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These 4 ‘harmless’ habits are sapping your brain power

5th Jul 2019 | 10:00am

If someone asks you how you spend your time when you’re not at work, do you know where most of your day go? It still surprises me that most busy people have their workday mapped out meticulously, yet they don’t realize how their time outside of work slips away. Partly, this is a consequence of the increasingly blurred lines that now exist between work and home. And partly, it’s a result of the fact that the tasks that take up time in our personal and home lives are difficult to quantify and account for.

But there is a more insidious reason for the time vortex. Many of us unknowingly fall into “harmless” habits that eat into our day. You probably don’t even realize that you’re doing them. If you are, you’re probably only marginally aware that they are a distracting drain on resources.

Here are the four habits that are probably lessening your cognitive function:

Checking the headlines

Most of us like to know what’s going on in the world. Once upon a time, we’d wait for the evening news or the next day’s headlines in the morning newspaper. However, now we can access breaking news anywhere and anytime from our phones. This setup has conditioned us to check in all the time to find out what’s happening and remind us to stay informed.

Most people understand that setting some boundaries around social media is a good idea. They switch off notifications, take breaks from particular apps, and designate a set time of day to check feeds.

However, they don’t apply the same self-discipline when it comes to checking news apps. A 2018 survey sponsored by global technology solutions company Asurion shows most of us check our phones every 12 minutes. And it isn’t just time that your news habit steals.

A number of my neuroscience colleagues actively avoid the news because they recognize that its negativity—and their impotence to do anything about most of what they hear—can lead to a sense of hopelessness. It saps mental energy and focus. In a study by the American Psychological Association, 56% of people said that following the news caused them stress. Opting out of following the news won’t work for everyone—I’d suggest setting some clear boundaries around it. Consider deleting, even for a while, apps that you’re tempted to open all the time.

Toxic comparison

Toxic comparison is a habit that’s as old as time. Sure, social media has given us more raw materials to compare to, but there’s nothing new about the urge to compare. As humans, we’re hardwired to compare ourselves to others in our group; to benchmark our successes and failures against others. It’s an evolutionary hangover from times when we lived in tribes and understanding our place in the social order was key to survival.

Nowadays, comparing ourselves to others is more likely to keep us stuck. This is whether we’re doing what psychologists call downward comparison (comparing ourselves to those less fortunate) or upward comparison (comparing ourselves to those we envy.) Both of these types of comparison can be bad for the brain. Downward comparison activates the brain’s “lack” network, emphasizing our insecurity and focuses on safeguarding the status quo at the expense of risk and adventure. Upward comparison can excite feelings of envy and low self-esteem.

To break free from the temptation to compare, you need to audit your social media feeds. That means deleting anyone whose posts make you feel envious. If you find that you’re comparing yourself to a particular friend, then it might be smart to mute them. If you haven’t already, set limits around social media, and do regular digital detoxes.

If you find yourself thinking about how your life matches up to a friend’s when you’re not on social media, try to shift your perspective. Think about their human traits, vulnerabilities, and things that you have in common. When you change your mindset, you can move from a place of jealousy to a place of empathy.

Comfort eating

The phrase “comfort eating” conjures an image of one consuming a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in their pajamas. But comfort eating can also be triggered by boredom: it’s something to do when we’re idle. Eating can also be a self-soothing activity. For some people, food is a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety.

So how do you change a habit that’s deeply rooted in emotions? The first trick is to notice you’re doing it. Try to keep a diary on your phone for a few days, noting whenever you find yourself reaching for a snack. Can you spot any patterns? Do you feel the urge to eat when you are bored, procrastinating, upset, or angry? When you notice your cues and responses, you’ll learn to pause before you eat, rather than doing it automatically.

It’s also important to remember that unhealthy foods are addictive. Eating foods high in sugar and fat conditions us to crave more of the same, and those kinds of foods do little for your brain function. When you do eat, make sure to fill up on nutrient-dense foods. Not only will you find them more satiating, but they’ll also give you a cognitive boost.


When you’re trying to juggle what seems like a million responsibilities, multitasking might seem like a necessary evil. But research shows that when we multitask, our brains suffer. Each time we try and batch unrelated tasks together, we tax our brain and use up energy in the transition. The more complex the tasks we are switching between, the higher the cognitive cost.

To stop making multitasking a habit, you need to set boundaries around what you will be working on when. Give yourself longer chunks of time to complete one thing at a time, and shut down other distractions such as email when you’re working on something.

On their own, these habits might seem harmless. But if you do them repeatedly, they can ruin your cognitive function in ways you don’t realize. Pay attention next time you find yourself doing any of these things, and ask yourself if there’s a better habit that can go in its place. Your brain will thank you.

Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, executive adviser, author, and medical doctor. Her book, The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, The Science of the Brain, is out in the U.S in October.