nick snowFeeling stressed?  Need a break?  Wishing you could go on holidays soon?  Or worse, have you recently had a holiday and within days or even hours of being back at work felt like you never even had a holiday? Perhaps it’s to do with the type of holiday you’ve taken.

Sometimes challenging yourself by going to a place where everything smells, tastes, sounds, and looks different may be just what you’re after. You feel stimulated by the fact that each day brings you something new and unexpected, returning home with ‘new eyes’. At other times, however, a holiday like this can be daunting, overwhelming, exhausting to the extreme. This is because the brain requires the correct balance between certainty and novelty.  Depending on a number of factors at play in your life, that trek across Mongolia where no one speaks English, where the food is a swirl of unfamiliar flavours, and where there’s no internet will offer you just the novel experience you need in order to recharge your brain and refresh your outlook. If you are harried, overworked, or burned out, on the other hand, two weeks in Mongolia is likely to make things worse.  You might prefer to stay closer to home and instead get away to someplace familiar, a destination full of happy associations.
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Right now, I’m writing this post from my annual one week snowboarding holiday down at the Australian snowy mountains.  Why do I go every year to the same resort?  Why do I go virtually in the same week of August?  Why do I consistently go back with (roughtly) the same large group of outdoors-y people that I do?  Well, there are lots of reasons but I’m more interested in exploring why I find such a physically demanding ‘holiday’ so refreshing. A week away in the snow can refresh me like no other and it seems to go for a very long time and in such a different environment from my regular beautiful Byron Bay hinterland environment.
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I have a theory about this, and it’s to do with the brain’s need for certainty, the way the brain forms habits, and how habits use a lot less ‘processing’ energy.
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Because the most physically taxing decision I have to make during the week (apart from navigating my way down the mountain without injury — but more on that later) is who to sit with for dinner, what time we begin ‘drinks’, and where we’ll trek off to each day.  It’s such a different environment that I’m used to in my regular life, but because I’ve been coming here for nearly 20 years, I’m very very familiar with the resort, its trails and lifts, and I feel really comfortable here.  It’s easy for me to relax because I’m not having to learn new things.
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Back to the snowboarding bit.  Dr Stephanie Burns once said: “Learning isn’t fun, doing is fun, but the learning bit itself isn’t fun”, and I agree with that in a large part.  You see new snowboarders and skiers experiencing the full gamut of emotions as they go from ecstatic accomplishment back to painful and embarrassing failure, sometimes in the space of seconds.
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These days, I’m way past being a beginner and, as an experienced boarder, I can navigate the mountain at my pace and really enjoy the activity — the habit of the activity, if you will.  There’s something wonderful in that, but from a neuroscience perspective, there’s also something economical about it.  I’m using far fewer cognitive resources than those ‘learning’ the new habit. Since I’m running largely on automatic, my pre-frontal cortex, the executive centre of my brain, is blessedly free to relax. That’s why I’m happily tired each night, rather than unhappily exhausted.
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What to do while you learn a new skill, a new job, or a new habit?
  1. You’ll be using far more cognitive resources, so please make sure you hydrate and eat well.
  2. While you are learning these new skills, make sure you are taking time to embed them any way that you can.
  3. You’ll face adversity when you try and learn new things. Your brain won’t like it when you ‘fail’ and will help you to look for ways of circumventing the difficulty of learning.
  4. Stick with it.  While the learning may not be fun, the doing will be.  Doesn’t matter what it is.
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