“You know how they say we can only access 10% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
“…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.
I actually wrote this article following the exact principles laid out above:
- Exercise. My day started with a dynamic warm up and five minutes of handstand practice.
- Have a game plan. I knew exactly what needed to get done today: two articles. And a time limit (before 4PM)
- 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.
- 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!