The Cost of Trying Something New Every Week

Photo credit: bradleypjohnson, CC BY 2.0.

“So what’s new with you?”

I don’t remember what Christmas event I was attending, but I do have a clear sense memory of how I felt as I tried to form a response to this question. My face felt warm and tight, my pulse was elevated, and I had that thud in the pit of my stomach that I get when I play out worst-case scenarios in my head. I was mortified that I had nothing to add to the conversation. I’m sure I smiled brightly as I fell back on my standard reply: “Same old, same old. You know how it is with work and kids.”

As a pragmatist in my late thirties, I have accepted that at some point you trade the adventure of your twenties for stability as you get older. But at what cost? In that moment I felt like I had nothing to offer the world (or at least that holiday party).

I am what some urban planning specialists call an “attempting-adult millennial,” which means I’m still trying to have it all: job, spouse, kids, house, dog, picket fence, and 401(k). I am both privileged and grateful to be in a position where I can actually have all these things; still, there are trade-offs. The time I used to spend getting lost in Amish country or road-tripping to Frank Lloyd Wright homes, for example, is now spent pinching pennies and keeping my children from accidentally burning down the house.

So I have become a creature of habit. It is my survival mechanism and the only thing that keeps my complicated life from going off the rails. But while (good) habits are wonderful in many ways, they have a way of making every day feel identical. As Gretchen Rubin writes in Better Than Before:

Habits speed time, because when everyday is the same, experience shortens and blurs […] An early morning cup of coffee was delightful the first few times, until it gradually became part of the background of my day; now I don’t really taste it, but I’m frantic if I don’t get it. Habit makes it dangerously easy to become numb to our own experience.

When I look back on the holiday party and my resolution, I now realize that I was developing that numbness of self. At the time I thought I was simply deciding that I would never be the boring person at the party again.

In January I decided to spend 2018 trying one new thing every week. This could be as simple as making a new recipe or as complicated as a new travel experience. Because I am always in “save-for-retirement-and-the-kids’-college” mode, I started by looking for free things to try: an aqua tai chi class ($0), a recipe for homemade bao (price of groceries), a vitamin D-bestowing sun lamp (bought using a gift certificate).

My first month of new activities cost me nothing but also wasn’t particularly inspiring. The tai chi class was nice, but I was clearly crashing some senior citizens’ weekly party. The most valuable new experience was making the homemade bao. It was delicious and I had fun with my kids helping me.

Instead of focusing on what I liked about the bao activity (something new with my kiddos) I continued to look for new experiences that were free. I made another new recipe (I fear I will never master stir-fry), got some library books that I would usually never check out (and couldn’t manage to get through them), and played Words with Friends for the first time (it was… fine?). I tried a few more things but lost interest for a while. What started as a fun idea was turning into a slog that wasn’t even giving me any good small talk. After all, everyone has played Words with Friends.

Then I bought a Groupon ($30). Groupons aren’t usually that appealing to me, but this one caught my eye: an hour in a sensory deprivation tank (also known as float therapy). I was terrified by the idea of an experience that was sure to bring on an existential crisis, but tantalized by the potential of a great anecdote.   

I loved it. I loved it so much that I bought an annual membership then and there. I did not experience a dissociative break and I had almost two hours to myself and I slept better and my aches and pains disappeared for a few days.  It was glorious. It was life-changing. It was the best $30 I’ve spent in years!

As new-agey as it sounds, something about the float reinvigorated me and reminded me why I was doing this in the first place: to try new things. While I had technically been doing things I’d never done before, I was still doing what I usually do (a lot of reading and cooking) and I was still choosing the easiest and most frugal option. After the float I gave myself permission to spend money and time on myself (within reason) and to focus on stretching myself by seeking out experiences I might typically avoid.

So I tried Buti Yoga (felt ridiculous, but laughed a lot, $20); played in a ping-pong tournament (I suck! $0); began keeping a bullet journal (love it and will keep it up, $20); planted a new, hard to grow plant in my garden (a cantaloupe which I lavish with extra love, $4); tried therapy (meh, $100); did a volunteer activity which I would have previously skipped because of social anxiety (found it a deeply moving experience, $0); and even pitched a story for public consumption (hi Billfold! +$40).

Based on our bao experiment, my husband and I have also started incorporating new activities with the kids. Thinking of my children’s giggles as they rolled home-churned ice cream around the floor still makes me smile ($8), and next week we are taking a family canoeing class at a local state park ($0).

Sometimes we get in a rut. Sometimes that rut is necessary to keep us moving through a particular season of our life. It’s still important to reassess every now and then. I was chasing pennies I didn’t really need to chase, doing activities I was not enjoying, and forgetting that my openness to new things is actually one of my favorite things about myself. While I originally thought I just needed some new stories, I’ve come to realize that I needed to experience my life a bit more. It took a while to recalibrate and understand what I was really getting from this experiment, but my year of new experiences has been incredibly successful.

Of course, just because I’m happy with my new habit doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t periodically assess and make small changes going forward. For instance, even though I don’t particularly get a kick out of cooking something new by myself, making something with my children has proven to be both frugal and really fun! On the other hand, while the float therapy Groupon was $30 well spent, I’ve found that I don’t actually have time to use the membership regularly, so that was a bit of waste. I’m not worried about it, though. Even if I don’t have time for a weekly dip into the existential void, at least I have some interesting things to talk about.

Sara McCarron is a former artistic type who now works for the man. She is kick-*ss at said job, has a great husband, two precious children, a geriatric cat, a new puppy and she is working on having more adventures.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Experience Series.

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