Limitless: What if you could access more of your brain?

Limitless Poster

“You know how they say we can only access 10% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”

And just like that (with the help of a tiny myth), the plot for the book/movie Limitless was established, and my brain started to go absolutely bonkers thinking of all of the possibilities.

I know I’m not alone.  Although this novel came out years ago and the movie came out in 2011, I’ve continually heard it mentioned in excited conversations amongst my friends.

It’s no surprised it garnered so much attention – it’s a story that we’ve all probably dreamed about for years:

Limitless Trailer

A scatterbrained writer, down on his luck, takes a pill that gives him unlimited brain power, allowing him to write a book in four days, learn new languages, stop smoking, lose weight, get healthy, and even conquer the stock market.

As a guy who’s turned his life into a video game, and taken inspiration from fictional characters to have real world adventures (like that time I became James Bond), I figured it was my duty to explore the nuances of Limitless and find out if it’s truly possible to become more productive, without the use of medication.

Shall we see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

How to become Limitless

nzt

The point of becoming Limitless is to completely satisfy our curiosity and accomplish all of the things we hope to cross off our list:

If we want to read more often, we can fly through books at a rapid pace while retaining all of the knowledge required.

If we want to write a book, it can be done in a matter of days or weeks, instead of years (or never, as is the case with most people).

If we want to learn a language, within a few weeks we can speak the language and interact with native speakers. No need for years and years of studying

If we want to get in better shape, we can do so in an efficient way, without spending hours on a treadmill struggle to see results.

I’m sure if you have a bucket list like I do; your goals probably revolve around some variation of the above.

So, how can we start accomplishing more and sucking less?

It comes down to a few key things:

  • The ability to retain more information.
  • The ability to spend more time learning.
  • Making the time you spend learning be more efficient.
  • The ability to learn lots of different things quickly.

Step One: Exercise

lego workout

Here’s an excerpt from an article my buddy Scott (Live Your Legend) wrote:

While on a boat with Richard Branson, a man asked How can I be more productive?” Keep in mind, Richard is the founder and operator of a 400-company conglomerate. He also has dyslexia and a pretty piss poor academic track record.

Yet somehow, from space travel to deep sea exploration, to music and cell phones, this guy has literally been able to accomplish a bazillion times more than the average Joe. And he’s still only 61.

Hence, the crowd of boat passengers hung on the edge of their seat cushions in anticipation of what turned out to be an unbelievably simple answer…

Richard responded: “Work out.”

Sounds kind of ridiculous, but there’s plenty of scientific fact to back up this up.  Exercise is a key component in improving our overall disposition, allowing us to focus more, retain more, and stay productive long after others have given up.

Charles Basch of Columbia University summarized how exercise may affect executive functioning:

  • Increased oxygen flow to the brain
  • Increased brain neurotransmitters
  • “[Increased] brain-derived neurotrophins that support neuronal differentiation and survival in the developing brain.” Neurotrophins assure the survival of neurons in areas responsible for learning, memory, and higher thinking.

Dr John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and Driven to Distraction: The Study of Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder, offers up tons of compelling studies linking physical activity to increased focused and increased retention when studying.  “Exercise doesn’t make you smarter, but what it does do is optimise the brain for learning.”

Think of it this way: exercise doesn’t increase the size of the sponge, but it can help improve just how much the sponge can soak up.

That’s why students at Naperville High School make exercise the first class of the day.

And that’s why in this study, Charles Hillman discovered that a single bout of exercise prior to studying could result in 5-10% increased amount of cognition amongst children.

Regardless of what you’re trying to learn, increase your chance for success by making exercise part of your routine. 

Step Two: Have a game plan

have a plan

Now we have our brains prepped and ready to absorb more information.  

However, none of this matters if we’re not prepared to learn in the right kind of way.

Malcolm Gladwell asserts in Outliers that people become experts after 10,000 hours of practice.  That’s not the entire story. 10,000 hours of haphazard practice, or learning things incorrectly will make us REALLY good at being bad at that activity.

So, we need to have hours and hours of good practice in order to become an expert.  Which means if we practiced something, perfectly, for 8 hours a day, every day, it would take us approximately 3 and a half years to become an expert at something.

But we don’t have that kind of time – and we don’t need to achieve “mastery.” 

When it comes to learning language, dance moves, martial arts, or a new instrument, identify the movements or words you need to become PROFICIENT in the skill.  Don’t worry about the rest of the stuff – we’re aiming for efficiency here.

Here are my favorite examples:

LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE: My friend Benny learns a new language every 3 months. He now speaks 10+ languages, despite graduating college only knowing one.

PLAYING A NEW MUSICAL INSTRUMENT: Instead of studying sheet music for years and learning complex classical pieces, look at current music, and begin to see patterns:

  • If you can learn to play basic chords on guitar, you can learn 80% of popular music.
  • If you can learn basic chords on the piano, you can quickly learn most pop songs you’ve ever wanted to play.

The goal isn’t to make it to the symphony or qualify for a job as a foreign translator. Instead we want to pick up the basics, and the enjoyment and personal advancement that comes along with it.

Check out the book The Talent Code for more information on learning properly.

Step THREE: Build a proper environment

batman batcave

We’ve got our brain prepped for learning, we’ve identified the skills we want to learn or the goal we hope to accomplish, now it’s time to build an environment for success.

You know how I had you build a Batcave to help you build better habits? We’re going to do the same to help you become Limitless.

Step One: STOP F***ING MULTITASKING!  We like to think we’re the masters of multi-tasking, but it absolutely ruins us when it comes to learning and being more productive.  Every time you shift from writing your book to watching a youtube video, your productivity suffers.  Every time you swap between your work and gchat window to talk to coworkers and friends, your level of creativity and concentration suffers.

If you want to be more productive while sitting at your computer, focus completely on one task. If you are going to learn a language, set aside time to learn that language and do nothing else.

EFFICIENCY rules!  

Step Two: Remove Distractions. All of them.  I used to think that I could ONLY work at night.  I would struggle to write all day long, and then suddenly, at 9 or 10PM, I became a focused machine, cranking out content like nobody’s business. I just assumed it was because I was a night owl…nope. It’s because I allowed myself to get distracted VERY easily, because everybody was awake and talking to me all day.  I spent all day in Gmail, on Gchat, reading IGN, and Reddit. Then, when everybody else was in bed, I would finally get stuff done.

Earlier this past week, I sat down at my computer at 6 AM and wrote four articles (a total of 8,000 words), finishing up around 4 PM. This is something I have NEVER done before.

How the hell did I do that? BY REMOVING ALL DISTRACTIONS!

  • I signed off Gchat, and Skype.
  • I closed out all tabs non-essential to the task at hand.
  • I used Self-Control to block all time wasting websites.
  • And one final tactic I’ll share with you at the end of the article.

You don’t have to follow these exact steps. Here are a few other examples:

If you want to write a book, set yourself up to succeed. As my friend Chris G. points out, “If you want to write a book, go to a boring place.”  Don’t go to a place where the weather is great and you don’t want to be inside writing.

If you want to read more books and become more learned, get rid of your damn TV.  Cancel your cable, get rid of your TV, don’t give yourself a chance to get stuck on your couch watching reruns.

It’s not that people who read more or do more necessarily have more time than you, they simply stop spending time on the nonessential. Remove distractions whenever possible, and focus on the important.

Step four: Use caffeine properly

Caffeine

This is the hack most closely related to the drug NZT in Limitless.  

Most of us use caffeine to wake us up after a late night and early morning.  Just think of how many Facebook messages you see from friends that say something along the lines of “don’t talk to me yet, I haven’t had my caffeine.”

It’s true: when we become addicted to caffeine (it’s a drug), its effectiveness is severely diminished, and we have to use caffeine to get us up to our normal baseline. Without it, we are distant, irritable, and awkward.

Instead, try aiming to use caffeine for bouts of hyper-focused activity.  

As we point out in our Guide to Caffeine, we need to closely manage our tolerance to caffeine. Personally, I try not to have it every day, and oftentimes take a week or two off from consuming it at all.  Then, when I need to get hyper-focused and accomplish a ton of writing (like today for example), black coffee, green tea, or Yerba Mate tea is enough to get my brain focused on the task at hand – It’s now 3pm and I’ve been writing since 8AM!

Sure, it’s no NZT, but as this PubMed study shows:  

“…caffeine can significantly affect cognitive performance, mood and thirst at doses within and even lower than the range of amounts of caffeine contained in a single serving of popular caffeine-containing drinks.”

NOTE: This is not a prescription to start mainlining cappuccinos into your arteries. Like any drug, caffeine affects everybody differently – know your limits, and if you have a history of hypertension or any other medical condition, talk to a medical professional.

The more you know…

Become Limitless

limitless road

I actually wrote this article following the exact principles laid out above:

  1. Exercise. My day started with a dynamic warm up and five minutes of handstand practice.
  2. Have a game plan. I knew exactly what needed to get done today: two articles. And a time limit (before 4PM)
  3. Set up my environment. I’ve signed off from gchat, closed my email tab, and blocked myself from time-wasting sites. I also canceled my cable so TV isn’t a distraction.
  4. Caffeine ftw.  A few cups of yerba mate tea gave me plenty of focus, and I stopped worrying about the challenges.

Here are some other quick hacks to help you become more productive and successful.

  • Show up every day.  Hat tip to James Clear on this one.  If you are trying to learn a musical instrument or language, tell yourself that you only have to play for five minutes every day. Establishing the habit is more important than that “perfect” time to learn.
  • Use others to help – If you want to learn something quickly, identify somebody who has learned quickly.  Ask them to break down the task into the basics and get started on those. I enlisted the help of Jim Bathurst who helped me learn how to complete a muscle up in a single afternoon, because he was a great teacher.
  • Start making mistakes on day ONE. You could spend years studying foreign language grammar books, but it doesn’t help if you don’t start speaking the language. Whether deadlifting or a new hobby, embrace the fail.
  • Don’t pick too many new things to learn at once.  Trying to learn Kung Fu, play the Violin, and learn French might prove to be quite challenging.  Instead, pick ONE or TWO new things to learn.
  • Consider different types of music.  If you’re trying to write more or read more, or be more productive at work, experiment with different kinds of music.  A killer vocal trance mix can put me in the zone where I black out like Will Ferrell in Old School and have suddenly produced thousands of words of content. For other people, it might be classical, or Katy Perry. Probably not Katy, but hey “Teenage Dream” is pretty fantastic.
  • Sleep more.  Unfortunately, we can’t be like Eddie Mora in Limitless – he functions on minimal sleep every day and uses that extra time to learn more. As I point out in the Nerd Fitness Guide to Sleep, if you manage to only get four hours of sleep, a sleep deprived body can actually act similarly to an intoxicated body.

I now lay down a challenge for you:

What’s ONE skill you want to learn or goal you want to accomplish?  Be it a new language, an instrument, writing a book, whatever.

What’s ONE distraction you can remove from your environment to actually have you get started on that skill/goal?

And what’s ONE step you are going to take TODAY to get one step closer to limitless?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some violin to practice!

-Steve

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photo pin: Johnson Cameraface: Batcave, JD Hancock: High-OCtane Villain, Angus MacRae: Road, Ben De Jesus: Espresso, Nick Royer: Pushups!, Vy Vu: Limitless, Limitless Poster

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43 thoughts on “Limitless: What if you could access more of your brain?

  1. I’ve always wanted to learn the acoustic guitar. I bought one but got suckered by skewed amazon reviews and ended up with a crappy one that was too small for an adult male and the cords would come out of tune in just a few days.

    Can anyone recommend a cheap, but decent, learner guitar?

  2. Pretty awesome stuff! I can often be found after work running 5-10 miles, which prompts my coworkers to ask me how I have the energy after a day of work. I tell them I don’t but I do it anyway. And miraculously, I’m no longer tired.

  3. I’m horrible at picking one new thing I want to learn or one new habit to form – there are at least 6 on my list right now! Once I’ve narrowed that down, gchat and netflix would both be good distractions to remove. Starting tonight I’ll commit to working on [whichever skill I decide to pursue first] BEFORE I turn on Netflix. 🙂

  4. I’d say go to a local music store. Instruments aren’t significantly cheaper online, and most music stores have helpful people who know their stuff to help beginners. I have yet to find any online place that I or someone I know has bought an instrument and been pleased with it.

  5. Great article! My biggest struggle is sleeping enough. I just can’t sleep despite following good sleep hygiene. However, I am doing all the stuff I want and need to so I try not to worry too much about it. I think focusing on one thing at a time is great advice

  6. Love it! With regards to practice, I want to quote one of the Masters from TPLA: “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes PERMANENT”.

  7. I like someone else just said, picking one is the hardest thing of all. I have been studying story structure and novel writing for the last several months, and I have fragments of stories rolling around in my head. I think this is the catalyst that I need to just go ahead and fail until I succeed. Time to get a story done and out, not a novel, but a long short story. Time to just unplug the TV to help with that and maybe just go ahead and cancel the Netflix, (the kids will dislike me for a while.) Thanks for another inspirational article Steve.

  8. In addition to reducing distractions, another important part of reaching you goals, er.. becoming Limitless, is recognizing what specific roadblocks might pop up along the way and laying out a specific plan for how you will deal with them!

  9. I literally JUST finished watching this movie (for probably the tenth time) and came on here to see this article posted. It’s a sign. Time to become Limitless!!

  10. That was not at all the point being made. It was simply to say you don’t need to learn Classical in order to learn to play music, It’s very simple, especially in regards to the guitar, to learn just two or three chords and how to modify them to create entire songs. Learning to play and read music can be daunting if you’re looking at a symphony-like composure, so it may be easier to look at modern example, especially among pop music and similar.

  11. all true, but maybe the point Steve was trying to make was that it is a helluva lot easier to learn to play a piece of music if you already know what it sounds like. Hence, current music, specifically pop. And sheet music for a pop song is not helpful in learning to play the pop song if you don’t know how to read sheet music in the first place.
    This is all about making learning easier or more effective or more efficient … it’s not about saying only try to learn these particular suggested things.

  12. Dude, what a killer article! The thing I want to accomplish next is definately getting my new website up and running. The distraction I can get rid of will probably be my phone. Today, I’ll go one more step to launching by writing a few more articles for my website.

  13. I’m currently trying for “too many things at once”. I want to read books, learn a language, write articles, write (dream) journal, exercise, hang out with gf, hang out with friends, run a blog, help around the house, get up early and so on, every single day.

    Even days when I’m on a tight schedule and don’t allow for 5 minutes of leisure time, I still find it impossible to do all these things. So I had to break it between the days of the week. I picked only new language, dream journal and exercise every single day.

    I love your tips, good stuff!

  14. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Relate it to learning a language: “school” methods mostly include learning the grammar and the boring stuff first which takes years to master. Here’s my method of learning French:

    1. Finish the entire course on DuoLingo (basics)
    2. Translate songs, watch French movies and English movies with French subtitles (practice)
    3 .Communicate with people (Skype, visit, speak out loud to yourself)

    I know English better than people around me because, after learning basics in school at an early age, I improved my skills by watching movies, listening to songs and other “unusual” ways. I educated myself it the way I found it appealing.

  15. I’ve had problems with insomnia for a long time and sadly, still haven’t found a surefire solution. One of the methods which might help you is to go sleep when you’re really tired, but wake up at the same time. Let’s say first day you go to sleep at 2am but wake up at 8am. You’ll feel more tired and go to sleep earlier and eventually balance out.

    Try it out, maybe it’ll help you. Good luck!

  16. Steve, great article… why limit ourselves? Here are some who did not seem to limit themselves: Da Vinci, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Lincoln, Einstein, Gandhi, Curie, Edison, Ford, King, Mandelbrot, Gates, Jobs, Bransom, pick your favorite person… did they magically have a magical fairy godmother give them 200 or 300 or 400 hours per week and magical fairy dust that made everything easy for them?

    I’m boldly speculating that each person had exactly 168.00 hours per week, they dreamt insanely great dreams, and they relentlessly, pathologically, creatively stomped these dreams into reality. In my experience, when I blame my brain, my DNA or my circumstances for my problems and treat my body and mind as a scapegoat, failure follows. When I say, “I WILL” and relentlessly, pathologically, creatively pursue my dreams they slowly start to seem more “realistic” and start to partially come true.

    After doing Nerd Fitness for 2 months, I lost 15 pounds of fat and cut 10 seconds off my 400 meter time, and most importantly feel happier and more energetic. The deltas are what matter to me – not my original body fat or 400 meter time.

  17. I keep hearing people suggest speaking to foreigners on Skype. Where are you finding these French people to talk to? (I’d like to speak to South American Spanish speakers)

  18. I’m not at that phase yet, but I know friends who’ve done it. Sadly, I don’t think there are “communities” of sorts for this. My main focus will be on interacting in real-life (say, visiting Paris) and the afterwards possibly chatting with people I met.

  19. Great article..I am removing TV from my evenings for awhile and getting into cosy winter reading writing and getting yoga into my every day

  20. I joined Twitter as a way to start ramping up a fan base for the book I’m writing. Now it’s becoming a distraction. I’ll focus on Twitter only 2 times a day when my kids are home and I can’t focus on my book, and use my precious kid free hours to work on my book.

  21. The most important thing you want to do when buying an inexpensive guitar is finding one that will stay in tune. When your first learning it’s very frustrating when the guitar becomes out of tune. Seagull’s are excellent for the money. Once purchased I would take it to a guitar shop and have the guitar set up. I hope this helps.

  22. Check out livemocha.com or lang-8.com these are community based language learning websites. If you make some friends on these, then you can invite them to skype or Google hangout with you 🙂

    or if you live close to a college, you can see if it has language partner postings. There are tons of international students these days 🙂

  23. I’ve been reading Steve Kotler’s Rise of Superman, it’s a book about flow states and how we’ve made incredible gains in (action adventure) sports with people achieving flow states. It’s really interesting and we actually perform better by shutting off parts of our brain, not activating more. So that runners high, and being in the zone are great ways to be limitless too 🙂

  24. Even great guitars will go out of tune after a couple of songs, especially if you’re really jamming on it. A few days is a miracle.

  25. This is pretty great article. I always wanted to learn new things and more of them. You just showed me the right direction and I helped me in my epic quest. Thanks man.

  26. Well look at this… a 6 year old article and I’ve just stumbled upon it!

    I’ve always loved the film Limitless, and ever since that film came out there’s been a huge trend for natural brain nootropics on the market!

    Thanks for sharing,

    Dan

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