Nearly two years ago I wrote Why Not . . . Challenge Yourself? and recently began adding to the list of ways to challenge our brains, bodies and thus improve our lives. So in continuation, part deux in the series has been created.
As much as I love routines, routines lull our minds into a complacency that no longer stimulates the brain. And as many studies have found, when we continually exercise our brains by choosing to be eternal students of life, our processing speeds increase, our memory and recall abilities become stronger and we’re better able to maintain our focus. And these aren’t even the most inspiring benefits. Recent studies have also revealed that by perpetually learning we help stave off dementia and Alzheimer's.
While it is possible to maintain the routines that help our lives run smoother - after all, there is a comfort and strength that is built when we have routines that improve the quality of our lives – why not choose to continually challenge yourself in big and small ways throughout your day? So often we become so ingrained in how we go about our daily lives, we don’t realize there are many opportunities where we can challenge ourselves, exercise our brains and force ourselves to be more present in our day-to-day lives.
Here is a list of a few new ways to challenge yourself:
Master Your Thoughts
Believe it or not, negative thinking actually, which leads to stress and anxiety, can kill brain neurons and actually stop new neurons from being created. How? When we get stressed, our body produces adrenaline, which in a healthy amount, can be productive as it pushes us to achieve and complete tasks; however, “when stress gets out of hand to the point where you’re having adrenaline rushes, your body produces an excess of the chemical cortisol. Too much of that cortisol is what kills brain cells.”
Mastering your thoughts can be a continual task throughout the day, but once you accept how powerfully influential your thoughts are (and now, how negative thoughts deplete the brain’s ability), the motivation to curtail cynical thoughts and promote hopeful ones should be at the forefront of your mind. Once you control your mind, you can improve your world in many ways.
Whenever my students ask me what percentage they have received on an exam, I always say, “Simply divide your earned score by the total possible.” Some of the smartest students look at me like I have five heads. I have no doubt they can do it, but they have been taught math much of their life with a calculator as an assistant, allowing the machine to do the work. We could all benefit by putting the calculator down for simple math equations and working it out in our heads or on paper.
Train Your Memory
With cell phones that keep all of our phone numbers in one spot, computers that save our passwords and credit card numbers (be careful about this one), we have become more inclined not to memorize important numbers. However, in order to have a good memory, you must use it. In order to create a good memory, you must do something repeatedly whether it is learning a new list of vocabulary, memorizing your social security number, or contributing to memory your spouses and children’s clothing and shoe sizes.
Put Down the GPS
Reading a map can be somewhat confusing especially when you are in a new city where you haven’t found your bearings yet; however, when you don’t follow the directions on your GPS contraption like a robot, you ask of your brain to help figure out how to get from point A to point B. In our technological inundated world, we have machines that will do nearly everything for us, and while it is handy, it isn’t helping us out in the quest to grow intellectually. Everything will take practice. You most likely won’t be flawless in your first attempt to arrive at your destination (or at least it will take a bit longer), but it will become easier with each attempt.
A few months ago, I spoke about the benefits of a learning a new language, and while there are many cultural and social benefits, the benefits for our brains are quite impressive as well. Acquiring a new language doesn’t happen quickly, but if you stick to it, practicing a little each day, you will find after a few years that you are quite proficient. And the quiet reward that is often forgotten about as we begin to engage in conversations with others in our new tongue, is that our brain has been stimulated far more than it ever would have been had we simply been okay with what we already knew.
Spend Time in Nature
For many people, the outdoors is intimidating because it is unknown. And even for those who have grown up with it in their backyards, such as myself, what is so intoxicating about stepping out into the forest, traversing a mountain or hiking into a high lake is that while it’s challenging, it is at the same time very rewarding. Each time one steps out into Mother Nature, the scene can be different for a multitude of reasons. And because you must always be aware of your surroundings, aware of the weather and your direction, you are continually keeping your mind alert as you assist yourself, as well as take in all the beauty that is around you.
Stop Using Credit Cards
While choosing not to use credit cards may seem simpler than all of the other tasks I’ve already mentioned, what can be challenging is coming up with creative ways to use the money you have and entertain yourself when you’re at the end of your monthly budget instead of reaching for your plastic. In a way, this challenge is a twofer because it benefits your mind as well as your wallet.
Live in Another Country
Not everyone is able or desiring of a relocation to another country, but if you are, you will certainly awaken your mind in ways you never could have imagined. Even just enrolling in a study abroad program forces you to learn how to acclimate to the new culture which now surrounds you. So many wonderful benefits can come from such an experience, and yes the exercising of the muscle that is the mind is one of the greatest. What amazed me, in just the month that I went to school in France is the immediate awareness of how much I do unconsciously in the states – how to greet people, meal times, food options, navigating train schedules, etc.
In a busy world, being still, enjoying our own company and that of others without having to spend money or be doing something that requires great thrill, movement and ecstasy, is often frowned upon or misjudged as wasting time. When in actuality, it is a chance to find balance, to reconnect with ourselves, to accept ourselves and understand and appreciate all that we already have. To move too quickly through life is to not revel in the magnificence that surrounds us. But for many, this can be very challenging because it requires a shift in the mind. Choose to be comfortable with your own company, eliminate those thoughts that are nagging you and discover the beauty and restorative abilities of stillness.
Initially, the word challenge may be perceived as a negative approach to living, when in fact, it is quite the opposite. Choose to welcome challenging opportunities, large and small, and be amazed at how capable you are as you discover your true potential and the beauty this new life has to offer.