Plodding on a padded plateau

Are you feeling stagnant? Stuck? Stale?

I just completed a feature article for a health magazine on losing the last ten pounds – and it’s all about how to get off that comfy plateau. Although weight loss is not my topic today, it does illustrate an important point with wider implications.

When we exercise, we tend to stick with a familiar routine. We walk a certain route in the neighborhood, we go to the gym and lift a regular set of weights, whatever. But the muscles get accustomed to that routine and get increasingly efficient at executing it – so the routine that a few months ago had the pounds peeling off is not doing much today.

The remedy is to wake up your muscles by giving them something different – if you swim, walk; if you walk, try a bike; if you run, try intervals.

The same thing goes with our minds. We are creatures of habit. We have carved out a set of daily rituals that make life simpler because we don’t have to think. What’s for breakfast: oatmeal. When to read the paper? As I eat my oatmeal. Which route to take to get to work? 78th Street to I-5. Where should we go on our night out? the movies. But our minds go soft and stagnant, just like our bodies.

Turns out your brain needs novelty too. Brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, try new things or in new ways we create new synaptic pathways and increase our creative capacity.

The most important ingredients for stretching yourself are curiosity and wonder… when you look around yourself and ask: I wonder what would happen if?… I wonder how??? I have had the most delightful experiences when I’ve followed that instinct. It’s almost a physical sensation I call the brain tickle.

We live in three behavioral zones: comfort, stretch and stress.

  • Comfort is the realm of existing habit
  • Stress occurs when a challenge is so far beyond the comfort of our usual ways that we’re overwhelmed.
  • Stretch is the sweet spot: where you’re doing things that are a bit awkward and unfamiliar but manageable. At first there is confusion – when you’re trying to fuse the old with the new. But then the brain sorts things out and gets stronger.

I know a guy who was bored with his life so he decided to spend a year doing one new thing every day. To keep himself honest, he started a blog where he writes about what he did that day and usually posts a photo as evidence. That’s one way!

Or you could take yourself on a weekly Artist’s Date as recommended in the creativity program, “The Artist’s Way.” You don’t have to spend money going to the theater or museum (although those are wonderfully inspiring), you can simply collect a bunch of leaves and make a collage, sit under a tree and listen to the birds, dance around the kitchen to an old rock and roll CD, take your camera on a walk around the neighborhood and take pictures of everything you see that is blue, try your hand at knitting or making something from modeling clay.

My favorite recommendation is to stretch yourself by joining Toastmasters. Simply getting over the fear of speaking to a group is the first major stretch – for some it’s life or death stress at first. The next stretch is coming up with a variety of speeches that will interest and inform your club members.

These skills are now in the realm of comfort for me, but delivering a speech without any notes is my stretch. My memory sucks and I don’t yet trust myself to just wing the general message.

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2 responses to “Plodding on a padded plateau

  1. Yes, the somatic experience of wonder!

    I love brain tickle.

    I feel the experience of wonder in the body is one where all parts of the body have the opportunity to stand up and be counted. If I’m gazing at the weeping willow above my head, what is the back of my neck experiencing.

  2. That’s pretty present, karlcron! If I’m looking at something (say a weeping willow) it’s hard not to translate the experience into words, “Hey, that’s a pretty willow. I like the shade of green and the way that branch droops.” There’s a willow up the street; I’ll have to find out what my neck experiences. Thanks for opening my mind, I mean neck.