Beyond 'Use It or Lose It': Deliberate Play

Written by
Kelli Korducki

Beyond 'Use It or Lose It': Deliberate Play

Written by
Kelli Korducki

Beyond 'Use It or Lose It': Deliberate Play

Written by
Kelli Korducki

A few years ago, my partner and I were visiting his aunt when she said something that stuck with me:

“At my age, mobility is a lifestyle choice.” 

I can’t remember what prompted that remark—probably something I’d said. I was impressed by her vitality, and it showed.

Aunt G was in her late 60s, but she had twice the energy of a reasonably fit woman half her own age (specifically: me). Every day she was up with the sun, running the company founded by her late husband, tending to her home and semi-feral cat and, somehow, finding the time to make incredible glassblowing projects, go on 10-mile desert hikes, and solo kayak through rapids on the regular. 

In short, she kept moving. It was a choice. You either use it, or you lose it. 

More Than ‘Use It or Lose It’

The idea of ‘using it or losing it’ applies to virtually any cognitive faculty or physical skill, and across all ages and phases of our lives. How many of us took music lessons when we were kids to learn an instrument that we absolutely can no longer play? Or have a second or third language buried in the recesses of our memory that only reawakens after about a week of total immersion?

The older we get, the more vital it is to challenge ourselves both physically and mentally.

But what if I told you that ‘use it or lose it’ isn’t the full picture? What if I told you that learning new skills is actually essential to preserving the ones you already have? 

And that’s where flow comes in. Flow is the optimal state of human consciousness, our built-in neurobiological superpower for performing and feeling our best. It also might be our most precious ally in aging—a process we’re all in the thick of, just by virtue of being alive.

‘Deliberate Play’

Flow follows focus. We only enter a state of flow when we’re giving our undivided attention to the task at hand. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that by setting concrete goals and tackling them incrementally, we help ensure that we stay engrossed in what’s in front of us. This basic strategy is also what keeps us adaptable and resilient as we advance through life.

Case in point: FRC’s Executive Director, Steven Kotler took up park skiing in his 50s, an adventure he dives into in his most recent book, Gnar Country. If you follow the conventional wisdom around aging, picking up an extreme sport in the second half of your life isn’t exactly a great idea. But it turns out that this conventional wisdom sells us short. A growing body of research shows that human beings can significantly offset the effects of age-related physical decline. Tackling big challenges is a key part of that equation.

A lot of it comes down to how you approach the challenges you set. 

In Kotler’s case, this meant taking on a “deliberate play” approach to building skill. “The idea was, let's start with an existing motor pattern, something I can do 100% of the time with zero fear and a 100% success rate, or 95% success rate, and build one inch at a time,” he explained in a 2023 Flow Radio podcast episode. “Deliberate play is to do exactly what you did before, but just improv a tiny little bit on top of it.” It’s a more flexible and open-ended tactic than its counterpart, deliberate practice. 

It may or may not be coincidental that “play” is a high-traffic word for my partner’s Aunt G. She used it several times during our visit, usually while describing some kind of intense-sounding workout routine. The fact that I remember this goes to show that it left an impression, and for good reason: “Play” is a mindset shift. It infuses a task with novelty and fun, and maybe a touch of exploration. “Play” turns a chore into a creative experiment and reframes a challenge as a riff. It’s an approach that’s friendly to producing flow, which benefits from positive emotions. 

I saw Aunt G again over Christmas. Though I’m in much better shape now than I was during our visit, she could probably still take me in an arm wrestle. Not too much has changed on her end; she’s still all-in on her work, her glass-blowing, her kayaking. There’s a new semi-feral cat on the scene, and she’s all-in on that, too. The only difference is numerical. This time around, she’s 70. 

Want to go deeper on deliberate play and long-term peak performance? Check these out:

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