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12 Ways You Can Get Smarter in Your Spare Time

Getting smarter doesn't require a PhD—but it does take time. And since time is at a premium, here are sneaky ways to squeeze in some legit brain-boosting.

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Vocab micro-lessons

Forget the tedious vocabulary lessons you endured as a kid. Thanks to a new MIT technology, now you can pick up new words on the fly. The WaitSuite Language app sense when you have a “micro-moment” of downtime—say between sending emails or while waiting for a text back—and will flash a new word up on the screen, increasing your vocabulary without requiring any extra time or effort on your part. In MIT’s testing, they found that users of this type of “wait learning” learned about four new words a day. You’ll be the most percipient* person in your group in no time! Test your own vocabulary skills against these 33 middle-school words adults often get wrong.

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Get on the podcast train

Podcasts—audio shows you can listen to on your phone or tablet—are taking over pop culture, and with good reason. The shows average between 10 minutes and an hour, offering up entertainment and information in bite-sized pieces. There’s a podcast for every person’s tastes, including history lessons, cooking discussions, comedy, true crime mysteries, political commentary, business advice, fictional theater pieces and virtually every other topic you can think of. And the best part is you can listen to them at your leisure, say, during a long commute, washing dishes, or in the school pickup line. The fastest way to listen to shows is to download a podcast app (Podcast Addict for Android and Apple’s Podcast App are both free and work great). New shows are coming out every day so whether you’re already a podcast devotee or a listening newbie, it’s a great time to get sucked into something interesting. Try one of these 11 ways to improve your vocabulary in just one day.

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Learn a second language on your phone

Speaking a second (or third or fourth) language is both fun and practical—not to mention that it give brain cells a healthy workout. Yet for most of us it ends up in the pile of forgotten New Year’s resolutions, along with trying a new vegetable every week and hand-writing thank you notes. But it doesn’t have to hard or time consuming. In fact, Duolingo turns language learning into a video game. The app teaches Spanish, French, German, English, Japanese, and other tongues using reading, writing, listening, and even speaking modules. And each module is generally done in a few minutes—short enough to sneak in a lesson every day on the bus home or while you’re waiting for the meat to defrost for dinner. Follow these 41 little grammar rules to sound instantly smarter.

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Check out a documentary on your tablet

Short of actually being there, there’s no better way to learn about something new than by watching an immersive documentary on one of your favorite subjects. But we don’t always have two hours to dedicate to sitting on the couch watching it. If only there were a way to make watching TV portable… Saved by technology again! Use your phone or tablet to catch up on a documentary while you’re riding the bike at the gym or folding laundry at home. You can even use it as a reward to help you want to do a boring or daunting task you’ve been putting off.

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Audiobooks for book lovers

If you’ve got a teetering stack of books to read on your nightstand that never seems to get any smaller, it might be time to consider alternate ways of getting your reading fix. Audiobooks are the perfect solution for busy bibliophiles, allowing you to still get your book finished before your monthly book club while also finishing up your other daily tasks. Plus listening to a thriller makes spring cleaning so much more exciting while hearing a self-help book makes you that much more motivated in your own business. And many Audiobooks will allow you to pick up reading the electronic version in the same spot so you can still lounge in bed with a good book at the end of the day.

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Play an instrument

Whether you played the piano as a kid, are a virtuouso now, or have never touched an instrument, learning to play music can make you smarter. Not only does playing an instrument train your brain to recognize chords and meter, but studies have shown it also helps you get better at subjects like math. And it’s never too late to learn! Check Craigslist, local University postings or community education schedules for group or individual classes—and the best part is you don’t have to be Carnegie Hall worthy to see the intellectual benefits. As researcher Anita Collins says in her TED Talk on the subject, “When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout.” Here are 18 more tiny tricks that can make you smarter.

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Engage in an online discussion

Telling someone to go to an Internet comment board may sound akin to telling someone to smear themselves with lox and jump in a shark tank. But while there are many places where “discussions” are mainly insult-hurling and name-calling (ahem, YouTube), there are many other sites where commenters are active, engaged, smart, and even polite. Reading other people’s points of view can help get you thinking outside your own paradigm and formulating a well-written, well-researched (and polite!) response in return is a great way to increase your own knowledge of a subject. Head to the comment section of your favorite magazine, if they have one, or look up a favorite hobby on Reddit. Just make sure to treat others the same way you like to be treated. And if getting smarter is your goal, seek out commenting and message boards where people are there for education, not entertainment.

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Say om

To fill your mind, sometimes you have to clear it first. Thankfully meditation, and its cousin mindfulness, are everywhere these days. Meditating not only lowers stress levels and boosts health and overall well-being but it can help you learn better as well. According to research done by Sara Laza, MD, a Harvard neuroscientist, people who meditated showed greater brain activity and mass in the areas responsible for learning, cognition, memory, and emotion. And you don’t have to sit on a pillow in a room full of incense for an hour to see these amazing benefits. Just a few minutes a day can help and with apps like HeadSpace, it’s simple enough to do anywhere you can find a quiet corner. Start using these 7 genius brain boosters before work each day.

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Keep a journal

Writing down your innermost thoughts and feelings isn’t just for angsty tween girls with padlocked diaries and colored pencils. Putting pen to paper, whether it’s writing about your day or listing things your grateful for or venting thoughts, helps increase your cognitive abilities. It’s the combination of the thought process with the mechanical act of writing that makes it so potent. (You can type it out if that’s easier for you but according to one study, the lessons stick in your mind better if you hand-write them.) Writing helps you crystallize your thoughts and allows you to reflect on past successes and failures to help you get smarter about future choices. These 15 memory exercises are proven to keep your brain sharp.

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Take a walk

Dumb jock? Nah. Exercise, as a rule, makes you smarter. It doesn’t matter what you do: A Canadian study found that lifting weights improved cognitive function while an Irish study found that cardio activities provided a significant mental boost. Similarly, the researchers found that it also doesn’t matter your age or gender. What matters is that you move and you move on a regular basis. You don’t have to go all out to see the mental benefits (although you can if you want to!). A simple walk around the block can lift your mood, clear your mind and get your creative juices flowing. Or join a sports league and revive a favorite hobby.

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Sharpen your sense of humor

Sarcastic people are smarter people, at least according to a study published in Organizational Behavior. They found that exchanging witty banter with a friend or colleague increases creativity in both the speaker and the listener. Why? Sarcasm, when used in a light-hearted way, increases abstract thinking skills. The key, of course, is to keep things fun and stay away from mean-spirited humor. Learn these 25 clever jokes to sound more intelligent.

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talkingSG SHOT/Shutterstock

Listen more than you speak

The average person meets three new people a day, adding up to interactions with over 80,000 people during your lifetime. That’s a lot of people. It’s also a lot of opportunities to learn something new. Everyone is an expert of something (even if it’s just themselves) and if you go into a conversation with the intent of learning something new then you’ll find yourself enlightened, often in unexpected ways. And you don’t have to be a social butterfly full of witty one-liners to get this benefit. In fact, the less you talk, the more you’ll likely learn. Next, read up on the 10 signs that show you’re actually smart.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.