Whetstones for the Mind: Four Fun Off-Duty Ways to Sharpen Your Mind for Work

“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”—George R. R. Martin, American novelist

Work is work, and rest is rest. But there’s no reason you can’t spend a little time cleaning and honing your most important work tool (your mind), even while you’re taking it easy— as long as what you do is fun and doesn’t interfere with your rest. Even better, it should be as different from work as possible.

Except for those happy few whose hobbies are the same as their work (meaning they don’t really work a day in their lives, according to the old saw), the above description may sound like something of a paradox. On the face of it, it is. But it’s mostly a matter of making sure you don’t let your brain turn completely to mush during your time off. Sure, you should indulge in some pure escapism and mindless fun, but you don’t want to lose your mental edge.

Lest this happens, consider these enjoyable and productive ways to keep yourself entertained when away from the office.

  1. Read. Do so not just as a hobby, but to take yourself to other worlds, and into other professions. Even purely entertaining fiction can help keep your mind in tune, especially if the material is new to you and utilizes facts to make its point. Read a forensic murder mystery, for example, or the adventures of a scientist on the cutting edge of research. A few popular science books can’t hurt either, if they don’t bog you down in equations. Sometimes, things you’ve learned while reading can cross-pollinate with other things you’ve learned to produce intriguing ideas. If it entertains and educates as you read, you’ll help keep your mind happy and alert rather than asleep in the trenches.
  1. Do brain teasers and mental puzzles. Admittedly, these can prove frustrating at times! However, you can pick the type of puzzle you like doing best, dial it up to hard, and take as much time with it as you like. Crossword puzzles — especially the British type, where you must solve the meaning of the clues before you can solve for the words — and Sudoku can offer quite the challenge, making them great for honing your mind, but anything that keeps you thinking will do.
  1. Indulge a hobby. Pick something that keeps your mind active. Most hobbies do, fortunately. So, sit down and make complicated things. Learn a musical instrument. Take a dance class. Learn a new sport. Write to a pen pal — or write a story, or a book. Anything that engages your mind (and ideally your body) will help keep you from becoming mentally sluggish. The less automatic it allows you to be, the better.
  1. Have a stimulating conversation. Some people complain we don’t talk much anymore, and that’s true to some extent. We don’t always speak to other people aloud, whether face to face or over the phone. But other platforms can allow us to “converse” in fun ways. I recently witnessed a couple sit side-by-side and send each other increasingly complex and amusing emojis on their smartphones, giggling all the while. They found it stimulating, and it kept their minds racing to find new examples. My son, James, and I play against each other on an app called Trivia Crack. It’s addicting! On the other hand, some people can sit for hours, exchanging spirited, complex discussions by email or in a discussion group, whether for SCUBA divers, history buffs, or hot-rod fans. That said, there’s nothing wrong with settling in with another person in real-time and rediscovering the lively art of conversation, whether over a hot coffee or a cold beer. Whichever way you do it, conversation hasn’t really died; it’s just evolved along with our technology.

Singin’ in the Rain

 Yes, your time off is your time off, and it’s up to you what to do with it. Make sure to get plenty of rest, so you can go back to work mentally and physically prepared for your next challenge. But tread carefully: resting too much or too long without wielding your mind against a challenge can be like leaving a tin pail out in the rain. It may not seem like a big deal at the time; but when you need to use your most useful tool for its intended purpose, it might have a bit of rust.


 © 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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