  • Wants to be able to think more creatively
  • Watched the movie Limitless and wants to feel Limitless themselves

The information contained in this post can help employees wanting to perform better in their job. It’s for entrepreneurs who want to get more out of their brain and take their business to the next level.

It’s not for you if…

  • You are looking for ways to prevent cognitive decline and diseases like Dementia and Alzheimers.
  • You are trying to boost your IQ
  • You have suffered from brain injuries and are trying to recover your mental function
  • Your main goal is to improve memory

The information in this post could potentially help with these things. But it’s certainly not written with that intention.

Why You Need To Boost Mental Performance

What goals do you want to achieve in the next 12 months or 10 years?

Perhaps you want to make a million dollars. Spread your message to a billion people. Find the partner of your dreams.

If you could make your brain function 100x better, think about how much easier it would be to achieve your goals.

You would be more motivated to achieve your goals. You would have the energy to put more hours into achieving them. Your brain would effortlessly come up with creative solutions to take you closer to your goals.

A high performing brain is like having an unfair advantage. A cheat code for success.

What else could be more important?

Knowledge? But what good is knowledge if your brain struggles to recall that knowledge. Or you lack the drive and energy needed to implement that knowledge?

I honestly believe enhancing your cognitive function is one of the most important things you can do in your life. That’s why this article could be one of the most important articles you ever read.

Lack of Quality Information on Cognitive Enhancement

When I first started exploring the topic, I found it difficult to find quality and comprehensive information on improving cognitive function.

Many people have looked at what foods can boost brainpower. Others have looked at what habits can increase productivity. But almost nobody has looked at the full picture.

I have discovered that maximizing your mental performance requires a multi-pronged approach. Just changing your diet or structuring your daily routine is not enough.

What I want to do is create the most comprehensive resource on the planet about how to achieve ‘a limitless effect.’ Instead of having to read a dozen books, watch countless YouTube videos and experiment on yourself, my goal is to make this the only resource you ever need.

One day I may turn this into a book or paid course. But for now, this information is completely free.

I am so passionate about this topic that I want to make sure it’s covered in the depth that it deserves. My goal is to provide you with a blueprint to enhancing your cognitive function that is more helpful than any material you would find in a book, course or seminar.

There are numerous resources available on improving cognitive function. But they are all incomplete. You will need to fill in the gaps yourself.

If you have any interest in biohacking, you’ve probably come across Dave Asprey – the founder of Bulletproof coffee. Asprey offers some of the best information available on bio-hacking your body to boost cognitive function.

But his information mostly focuses on nutrition and supplementation, which is only part of the picture. And I have always approached Asprey’s teachings with a degree of skepticism, considering he is the CEO and founder of a large nutrition and supplements company.

This is the resource that I wish I had when I set out to learn about improving cognitive performance.

If someone had given me information like this, I could’ve saved so much time and money trying to figure it out myself.

The 4 Factors of Cognitive Performance

I once associated cognitive performance with just focus and clear thinking. When I tried using modafinil, I noticed I could focus intensely on my work and think with great clarity.

And I thought if I could just find a way to improve my focus and attention, then the clear thinking would follow.

But as I experimented and learned more, I discovered there are at least four factors required to achieve maximum cognitive function. They are..

  1. Focus
  2. Energy
  3. Motivation
  4. Creative Thinking

It’s important to understand that if you have strong focus, you may not have high energy and motivation. Or you could have high energy but low focus.

To reach your maximum cognitive function, you need all four factors.

If you have good focus but low energy and motivation, you will be able to do low-level activities well. Low-level activities include reading, meditation, watching videos, responding to low importance emails. But you will struggle to do high-level activities such as writing blog posts, making sales calls and important discussions.

This is another serious shortcoming of other content I have read about boosting cognitive performance. They fail to make the distinction between these four factors.

In this post, I will be covering specific strategies to enhance all four of these factors.

The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Improve Focus

People often talk about eliminating distractions to improve your focus.

But almost everyone fails to mention what is probably the biggest distraction and productivity killer for most people…

Cravings.

Learn to control your cravings and you will 10x your focus.

Cravings (especially for food) make it almost impossible to focus and be productive. If your brain is constantly craving something sweet or salty, how can you possibly focus on your work?

Without the constant distraction of food cravings, your mind will be free to think more creatively as well.

Personally, I’ve found food cravings to be more intense than cravings for other stimuli. And therefore more distracting. But there are definitely other types of cravings that will distract you and destroy your focus as well. I will cover these cravings a little later.

How To Eliminate Food Cravings

Firstly, it’s important to make the distinction between cravings and hunger. Hunger usually occurs when you haven’t eaten for a while and you get an empty feeling in your stomach. Your body just wants to be fed.

Cravings can occur at any time. They usually involve a strong desire to eat a certain type of food. Generally sweet, sugary or salty foods.

If you’re like me, then food cravings are a massive focus and productivity killer for you.

Especially if you work from home, then you are likely surrounded by food and the temptation to raid the fridge or pantry will be much higher.

To maximize your focus, you will need specific strategies to keep your food cravings at bay. Even if you can control your food cravings for at least half of the day, it will make a huge difference.

Remove All Food From Your Working Environment

Make it as hard as possible to access food while you’re working. If you have snacks on your desk or nearby, the temptation to eat will always be high. The harder it is to access food, the less likely you are to crave it.

This is particularly challenging if you work from home. I suggest creating designated eating times. For example, lunch at 1pm and afternoon tea at 3pm. You have to commit to only eating at these times.

Understand How Food Cravings Really Work

The science of food cravings is vastly misunderstood. Most of the information you will find online is misleading and won’t cure your cravings.

It’s an extremely complex subject and I couldn’t possibly cover it with sufficient depth in this article.

Most information about controlling food cravings focuses on the hormones leptin and ghrelin. These hormones control hunger and appetite but not cravings.

This article from Health Line is probably one of the best I have found on the topic. It explains how certain foods will trigger a large release of the neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Let’s say you eat a Snickers bar. The sugar from this Snickers bar leads to a strong surge in dopamine. Now your brain creates an association between the Snickers bar and pleasure. So it begins to crave more of the Snickers bar or more sugary foods.

This is why it’s so hard to eat just one potato chip. Or one biscuit. These foods are designed to activate the brain’s reward system and release high amounts of dopamine.

Sugar is one of the world’s most addictive substances because of the way in which it triggers dopamine. Salt has the same effect. So if you want to control your cravings, it’s essential to limit your sugar and salt intake.

This YouTube video from TED offers an easy to understand explanation of how sugar activates your reward system, leading to more cravings.

I have found that it’s particularly important to avoid these foods early in the day. If you eat sugary and salty foods early on, you will be setting yourself up for a full day of food cravings and poor focus.

Dopamine is probably the most important chemical associated with food cravings. But it’s also worthwhile reading this article, which explains other brain chemicals related to food cravings.

Try Intermittent Fasting

This is the easiest and most effective way I’ve found to control food cravings. The practice of intermittent fasting involves not eating for a period of usually 14-20 hours.

Because you’re not stimulating the brain’s system with food, your body stops craving it. You may experience some hunger during your fast, but I’ve found hunger is much less distracting than cravings. And the hunger will usually pass.

This post from The Fit And Healthy Baker talks about other reasons intermittent fasting suppresses cravings.

The only downside to intermittent fasting is that sometimes I’ll feel a bit sluggish during the fast. My mind isn’t as sharp as I’d like.

A solution I’ve found is to have a low calorie, low sugar beverage in the morning. Sometimes a tea or coffee (with no milk) will do the trick.

Lately, I’ve been having this Cocao Mint Latte with coconut milk first thing in the morning. It’s available at Woolworths in Australia.

It contains only a very small amount of sugar. And I add cinnamon and ginger to it for added benefits. It doesn’t induce any cravings and it gives me a little bit of energy to avoid that sluggish feeling.

Another option that has worked well for me is Bulletproof Coffee. Dave Asprey suggests using his Bulletproof coffee beans and Brain Octane oil with grass-fed butter to get full cognitive benefits. I’ve only ever tried regular coffee, mixed with coconut oil and grass-fed butter, which worked well for me.

If you can avoid solid foods until at least 1pm, you should have a very focused and productive morning.

Try to avoid foods that would induce cravings when you do finally break the fast. I often find that a high-fat smoothie is the best option to provide me with some energy, without triggering cravings throughout the afternoon.

I generally allow myself to eat more foods that may trigger cravings at 5pm or later when I’ve finished my most important work for the day.

Understand Your Trigger Foods

There will be certain foods that trigger food cravings for you more so than others.

As a general rule, you should avoid sugary and salty foods during your workday. These foods lack health benefits and will trigger food cravings in most people.

But you will probably find that even some foods that are considered healthy will trigger food cravings for you.

Personally, I find dark chocolate a huge trigger for me. Even though it contains only a small amount of sugar. Eggs also tend to trigger cravings for me and anything crunchy.

You want to become very observant of how you feel after eating certain foods. It can be worthwhile keeping a food journal for at least a few weeks and noting when you start getting food cravings.

Other Cravings That Will Destroy Your Focus

Your brain will develop cravings for anything that stimulates its reward system.

Just as you learned how some foods will activate the reward system and lead to cravings, there are various other stimuli that can trigger the same effect.

This is what can trigger a dopamine release in the brain, leading to cravings…

  • Drugs
  • Smoking
  • Sex
  • Porn
  • Music
  • Social Media
  • Video games

Any of the above will give your brain a surge of dopamine. Your brain wants to get more dopamine so it will start urging you to return to the source of that dopamine hit. Whether it be cocaine, cigarettes or even music. And that will make it nearly impossible to clearly focus on your work.

BTW, dopamine isn’t all bad. You can actually make it work to your advantage. In another post, I explain a cool hack to harness the power of dopamine to make you more productive. Click here to read that post.

Some people might be surprised to see music on the list. This article discusses how the dopamine response to music can make music addiction as real as sex and drug addictions.

This is why I don’t recommend listening to music while working. It’s a distraction in the first place. But it can lead to intense cravings for more music. And that will make it very difficult to focus on your work.

I love listening to music but I try to leave it to the end of the day when I’ve already completed my most important work for the day.

Try A Dopamine Fast

If you want to see the effect dopamine has on your focus, try a dopamine fast. This is when you abstain from everything that gives you a dopamine surge for at least 12-24 hours.

That means…

  • No digital devices (including phones)
  • No sex or masturbation
  • No music
  • No social media
  • No porn
  • No newspapers or magazine
  • No alcohol
  • No food*

*Personally, I have still eaten when dopamine fasting. But I limited it to just vegetables and butter. If you choose to still eat during your dopamine fast, I suggest keeping it to a minimum and only eating very plain, healthy foods.

This 8 minute YouTube video from Improvement Pill offers a good explanation of how the dopamine fast works and the benefits.

When I’ve tried dopamine fasting, the biggest benefit I noticed was improved focus. I wasn’t craving food, music or any other substances. So my mind was free to focus on what was in front of me.

Some people choose to eliminate books during their dopamine fast. But I decided to read only non-fiction books because it’s a good way to test your focus.

Most people (including myself) find it difficult to focus on a non-fiction book for more than 15 minutes. But during the dopamine fast, I could sit down and focus on my book for at least 60 minutes without my mind wandering.

I really noticed the improvement in focus when I tried meditating. My mind was so much clearer than usual. And I could focus on my breath without getting distracted.

Supplements to Support Cognitive Function

Lion’s Mane Mushroom

Impact: Low

I became interested in the cognitive benefits of lion’s mane mushroom when I heard Tim Ferriss, Dave Asprey and other sources claiming that it improves focus.

Mushroom supplements company Four Sigmatic call it “the pencil sharpener for the digital age.”

I tried this Lion’s Mane mushroom supplement from Teelixir. Unfortunately, I didn’t experience any notable improvement in focus.

lion's mane mushroom

It seems like there is little evidence to support claims made about the cognitive benefits on lion’s mane mushroom. But I would imagine there are other health benefits to it.

If you’re looking for a boost in focus, I would skip lion’s mane for now. Following the other advice related to focus in this post will give you much better results.

Nicotine

Impact: Medium

A University of Sussex professor claimed that nicotine is “the most reliable cognitive enhancer we currently have.”

Paul A. Newhouse, one of the world’s leading researchers on nicotine said “in some respects, [nicotine] is the perfect psychotropic drug because if you’re de-aroused, it will arouse you. If you’re over-aroused, or hyper-aroused, it will calm you down. It will bring you more into sort of that middle ground.”

Dave Asprey is also a strong proponent of nicotine’s cognitive enhancing benefits.

Of course, none of these people are suggesting you take up smoking to get a cognitive boost. But nicotine delivered through other methods such as gum, lozenges or mouth spray may deliver cognitive benefits without the consequences of smoking cigarettes.

I recently bought a pack of Nicobate 4mg nicotine lozenges to test the effects myself.

At first, I definitely noticed an improvement in alertness, motivation and focus. It felt like the closest thing I had found to modafinil.

But after taking it a few times, it felt like the effect was starting to diminish. So I’m still on the fence about nicotine. I will continue to test it and update this section.

It is a well-studied substance and appears to be safe, as long as you’re not smoking it. And there is a lot of evidence to suggest it can boost cognitive performance.

Berocca Performance/Ginseng Energy Boosters

Impact: Low

I have tried several supplements containing ginseng. Most recently, I have used Berocca Performance 50+. These are marketed as a performance booster that increases mental sharpness and physical energy.

I have found this and other Ginseng supplements to be ineffective in boosting energy and overall cognitive function.

Green Tea X50

Impact: Moderate

This green tea supplement is promoted as an energy booster. I tried this particular brand from X50. But I imagine the effect is much the same as the many other concentrated green tea supplements on the market.

When I first tried it, I had a very noticeable boost in energy. The effect was great enough for me to be significantly more productive that day.

By the third time I tried it, the effect was definitely less pronounced.

Many of the reviews for this particular product are very positive, with users saying they have experienced much greater energy when using it.

More To Come

This post is still a work in progress. In the coming weeks and months, I will be adding much more information to this same post.

It’s a huge topic and one I believe is incredibly important for anyone who wants to be successful in life. My goal is to make this the most comprehensive resource for anyone wanting to improve their cognitive function.

Did you find the information so far helpful and interesting?

If so, I would ask you to do a few things…

  1. Bookmark this page so you can return to it later as I add more information. Or you can subscribe to my email list and be notified as I add more.
  2. Share the post on social media or send it directly to a friend.
  3. Try some of the ideas in the post. Email me on richard@richiemcgrath.com to let me know how they go or if you have any questions.

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