My last article, I suggested that we should move out of our comfort zone in order to learn and grow. I looked at how you can target specific areas for growth and then volunteer for scary adventures that take you through “the fear zone” and into a longer term learning zone where you continue to grow (or where you can use delegation to encourage others to do the same thing).
I think that leaving your comfort zone and facing your fears in order to generate real learning more is good, but I don’t think the model I shared is complete. This article looks at the same challenge through a different perspective.
A different perspective (and model)
I encountered another learning model when my daughter was in kindergarten, and it has stayed with me ever since.
It was a model that the teacher used to encourage the kids to try things that were challenging and to build the persistence and resilience to keep trying until they succeeded at something that was difficult (but important) to learn.
There are 3 zones in this model:
- The comfort zone (green, in the centre) is where we are relaxed and comfortable. Things happen easily. We do not need to focus very hard and not need to expend much energy.
- The stretch zone (Yellow, just outside the comfort zone) is where we stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. The stretch zone is where we need to try new things, experiment, and practice with things we are not yet comfortable with. This means we need greater focus, and it requires more energy.
- The stress zone (Red, just outside the stretch zone) is where our emotions over-ride our thinking and we get stressed, scared, angry or anxious. This requires a lot of energy, but it undermines our focus, since we are more focused on protecting ourselves from danger than we are on learning.
When my daughter first explained this model to me, I assumed that being in the stretch zone was the best, because it would generate the most learning – kind of like being in the “Goldilocks learning zone.” However, my 6-year-old daughter explained to me that this view was not correct.
According to my daughter’s teacher, who had far more credibility than me, all the zones can generate learning. The idea is to recognise which zone you are in and then apply the right tactics to either benefit from being there or move to a more useful zone. I am not sure if she explained it exactly like that, but this is how I interpreted the explanation.
Applying the model to our teams at work
I don’t think my 6-year-old thought in terms of EQ, presence, or mindfulness, but the model is quite a simple one to use when trying to increase your personal awareness.
Let’s look at each in turn.
The “stretch” zone
We spend much of out life running on automatic, but if we are on automatic then we are unlikely to pause and think about how to apply a new lesson or practice a new, as yet unfamiliar, habit.
Trying something new means pausing and reflecting on what you want to do and then focusing on how to do it. It also means that you are likely to make mistakes or get stuck.
Teachers tell kids to consciously focus on either listening to a new idea or completing an exercise to practice how to do something new themselves. This is the same for us at work; we need to pause and focus on the task at hand to learn new things or get better at the things we are not yet comfortable with.
Set your mind to the task at hand
So, the first skill we need to learn is the ability to pause, plan and commit to our plan.
Let’s look at the same example I used in my last article. I am going to facilitate our teams OKRs (goals) for the first time and you are there to help me.
If this is something that I know how to do, but am a bit daunted by, then I might just need to sit down with a cup of tea and plan out my approach. If this is really hard for me then we might sit down together and break the problem down. We might walk through the steps to take, the risks and challenges that might arise and go through different approaches to attack the problem.
Build in a recovery and resilience strategy
We often start with good intentions and with a strategy to try. Teachers and kids go a step further though and I think this is something we can learn from them.
When you are in the stretch zone, you will fail a lot, make mistakes, and sometimes get completely stuck. In each of these cases we need to have tactics to help us move forward. For example, kids are taught something like “step one is to ask the others in your team, if that does not work, try to see what you are missing and if that fails then ask the teacher.”
The tactics change depending on the task, but part of the planning for the lesson if for the kids to plan out their strategy and tactics for tackling the problems that will no doubt arise. Feeling prepared means that when they hit a challenge, they feel a sense of agency and keep persisting.
The same thing should happen at work when we are stretching ourselves. Rather than just pushing ahead and using sheer will power to succeed, we should anticipate that we will need to deal with getting stuck or going off track etc. The plan might be a simple as agreeing a few check-ins to get support or it might involve learning strategies to cope with the feelings of getting stuck.
One of the strategies to deal with getting stuck (and with procrastinating) is the “Pomodoro technique,” which involves focusing intently for 25 minutes and then taking a break for 5 or 10 minutes.
Taking a break could also be called “going back into your comfort zone.”
The comfort zone is where you are not stretching yourself and you are not trying hard. This could sound like you are slacking off and I certainly did that at school.
However, it is also where we recharge our energy and where our brain processes a lot of things subconsciously. Teachers build this into their lessons, and I do the same thing as a trainer.
It is not just about taking a break though; it is also about letting your brain process things in “diffuse mode” which is a fancy way of saying you stop focusing and let your brain wander. Letting your brain wander, sleeping or doing a relaxing task all allow your brain to find connections between different concepts and to work out where your new lessons fit in. Without doing this, you will not remember how to do the things you are pushing yourself so hard to learn.
Taking a break in your comfort zone is also a chance for your brain to recharge. You burn a lot of energy when you do things like prioritising your day, focusing hard on listening to others, tackling a complex problem etc.
If you were a sports person then you would build your stamina and you would push yourself hard when you need to, but you would also take deliberate breaks to allow your muscles to recover. It is exactly the same with mental work; if you really push yourself for a while, you will start to see diminishing returns. You will learn less, you will struggle to solve complex problems and you will perform less well.
Teachers structure their lessons to give kids a break. We often structure our day to pack as much in as possible. Kids learn fast and (some) adults burn out. So a key skill when stretching yourself in your stretch zone is to take a break and spend some time in your comfort zone to recover your energy and to give your brain a chance to process all the stuff you that is causing you to stretch.
Of course – taking a break does NOT mean checking twitter, checking slack, checking emails, jumping into a meeting where you need to focus. It does mean having a coffee, catching up with a team member without an agenda, going for a walk etc.
With practice, you can learn to recognise when you need a break from being in the stretch zone. Even without this you can insert deliberate breaks or opportunities to do non-challenging things during the day.
I remember being told to focus more and try harder at school. I don’t remember being told to feel less stressed and to stop trying as hard. Maybe I was a relatively low-stress student, or maybe there is a part of my education that I missed.
When I entered the workplace though, I did learn about EQ, self-regulation and not burning out. I am not sure when I first encountered this, but it was early on.
My daughter learned to notice when her chest started to feel tight or when she was starting to feel anxious. Then she was taught some focused breathing activities like breathing in an out as she drew a square, or as she ran the finger from one hand over the fingers on the other hand.
This is something I think we should do more of at work too. If we can learn to recognise when we are starting to “lose it” or “shut down,” then we can take deliberate action to tackle the problem.
The stress zone is not where you really want to be if you are trying to learn new things, but strangely it is still a place of learning. For example, if you can start to notice what happens just before you get stressed, then you can start to recognise your own triggers. These triggers are the things that people do or that happen around you that cause your emotions to hijack your thinking. If you start to learn what those things are then you not only learn how to respond to them better, but you often find an opportunity for growth in that space too.
The stress zone serves another purpose too, which I think schoolteachers only touch on slightly. Sometimes we feel stress or anxiety because something is in fact wrong. Something that represents danger or at least a cause for concern.
We are not facing a “learning situation” that we should learn to adapt to, we are picking up warning signs that we should pay attention to.
Hopefully in your work you are not actually in danger of snakes and crocodiles appearing in the board room and attacking you halfway through a meeting. However, there might be situations where someone is being less than honest, where people are themselves being evasive because they are out of their depth, or you and the team are experiencing bias or group think.
You might not be experiencing danger though, you might just be missing something in the problem you are trying to solve, that is actually very important.
In all these situations, it would be an amazing superpower if you could pause and reflect on what set off your instinctive stress response.
While I don’t have the spider senses of spiderman, I do believe that when I learn to recognise my body or mind starting to experience stress, there is a lot to learn by pausing and reflecting on what caused it.
Growth at work comes from leaving your comfort zone and experiencing some anxiety in order to try new things and practice new habits. However, it is not just about being uncomfortable, it is about building the confidence to operate in your stretch zone and also knowing when to stop and recharge or when you are no longer stretching yourself but rather stressing yourself.
This is where coaching can really help – not just from a professional coach, but even from a fellow traveller, someone in your team who also wants to grow and who can support you while you support them. The process of supporting each other will not just increase your chance of succeeding in a new skill but also help you and your friend to become more resilience and more attuned to opportunities for growth.