Mental Sweatpants

In early November, I have a ritual of pulling out my favorite sweatpants and indulging in the cotton fuzz comfort. My winter wardrobe consists of Nordstrom dress pants for teaching and sweatpants for everything else.

I’ve noticed an interesting paradox. On the one hand, my students comment on how much energy I have in my teaching and conversations with them. On the other hand, when I get home and change into those comfy sweatpants, after 30 minutes, I feel the need for a cup of coffee and some mental stimulus from Comedy Central to recharge my brain.

I feel sleepy, but then when I get into bed at night, I can’t sleep. At first I blamed it on the shorter amount of daylight affecting my biorhythms. But I wondered… could the cotton fuzz be lulling my brain into a state of relaxation, depleting me of energy and killing my mental cardio?

So in mid March I tried a one-week experiment. When I got home from teaching, I skipped the shapeless sweatpants and put on my favorite designer jeans and a nice crisp shirt. I was still comfortable but surprisingly I felt more alert. When I looked into the mirror I looked like I was ready to go out to a social event

Well, it’s now been four weeks without sweatpants and without the afternoon caffeine hit. My experiment with a sample size of one has been a success. I‘m saving the sweatpants for yoga and next winter’s cozy time by the fireplace.

I’m also looking for other pattern-breaking exercises to keep my brain alive. You could call my new workout routine “neurobics”— aerobics for the mind. Here are seven “neurobic” workouts to keep your brain from getting stuck in mental sweatpants:

  1. Move your watch to your opposite wrist.
  2. Listen to a new radio station on the way to work.
  3. Watch a different newscast on TV.
  4. Sit in a different seat at meetings or at the dining table.
  5. Mix and match your clothing combinations.
  6. Drive to and from work via a different route.
  7. Use your opposite hand to maneuver your computer mouse.

These exercises will at first make your brain feel distinctly uncomfortable—and that’s not a bad thing. You will force the non-dominant side of your brain to do things it normally doesn’t do and prompt your entire mind to look at things in different, creative ways. Trust me. Try it, and see what happens!

My favorite exercise is moving the watch. If you don’t wear a watch, just move your iPhone to the other hip or pocket. Then every time you look at the wrong wrist to tell the time, smile. Smiling balances both sides of your brain and diminishes anxiety.

If you’re saying to yourself, “I’m not going to move my watch; it’s fine just where it is,” then realize you might be sentencing yourself to a life of lounging around in sweatpants. Expect your brain to get lazy.

But I have a feeling you’d rather have a lean and flexible brain, so how about you get started this way? When you’re fixing dinner tonight, prepare your meal from scratch. Cut up the raw ingredients; grind the spices; stir, and taste; then stir some more. You’ll again be exercising your brain—rather than just mindlessly dumping ingredients into a container and putting the concoction in the microwave.

Your brain will thank you for taking this time out from your usual mindless routine; hopefully, so will your stomach. And pretty soon you’ll find those mental sweatpants are just too darn baggy and shapeless for your newly toned and tightened mind!

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Chic Thompson is author of What a Great Idea! and Yes, but… He is a Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, Founding Fellow at OpenGrounds at UVA and adjunct faculty at The Brookings Institution. Harvard Business School wrote a case on his speaking career entitled, What a Great Idea! For more information, go to www.whatagreatidea.com

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