Every now and then we actually listen to the words of a song as well as to the music. Most recently, a friend shared how she is consciously breaking her normal routine by doing something new, like cycling around a lake. She then explained that the words of Darius Rucker’s song When Was The Last Time motivated her to start challenging herself to go beyond her comfort zone. Rucker sings “when was the last time you did something for the first time?”
A very daunting question, for sure. So, when was the last time that I did something for the first time? Was it earlier today? Yesterday? Last week? Last month? Last year? Or do I not even remember when was the last time I did something new. Whether we like to admit it or not we are creatures of habit.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word habit refers to “a way of acting fixed through repetition.” It goes on to say that “habit implies a doing unconsciously and often compulsively.” In other words, a behaviour has to be practiced consciously over and over for it to become ingrained in my brain. And once it is ingrained, then it becomes a “habit” that is done unconsciously.
A simple example is driving the same route day after day. Initially, it took a conscious effort to note how many traffic lights to go through before turning. But after taking the same driving route daily, it becomes an unconscious act which frees up my brain to think of other things while driving this familiar route.
A team of neuroscientists from McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT recently (2012) found that “a small region of the Prefrontal Cortex (behind the forehead) where most planning and thinking are formed is responsible for moment by moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time.” What does this mean? Well, it means there is hope for all of us to change an old behaviour (habit) with a new behaviour. Since this small region of the brain functions from moment to moment it is not dependent on our age. However, it is important to remember the new behaviour has to be repeated over and over for it to become my new pattern of behaviour.
Today, in our electronic/digital world there is really no lack of information that we cannot access immediately by pressing a button on the keyboard of our phone or computer. Thus, I do not think I need to quote references to testify to the huge neuro (brain) benefits there are when new habits are formed. There is tons of research out there on neuroplasticity which shows how to slow down or prevent memory loss as we age. Rather, I would like in this column to simply encourage us to be creative in ways that make sense to me for improving my life and memory. It is about me, no one can do it for me.
When I turned 50 years, I started what I called ‘an end of the month inventory’ for myself. On the last day of the month I take stock of what newness I consciously made to my daily life. For example, this month I changed the deadbolt lock on my front door by myself. Thanks to ACE Hardware store telling me how to do it.
I also unpacked a large warehouse box containing the new floor lamp I had ordered and assembled it myself. I had offers to do these tasks for me, but I first wanted to challenge myself to do them as a way of developing new dendrites and synapses in my brain.
Last week, in a casual conversation while volunteering at the Chemainus Theatre a lady shared with me “Tomorrow I leave for a month in Mexico.” I asked where she was going to stay in Mexico. She replied “in San Miguel.” I then said “Aren’t you a lucky woman?” To this, she replied, “It is not about luck it is about making something happen, choosing to live more fully.” How wise and how true.
Consciously creating newness in my life shifts feelings and thoughts in a positive direction. Negative feelings such as: a feeling of uselessness, of not measuring up, of inferiority and/or of rejection can be changed into positive feelings of accomplishment, self-satisfaction and self-confidence by bringing newness into my life.
When we feel and think more positively then our physical limitations become more manageable and less restrictive. I do not say this lightly or unrealistically. My life was greatly improved years ago by a man who suddenly became a quadriplegic. Drew found new ways of doing things. He learned to hold a wooden stick in his mouth to press the buttons on the computer keyboard. He learned to mouth paint so that his paintings brought a gorgeous Saskatchewan sunset, windmill and his dairy farm into his permanent rehabilitation room. Thank you, Drew, for showing me that newness is a possibility for all of us if we choose it.
Now, as we are preparing to let go of 2018 and welcome in 2019, it may be a great time to ask myself, when was the last time I did something for the first time? Merry Christmas.
(Kathleen Kelly is a Chemainus resident and author of the book ‘The Tornadoes We Create’).