Life has taken such a drastic and unforeseen turn, nobody could have planned that our days would take on a Bill Murray a la Groundhog Day quality, the highlight of which being a trip to the supermarket, or discovering a new road to venture down on the daily walk.
The last few weeks have been marked by huge advances in the vaccine roll-out, but ask yourself what has happened in the past two weeks – both in a personal and work capacity – and you, like most people will struggle to recall any particulars of what has taken place in the previous weeks. Not because nothing of note happened – on the contrary, those of us still fortunate enough to be working are facing increased workloads and more pressures than usual. But because our memories – or at least our ability to create new memories, is suffering as a result of groundhog day.
When the pandemic hit and we were forced into lockdown, we collectively decided that routine was the way we would function and get through it in solitary togetherness. You know, just to cover the basics and make sure we got showered, cleaned our teeth and put clean clothes on. We created designated work spaces to separate our working life from our personal life – despite the fact that the transition between the two is often signified by a closing of excel and opening of Netflix. And then we accidentally created new habits, like sorting through emails in bed before you’ve even had a coffee and breakfast.
We did all this because routine – repetition – gives us comfort; it provides a framework for us to stick to that means within a few short days of practice we can function on autopilot to get through the first few bleak hours of the day in place of a commute to the office.
But what has all this got to do with the fact you can’t remember if the budget meeting was yesterday or last Tuesday? Familiarity and routine can also hinder our brains from making new memories. It’s your brain’s ability to autopilot that creates this dilemma – once familiar with the route of your daily walk, your brain simply decides that it has nothing new to learn, and therefore decides it is not important information to store. It needs to be stimulated in order to engage its neurological pathways and create a new memory.
It’s also why this year feels like it has flown by retrospectively, despite it being a real struggle and slog for all of us – and one of the longest winters in the history of earth.
Sounds simple enough – but how do you go about making the impossible happen – something new, exciting and different everyday when we are limited to the same walks, the same environment and the same routine? The good news is you don’t need to have a life-changing experience every day for your brain to start processing again. Here are some examples to get you started:
Exercise is the single most important thing you can do for memory and brain health – not to mention all of the other benefits to your body and wellbeing. The key here is to purposely keep your exercise regime new and exciting – which does take some planning and work, but that’s all part of the development process!
If you can do your run, yoga sequence or weights routine without paying attention, then you aren’t getting the full benefits of the workout mentally or physically. Purposely changing your running route each time you head out will keep you alert and thinking, allowing your brain to fire up and start collecting new information which in turn helps you create lots of healthy neurological pathways. TO really make an impact, try out a new technique or exercise style altogether.
Music is so powerful for memory – if you haven’t watched videos of people with Alzheimer’s disease listening to music, it’s just the most heart-warming thing, and demonstrates how influential music is on your memory.
Listening to a variety of new and familiar music can affect your mood, mental alertness, improve sleep quality and of course help your memory. Experiment with different motivational playlists for when you are exercising, as well as music that is calming and relaxing for when you want to unwind. Just as with your exercise routine, don’t stick to one play list, try different music styles and artists – and have fun expanding your music vocabulary at the same time.
Daily challenges can be a fun way to introduce some excitement and variety to your day, as well as providing you with a new creative outlet and a means of personal development. The lists of ways to challenge yourself are virtually endless, but to really benefit, try a range of activities you think you will enjoy as well as some that don’t quite appeal to you. Similar to the concept of doing one thing every day that puts you out of your comfort zone, the goal is to gently push those boundaries and stretch the comfort created by your routine. Some ideas to try are; learn and use a new word every day, do or say something kind (to a colleague, family member, friend, stranger), buy something you haven’t tried before at the supermarket.
So, go ahead, be a bit of a routine rebel, throw caution to the wind and try something new. Whatever you do, just don’t stick to the same old routine.