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October 13, 2022 — 9:02 AM
According to psychologist Elaine Fox, Ph.D., author of Switch Craft: The Hidden Power of Mental Agility, it’s common to become way less open-minded as you age—as a result, it can become way more difficult to stay mentally agile in the face of uncertainty and change. “In life we tend to get mental arthritis. We get a little bit rigid and set in our ways,” she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. “Whereas [mental] agility is the ability to just really keep [your mind] much more open, much more flexible, and really try out different solutions to the problems that we’re faced with.”
You might call it a “growth mindset” or “grit,” but regardless, this flexibility is crucial for navigating challenges and living your best life. So how do you overcome a case of mental arthritis? Well, Fox has a few favorite exercises, which we’ve detailed below:
1. A “multitasking” exercise.
Make no mistake: There’s no such thing as multitasking. Meaning, it’s impossible to complete two tasks simultaneously; when we multitask, “we’re actually switching very rapidly from one thing to the other,” says Fox. Now, experts generally advise against multitasking for the sake of your brain health (it can be very draining for your mind over time), but as a quick exercise, Fox says it can be quite helpful. Think of it as a HIIT session for your brain.
“Have a timer that’s set for five or 10 minutes,” she says. “And pick a couple of tasks, like writing an email, booking a restaurant…just those kinds of tasks that you know aren’t going to take too long. Have a timer that goes off after a couple of minutes, and as soon as that timer goes off, you have to switch to the next task. Even if you haven’t finished what you’re doing, you switch to the next one, and then when the timer goes off again, you switch to the third one, and then when the timer goes off, you go back to the first one again.”
Again, you only want to do this practice for five or 10 minutes, but the key is to become faster at switching from one task to another. “As a training exercise, that kind of switching can be really effective,” Fox notes.
Another way to test your mental flexibility? Try this children’s game: “Take a common object and just try and think of as many different uses for that object as you can,” explains Fox. Take a coffee mug, for example—how many uses can you imagine? You could use that cup as a pen holder, you could catch a spider in it, you could use it as a toothbrush container…get creative!
“That can be just a fun way of keeping your brain flexible and trying to get as agile as you can,” Fox adds. “If you ask a 7- or 8-year-old to do something like that, they’ll instantly come up with lots of different uses. Whereas as we get older, we tend to get a bit more rigid… The more you practice something as simple as that, it can really liven your brain up and make you start thinking in a much more flexible and open way.”
3. Open up to new perspectives.
According to Fox, it’s important to expose your mind to new experiences—both physically and mentally. On the physical front, she encourages travel and exposing yourself to different cultures. Or if travel isn’t available to you at the moment, you could even take a different route on the way to work or on your daily walk; the key is to help your brain drink up new experiences in any way you can.
Additionally, Fox urges us to see different points of view. “It’s almost like mental travel,” she notes. “You can go on online, for example, and deliberately challenge yourself by exposing yourself to different perspectives, things that you might feel uncomfortable with or you aren’t going to agree with. Just exposing yourself to those different viewpoints and perspectives can be a really good exercise for the brain.”
It’s important to keep learning as you grow older—not only does this ensure a more youthful, thriving brain, but it also helps you meet life’s inevitable challenges with grace and grit. Take it from Fox: A sense of resilience is integral to overall well-being.
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