Mental Exercises to Keep You Sharp

Mental exercises aren’t just for mathematicians or professional chess players: they’re for creative types, too.

I say this as someone who often neglects mental exercises because they take time. Why use the precious minutes of my day on something completely unrelated to my all-consuming projects? Books and scripts get written by writing… not by fiddling around with mind games or crossword puzzles.

And yet, numerous scientific studies correlate mental exercises with improved mood, memory, and overall brain functionality (especially as you age).

This should come as no shock, when you consider that brain power resembles a muscle: you use it or lose it. But how exactly can hands-on activities boost your creative skills? Well, I’ll leave it to the scientists to explain that one, but I can name a few mental exercises I’ve recently rediscovered that have sharpened my brain and helped free it from the mind-numbing world of screens:

1. Crossword Puzzles

This one is pretty obvious for writers. I mean, we live in the world of words, so this is supposed to be our jam, right? The only problem I frequently run into is that I don’t know the references in the hints, so I have no idea what they’re actually hinting at. This just makes me feel like an uncultured fool, so many of my crossword puzzles have empty spaces left at the end. :/ Still, it gets me thinking analytically and trying to tie things together (a skill every writer needs).

2. Jigsaw Puzzles

This is the more visual cousin of crossword puzzles, and I’ll be honest: I’m a word nerd, not an art nerd. I struggle with visualization. I can create scenes with words, but I wrestle with physically pulling together the details of an image. I’m not great at creating charts or pictures to represent my ideas, so I consequently struggle to organize visual fragments into a whole (I can organize ideas all day long, just not images). Jigsaw puzzles help me get my brain and my hands working together, picking apart details and synthesizing them. Also, there is no replacement for the feeling of pressing in the last piece of a puzzle and seeing it complete.

3. Untying Knots

Yep, you read that right. Not sure if it’s proven to have any specific benefits, but it takes focus and a lot of patience. Don’t get me wrong—untying knots in your hair or in a necklace chain is one thing. That’s just stressful. But every time I find my crochet yarn skein tangled up in itself, I’m in for at least a few minutes of work. As long as I’m not in a rush, this process can be a semi-pleasant challenge. When we are so used to living a life of scattered thoughts and multitasking, it is surprisingly refreshing to just channel all your focus toward one singular thread and follow it where it leads. And watching the snarls and clumps fall apart as you unwind is a remarkably therapeutic feeling, as the mess progressively becomes one smooth, clean thread. If only mental and emotional knots could be untied like this!

4. Learning something new

It could be a new language, a new instrument, a new song, or even just a new vocabulary word. While some of these are more intensive activities than others, just the simple act of learning introduces new information to our brain and expands our scope of knowledge—or shows us an unexpected connection between things already familiar to us. It’s like adding new ingredients to the creative cauldrons in our mind. It enriches the flavor of our mental activity and enables us to break free from the ruts we may have already formed.

Clearly this is not an extensive list, but these mental exercises have played important roles in helping me think outside the box and even shatter the dreaded wall of writer’s block. Sometimes we just have to look at our work from a different standpoint in order to solve the problem. Sometimes we need to give the pot a stir in order for things to come together. This is why it’s helpful to train our minds so they stay sharp and agile, able to pivot, analyze, and synthesize as needed in our creative process.

How do you stay sharp?

Do you ever do any of these activities? (Whether as a mental exercise or just for fun.)

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8 Comments on “Mental Exercises to Keep You Sharp

    • So good to hear from you, Saania! Yes, those help pass the time, don’t they? How is the progress with your book coming??

      • Hi Shiloh, they do indeed! My twin sister and I love to solve them together in the long flight
        journeys haha. My book is coming along really well, June is the time! How are you doing?

  1. I am so glad to read what you wrote about crossword puzzles because I have the very same issue as you! It’s not supposed to be trivia (which I don’t like) and yet it often feels like it is.

    Sudoku is something I’ve been doing for years now, but I have to admit that I don’t do it often outside of an airport terminal/ a plane. Maybe I should start. Hmm…

    Jigsaw puzzles? These I actually love! Brings back such great memories from my childhood when it was a family affair. I had quite a few years of a break, but have recently started this hobby back. It destresses me nicely.

    Untying knots? But first you have to tie them 😀 Agreed – it can definitely be something that helps improve your patience and helps zen you out.

    • Right?? It’s easy to feel like you live under a rock when trying to complete crossword puzzles and failing at their trivia.
      And yes, jigsaws are such a nostalgic thing for me too. If you ever feel like introducing a certain level of stress into the jigsaw experience (which I’m not sure why one would), try competitive puzzling. A group of my friends is obsessed with this, where you break into groups and race to complete your different puzzles. My group always loses though– either because I’m the weak link or because we always get stuck with the harder puzzle. Maybe both. 😉

      • I never found enough people that would be willing to do that. I think I’ve done something similar when I was a kid (1 vs 1) and I was pretty good at it. But, when it comes to competitions during adulthood, I’d recommend getting the very same puzzle. It would only be fair.

  2. Great post! I love crossword puzzles but I rarely have the patience to see them through to the end. Or rather, I get bursts of motivation and then I do a few, and after that I don’t touch them for months. They are quite relaxing, though!

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