Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Using “Brain Rules” to Boost Productivity

Last summer, a friend recommended a book to me called “Brain Rules”, by Dr. Jon Medina.  The books comes with a DVD, which my friend played for me on his laptop during a trip to Chicago.   A bit of a self improvement junkie, I found myself instantly riveted and I bought the book and the audio book shortly thereafter.  Dr. Medina’s book presents twelve rules that people should understand about how their brains work.  The twelve rules are presented in twelve chapters.  At the end of each chapter, Dr. Medina presents several suggestions to implement these rules and (possibly) transform your life.  Some of the suggestions are simple, and some suggest a reshaping of some of society’s current habits and norms.

Prior to reading Medina’s book, I found myself reconciling lessons and answering emails from 1 to 2 hours per day. In addition to that, I would try to squeeze in thirty minutes of exercise plus two hours of daily practice. Never mind teaching a full load of 60 students and group lessons 6 days a week! And then just daily tasks – cooking, cleaning the studio, paying bills, returning phone calls. This is no small task to get all of these items done. Unfortunately, (like most people) exercise was frequently trimmed from the daily to do list when things got hectic. And exercise was the thing that would benefit me the most in navigating this demanding schedule.

Like many music teachers I knew, I was dealing with the problems that a sedentary profession can cause. The typical teacher spends a lot of time in an office chair to teach. Add to that a typical two hours per day doing email, reconciling, advertising, and doing book keeping, I often felt drained and a bit “numb”. It is was hard to summon my creative side when it was needed. One of my peers suggested I limit my computer exposure. This was a worthwhile idea as it was working for him. He would only be on the computer on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This ended up being an issue for me. Emails, book keeping, website updates and other online tasks fell behind. Yes, my creative side rebounded, but my business side really needed the data entry time to keep things organized.

I had a friend struggling with similar issues as he pursued his graduate degree. We would keep records and try different methodologies to see if we could find a solution. Fortunately, he stumbled on “Brain Rules”, and shared it with me. Dr. Medina’s Brain rule #1 showed me how to increase my available practice time, lose weight, increase my productivity, increase my mental acuteness (keeping my creative side sharp despite computer usage), reduce my stress level, increase my overall happiness, improve my sleep quality, and improve my overall energy level.

Simply stated, rule #1 is “Exercise boosts brain power.” Okay, all of us know we need to do daily exercise. The problem is finding the time to do it. Medina’s book shows an elegant solution that is already being implemented in many businesses and offices around the country. Here is a short clip about rule #1 from the DVD that accompanies the “Brain Rules” book.

I saw the Steelcase Walkstation and I latched on to the possibilities it offered. Here was how I was going to fight off that numbing, “burnt-out feeling”, increase my available practice time (by exercising while working at the computer), and still get all my daily computer related tasks completed.

The Steelcase is a stunning machine. But at $4,000, it was a little more than my budget can afford. I found plenty of DIY information on converting existing treadmills into Walkstations.

Another problem I ran into is the space issue. I work from home 4 days a week. Home is a 2 bedroom apartment, so space is at a premium. My “personal” space is really in my bedroom, under a storage loft. That space is shared by a small bookcase, my stereo, and a desk. The treadmill is a very appealing option, but even a folding model wouldn’t fit very well in this limited space.

I thought about using a stationary pedal exerciser under my office desk. This looked like a reasonable option, but then I read multiple reviews that said the resistance screws eventually burned up, or that the pedals offered minimum resistance. I felt like my money could be better spent in other ways.

I measured the space under the loft, and found that the average sized recumbent bike would be able to cuddle in parallel to my desk. The footprint would be very small, and the low ceiling from the loft would no longer be an issue. Biking is more my speed anyway, as I deal with several foot and knee injuries that running aggravates periodically.

After a patient two week search of Craigslist, I found a nearly new Weslo stationary recumbent bike for $60. I moved the bike up against my desk and was even more pleasantly surprised it see it was the perfect height for my arms to easily type on my laptop. I already had a wireless router installed at my apartment, so internet access wasn’t an issue. My laptop worked perfectly from it’s new location.

Because recumbent bikes can cause back pain, I added a lower lumbar support pad designed for a car to the seat. The pad slips onto the seat and is held in place with elastic straps. I also also padded the seat with a blanket so it was more comfortable and the tilt of the seat would cause less back pain.

Since installing the recumbent bike, my exercise has increased to at least an hour a day…recently it is often much more. I routinely do 10-15 miles a day, burning 250-400 calories, depending on how long my paperwork takes and how intense I make my workout. I do find my brain is more active and engaged. I also feel more positive when I am done – far different from the numb and burnt out feeling I experienced. I do have more time to practice, since exercise is no longer a “seperate” activity. I am also a lot less stressed, clearer and more focused.

The recumbent works beautifully in cold and inclimate weather. In warmer weather, I will use an exercise bike that I now have on my balcony. I bring two heavy duty music stands out. One is for my laptop, and one is for my paperwork. This way, I can get sunlight and fresh air, watch birds and wildlife, continue to exercise, and get my paperwork done. The quality of life difference makes it all worthwhile.

I added myself as a student on Music Teacher’s Helper, and I now record my daily exercise stats when I reconcile lessons. I can compare my days and keep records of my progress. There are tons of ways to use this “walk while you work technique”; watching DVDs, doing taxes, paying bills, sorting and organizing coupons, doing online auctions, entering receipts, studying, reading…a great many sedentary activities. Just in the course of writing this blog, I have ridden 35.94 miles and burnt over 1050 calories.

I definitely recommend that anyone in a sedentary work situation should explore incorporating some kind of exercise equipment in their office area. It makes a huge difference in your overall quality of life.

Here are some more resources about exercising while you work:

“Stand Up While You Read This”

Instructables treadmill desk:

Office Walkers – working @ 100 calories per hour

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