- Work on projects you love doing, even if only part of the time. You can only be as smart as you are motivated. I will never be a smart electrician.
- Reading and learning are important, but people learn by doing, by tinkering.
- Carry a notebook or an iPad, and use it to record ideas as they come to you. Periodically sort through your ideas.
- Get in the habit of doubting everything. Especially things that appear obvious. Is an umbrella the best way to stay dry under the rain? Do you really die if you stop eating altogether?
- Teach others what you want to learn. For example, if you want to understand advanced physics, start a blog on quantum mechanics.
- This is probably the most important point: hang around with smart people. If you live among monkeys, you might have a good life, but you won’t be smarter than a monkey. Happily, you can easily hang around with smart people wherever you live thanks to the Internet. This is important because if you hang around with people who do great work, you will be motivated by emulation: nobody likes to feel like a loser among his peers.
- Push yourself: try daring projects and learn to fail. Be ambitious! Do not waste your time with things you know how to do well. Go beyond. Aim as high as you can, while trying to stay on track.
- Context is important when solving problems. I found that offices are nearly the worst place to work for me. I have done some of my best work at home. Sometimes, a coffee place can be a decent alternative office (presumably because of the white noise effect). Sometimes, using a pen is better than a keyboard. Sometimes, working with a laptop in your bed is better than working on a desk. Change, try new contexts!
- Set time aside to think, write, read in a quiet place.
- Come back to important projects regularly. Do not get lost in the small stuff.
- Urgency is an important factor. Somehow, being too happy about what you achieved can slow you down. This suggests that you should be critical of your own work, and that you should not underestimate your competitors. Of course, you need to stay motivated, so do not overestimate your competitors or underestimate your own work either!
- You will not cure cancer in one day. You will not become a pro golfer in a week. You can only solve big problems by dividing them up in small chunks. Always stay focus on the next small step. Do not stare mindlessly at the big picture.
Be physically smart:
- Omega-3 is good for you and might make you smarter. Eating fish seems like a good idea.
- When you are tensed, eat carbs (bread, cookies). Do not make things worse by drinking coffee.
- Too much coffee tends to get your mind to speed up and you lose focus easily. You end up getting many things done, but you no longer have time for thinking about the hard problems.
- When you need energy, eat proteins (cheese, meat, beans). Coffee alone will only help you temporarily, it does not get you through a lot of hard work.
- Drink a lot of water: after all, your brain is mostly water.
- Sleep a decent amount. Some people claim sleep-deprivation allows them to get more done, and it might be true, and I do not know of any evidence that sleep-deprivation hurts your brain, but being sleepy does slow you down and tends to get you to work on routine problems.
- Taking long walks (at least 20 minutes) out in a quiet park, thinking about some deep issues, tend to set me up for good work for the rest of the day.
For further reading and scientific evidence, read my posts Physical factors making your smarter: white noise, carbohydrates, music, alcohol, and coffee? and Thinking intelligence is innate makes you stupid.
- David Dobbs, How to be a genius, New Scientist, 2006.
- Geoff Colvin, Why talent is overrated, Fortune, 2008.
- Brian Martin, Research productivity: some paths less travelled, Australian Universities’ Review, vol. 51, no. 1, February 2009.