Ness Labs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

Ness Labs: Build your Mental Gym 🧠

Published 3 months ago • 7 min read

Edition #206 – November 23rd, 2023
The mindful productivity newsletter by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

Hello friends!
I'm not based in the US but today feels like a good day to say thank you to all 90,000 of you reading this newsletter.
I sent the first edition four years ago. It really is a labor of love and curiosity, but also patience - trusting that there are people like me who believe in a more holistic approach to ambition; who believe it's possible to have big dreams without sacrificing your well-being; and that the internet will do its magic so that we'll find each other.
If you're reading this, some of this magic has already happened, and I want to thank you for being here and being so curious about the human mind and how we can best navigate our world. I feel infinitely grateful for this little corner of the internet.
To express my gratitude, I have put together an email course that distillates some of the most powerful mindful productivity techniques I have shared over the years in this newsletter. I spent countless hours writing each lesson for you to put those ideas into action. And it's completely free! You can grab it here.
Thank you for being here,

And now, on to our regular programming...

Build your mental gym

At this point, most people are aware of the benefits of physical exercise. Like with many things we know are good for us, it doesn’t mean we actually act on it: it’s estimated there is between $400 million and $1.3 billion spent on unused gym memberships in the U.S. only.

But at least we do know physical activity is good for us. Now, what about mental exercise? Shouldn’t we train our brains, too?

Doing mental push ups

Going to the gym builds muscles over time. This occurs due to muscle fibers tearing during exercise, then repairing and growing bigger and stronger. In a similar way, when we learn new skills or have new experiences, our brains create new neural connections.

The more we stretch our minds, the more connections between neurons our brains can build to adapt to these new challenges.

Building mental strength is not too different from building physical strength. It’s all about consistency. The same way you would take a few minutes to do a few push ups, you can incorporate mental pushups in your daily routine.

And you don’t need any expensive “brain training” games — which don’t even work. There are simple, quick mental activities you can do to use your brain in new and creative ways. In fact, all of the following tools are completely free.

Your mental gym workout should consist of practicing activities that challenge cognitive and emotional skills. Ideally, you need to balance those activities across four pillars: curiosity, creativity, mindfulness, and rest.

Consistency matters more than duration, so experiment with different practices until you find the ones that are the easiest to stick to. Doing mental push ups is something you should be looking forward to.

Practice #1: Be curious

There are many benefits to learning something new. In fact, research suggests that it’s one of the best ways to keep your brain sharp. It may also help you cope with stress. So how can you go about learning something new?

  1. Read a book
  2. Listen to a podcast
  3. Take an online course
  4. Have a friendly debate
  5. Learn a new language
  6. Watch a TED video
  7. Learn a new skill
  8. Teach someone

The last one is extremely powerful. Multiple research studies show the positive impact teaching someone else has on the comprehension and recall of any material.

Speaking of recall, a good mental push up is to actually test your memory. The process of retrieving information from your mind will not only make it more accessible in the future, but will also make you a better learner, studies show.

This can be as simple as recalling something you heard in a podcast to tell a friend about it, or writing about a topic you recently learned about from memory before checking your notes.

Practice #2: Get creative

There is evidence that practicing activities such as music, drawing, arts and crafts stimulate our brain in a way that enhances our health and well-being. These activities also have a positive impact on our emotional resilience.

And the good news is that you don’t need to work with an art therapist to get therapeutic benefits from creative activities. It’s become so much easier to find a craft club or artistic activities to do in your neighborhood.

Or, you could just buy some supplies and give it a go with the help of online tutorials. Again, the type of creative practice itself doesn’t matter as much as your ability to stick with it consistently. So choose an activity you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to switch it up.

Practice #3: Be mindful

It’s very easy to go about our busy lives without ever taking the time to reflect on our thoughts and emotions. Between your social and professional obligations, you could in fact wake up and go to bed without a moment for yourself.

Making space to connect with your inner world is crucial to take care of your mind. And being mindful doesn’t have to take a lot of your time.

You can start with a one-minute mindfulness practice. Notice the posture that you’re in. Take a deep breath. Focus on what’s going on around you. It’s just one minute, but it’s a minute where you can be fully present in the moment.

Another great way to be more mindful of your experiences is writing. You don’t need to feel like you’re good at writing to benefit from the practice. Research has found that writing has positive effects on both our psychological and mental health.

In particular, if you need a bit of guidance to tap into your emotions, expressive writing has been extensively studied and is very simple to apply. James W. Pennebaker, the psychologist who devised the method, suggests to do the following exercise for 20 minutes each day for four consecutive days:

  1. Choose a topic. It should be personal, emotional, and important to you.
  2. Write for yourself. Do not imagine your writing being read by other people.
  3. Let go. Don’t worry about style, spelling, punctuation, or grammar.

That’s it. After four days, you can put it away, and come back to it later once you feel ready to reflect on it, but it’s not mandatory. The benefits lie in the exercise itself. If you feel empty or sad after a session, that’s completely normal, and it’s actually good for your brain to experience these emotions—it means you are actively processing them.

Practice #4: Get some rest

All athletes need to rest. Similarly, there’s no need to spend all of your time in your mental gym. Not only is there evidence that taking short breaks can help us better acquire new skills, but longer periods of rest — and in particular sleep — support healthy brain function.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, these are the optimal amount of sleep you should get based on your age:

  • Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours sleep
  • Adults (18-64): 7-9 hours sleep
  • Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours sleep

A great way to combine short breaks and sleep are, of course… Naps! If you’re fortunate enough to work in an environment where taking a nap during the day is possible, do take that opportunity. Bonus if you’re a student: research shows that taking naps works better for long-term retention compared to cramming.

In short, building a mental gym consists of keeping our brain stimulated with activities that improve our creativity, productivity, and well-being, while giving it space to rest and recharge.

Consider this an exercise in deliberate experimentation. Just like an anthropologist, take some field notes to see what works, what doesn’t, and what you could tweak.

Building your own mental gym takes time to figure out your perfect regimen, but it’s worth the investment.

👀 Brain Picks

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Thanks to our partners for supporting the newsletter! Please email if you'd like to get featured here.

🤝 Brain Trust

If you enjoy the newsletter, you'll love our community of curious minds who grow together through interactive workshops and safe discussion spaces. Here is what we have planned in the next few weeks:

How to Leverage Creative Introspection – Gosia will lead us in exploring the relationship between our emotional states and creativity while we take the time to identify potential blockers that hinder our ability to engage in creative introspection. November 27th at 9am Rio / 12pm London / 7pm Singapore.
Quiet Writing Session – Led by Faye, this 2-hour session is perfect for making progress on your writing projects. Enjoy the company of fellow members while writing content for your newsletter, social media, or any other creative project. November 29th at 10am London / 5pm Singapore / 9pm Sydney.
Co-Working Session – This is a great opportunity to work on tasks you've been putting off while connecting with other community members. Javier and Lucas will guide you with 25-minute Pomodoros with 5-minute breaks in between. December 1st with two sessions covering all timezones.

All of these and future events are included in the price of the annual membership ($49), as well as access to the recordings of all our previous sessions and past cohort-based courses.

🌊 Brain Waves

If you enjoyed this edition, please share the love with fellow curious minds on Threads, Twitter, Instagram, or Whatsapp, or simply forward them this email.

Thank you for reading, and take care!

P.S. Do you live according to your values?

Ness Labs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

A weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

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