How to become smarter

picture by tatianes
  • 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 into 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.


Daniel Lemire, "How to become smarter," in Daniel Lemire's blog, November 22, 2007.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

13 thoughts on “How to become smarter”

  1. Omega-3 is the HOTTEST nutritional supplement in the world – because it works and the verdict on Omega-3 is now clearer than ever, it is the fatty acid that it is essential for keeping cells healthy.

    Omega 3 has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties and aid in preventing eczema, psoriasis. One experiment designed to test the efficacy of fish oil on psoriasis showed that people with inflammatory conditions whom were treated with omega-3 resulted in decrease of overall severity and scaling.

    It is essential and beneficial in both human and animal diets. Essential to the Human Body, necessary for both mental and physical health and is the primary component of healthy brain cells The brain is made of fat, especially the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, so obtaining sufficient omega-3 is crucial for cognitive functioning and mood.

    In fact, omega-3 is used to treat people with elevated TG and who suffer from pancreatic disease that does not respond to drugs.

    The fish oil is believed to reduce the stiffness and pain in the joints of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. Also important for the health of your heart. Omega-3 fatty acids are used in the body to make, repair, and maintain cell membranes. Omitting omega-3 is considered malpractice.

    This essential fatty acid can only be acquired through nutritional intake, as our bodies do not produce it. Doctor’s minimal daily recommendation for Omega-3 is 1000 mg per day. The most effective omega-3 is from fatty fish from cold water.

  2. You get smarter by using your brain and your body! Eat healthy and learn something new whenever you can. The schools today don’t encourage using your brain as everyone wants an easy quick fix, and as a result tests are too easy. I put my son on a memory program, “real memory improvement” and he went from a c student to straight A’s. The tests today are a joke, with all that multiple choice, they should become harder.

  3. I have to agree with having enough sleep. Experiences of working through late nights have taught me that my brain can’t think as well as normal, and I tends to be in a daze, thinking about…well, absolutely nothing.

  4. Don’t underestimate the power of physical exercise on the brain, as well as the body. A short brisk walk is a great start.

  5. Very good post. Walking is exceptional and a good weight training regimen is also a great idea. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. You don’t even need to go to a gym. Just grab a set of dummbbell and an exercise bike and you’re good to go.

    Lifting weights has been proven to increase bone density, improve circulation and it exercise releases endorphins, the pleasure chemicals of the brain, so your mood improves. Can’t beat that.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    Yep, it seems a lot of the comments are veering in this direction about physical exercise and mental health. To add my two-penneth…if you’re doing weight training, then there’s a body of thought suggesting one of the supplements used for that may also increase intelligence as well. It’s called Creatine, which our bodies produce naturally anyway, but recent research points in support of it having significant effect on memory and intelligence also. Got the info from this weight training program
    over at


  7. I also agree with having enough sleep. Sometimes, I urge to finish some part of the code because I think it would be better before going to sleep. I plan to see the results on the other day after leaving the tests for running for all night. But unfortunately, all I see is a messy code full of small mistakes and I write most of the part from scratch when I feel that my brain works properly again 🙂

    An additional item I would like to add is music. Playing a musical instrument helps to regain motivation and energy. At least for me…

  8. Thanks for an interesting post on a “million-dollar” topic. I also like that you linked to references at the bottom of your post.

    Your first point “work on projects that motivate you” is the strongest, imho.

    I also liked your point about not expecting to become a pro in a day, and therefore focusing always on the next step.

    Would have loved to expand on the doing/tinkering versus learning thought.

    Come back to important projects regularly – is valuable advice. How do you decide what is “important”?

    Most of the rest of your ideas I find speculative and unproven. E.g., Discard ideas regularly?!

    Omega 3 is probably only important when you’re dead loaded and are super-stressed. Under normal circumstances, it will probably be dumped, or stored as fat, by your body.

    Coffee! People have so many issues with it. Time and again studies have shown that two-three cups of coffee a day will not harm you, they will more likely benefit you. By all means stop coffee if you dislike addiction, dislike coffee’s taste, get too hyper, dislike the discolouring of your teeth, etc.

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