Your brain loves routine.
Like your old bathrobe with the fuzz balls and coffee stains, it’s cozy, comfortable, familiar, and most important to your brain, known to be safe with minimal stress and risk. Because anything new and different wakes up your fear circuits causing mild to extreme anxiety depending on the circumstances, your brain is going to tend towards the security of the known every time.
When the pressure is on, routines are a highly successful and reliable use of your brain’s resources. You’ll want your practiced, go-to golf swing to show up when you’re on the last hole playing for the win. You’ll want to take the usual way to work when you’re running late for a big meeting. But staying in your comfort zone and following the daily routine doesn’t do anything to help your brain stay sharp.
Psychologists tell us that comfort kills productivity, creativity, and motivation. Your brain needs novelty to grow and stay challenged. Your habits may even be contributing to your brain’s decline. While doing crossword puzzles and Sodoku are good, they’re not good enough because these activities ask you to recall things you already know. Ho hum. Nothing new. Your brain stays healthy by doing novel things and being challenged. It’s important to kick your brain out of its comfort zone and into the enhancement zone by doing something that’s unfamiliar and mentally challenging regularly.
You want to push your brain beyond the known by learning new skills, hobbies, or sports, continuing to educate your mind, putting yourself in new social situations, and traveling to new locations, for instance. Stepping out of what’s familiar to you stretches your brain by forcing it to make new connections and allowing the neuron’s dendrites to blossom like trees with full branches instead of little shrubs – which has been shown to have protective benefits against age-related decline.
While learning a new language or taking a course at the local college is rich fertilizer for your brain, you can also expand and encourage your brain in little ways every day. If you’re afraid of public speaking, for example, speaking out more in a meeting at work may be enough to stretch your brain. Taking a new route to drop the kids off at school takes your brain off of automatic. Brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand asks your brain to work just a little harder.
Here are some other suggestions for kicking your brain out of its comfort zone:
- Read a book, watch a movie, or listen to music in a genre you’re not that familiar with. If you usually read mysteries, try reading an inspiring memoir, if you like action flicks, try a romantic comedy, if you usually listen to rock, try out some modern jazz music. You’ll perk up your brain and may even discover a new favorite thing.
- Use your nondominant leg to start up the stairs, or your nondominant hand to eat with. (Preferably not on a date.) Brush or comb your hair, hold your coffee cup, wipe off the counter, count money, water the plants with your other hand.
- Use your other hand to navigate the mouse at your computer. I do this for about five minutes until I get so frustrated that I switch back.
- Sleep on a different side of the bed than you usually do. Sit at an unexpected place at the dinner table. Uncurl your yoga mat in the front of the class for a change.
- Go to an ethnic restaurant and dive into a new dish from a different culture with unfamiliar spices and ingredients. It will wake up your taste buds and turn you onto a whole new cuisine.
- Get intentionally lost and try to find your way back without using your GPS or a map, relying just your senses and logic. (There’s a whole sport like this called orienteering.)
- Have someone you trust walk you around by the arm while you have your eyes shut. Try navigating a familiar path in your house, like from your bedroom to the kitchen, with your eyes closed. (If you have animals, try to figure out which one you stepped on!)
- Walk backward – with your eyes open. You have to really pay attention and be aware of each foot on the ground and the subtle changes in terrain. Whenever there was a sidewalk today, I walked backward when walking the dog. (The neighbors already know I’m weird.)
- Take a shower with your eyes closed and really observe the tactile sensations of the water hitting your skin and running down your body. Pay attention to the rich, slippery feeling the shampoo sudsing in your hair. Notice how the moist, warm air feels when you breathe it into your lungs.
- Have a totally unplugged day where you don’t use any gadgets. You may actually have to use that arithmetic you learned in school or look something up in that antiquated thing called a phone book.
- Try a new recipe which requires a different cooking technique you haven’t used or an ingredient you haven’t worked with before.
- Pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. Draw circles in the air with one hand going clockwise and the other hand going counter-clockwise. Try tapping your foot at one tempo and snapping your fingers to another. Try rotating one closed eye in one direction and the other one the other way. (Just kidding!)
- Mix up your daily routine. If you usually grab a cup of coffee and check your emails first thing upon stumbling out of bed, try meditating, writing, or exercising before you do anything else.
- Make a new friend who is unlike anybody you currently know. This person can be from a different culture, work in an industry about which you are clueless, or come from a different generation. You might be surprised at all the interesting, wonderful things to which you’re exposed.
- Volunteer at the local mission or soup kitchen for a day. Get out of your environment and realize how abundant your life really is, while helping someone at the same time.