We sometimes talk about moving out of your comfort zone so that you can really stretch yourself and thereby grow more.
Moving out of your comfort zone can, however, be a bit harder than we make it sound. But why is it hard?
One reason is inertia. We are not making the deliberate choice to stay stuck in our ways, but actually we are kind of used to doing things the way we do them now. Being good people we decide to make a change, but thinking about the change actually kicks off a series of reactions in our brains.
When we start thinking about doing something, our mind focuses some energy on working out if it is a good idea, but there is also a lot more going on.
Different parts of our brain calculate:
- Whether this seems like something to move towards (food) or away from (a monster);
- Whether this will bring a dopamine hit (playing a fun computer game);
- How this relates to the kind of person we see ourselves as (or at least ourselves in this role right now); and
- Whether we need to make a choice at all.
Where our brain suspects that their will uncertainty (ie change) and effort (ie growth) then our brains release some helpful cortisol, to cause us to feel unpleasant and move away from the perceived effort, or they might drop in some pleasant distractions so that we don’t have to worry about all this effort and uncertainty right now.
All this can cause inertia and distraction, that we might perceive, in a moment of guilt, to be a lack of will power or a poor attitude. In fact though it is our brains juggling things constantly to decide how we can survive in the moment and possibly thrive later on.
The more we make something seem like a big deal, the more brain power we use to assess it and the more our brains decide to help us avoid dealing with the whole the big deal. That is unless we can find a way to turn the challenge into a game, or a fun sounding adventure.
Surprisingly though, there is one very well researched technique that often helps to get us started – committing to only a simple, small sounding step.
Some examples are:
- Rather than committing to go to the gym, commit to put on your exercise clothes. After that it is likely to be easier to take the next step, and then the next (See “Atomic Habits”, by James Clear); and
- Rather than trying to get something right, start with a messy first attempt, or a Sh***y First Draft, according to Michael Bungay Stainer in “Getting Started“.
There is, of course, more to it and you can find out a lot more about the validated research if you read “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock or “Helping People Change“, by by Ellen Van Oosten, Melvin Smith, and Richard E. Boyatzis. But that sounds hard, so I recommend just finding a simple thing to do to get started.
The Pomodoro technique
A very effective way to get yourself to focus on learning and new habits is to commit to focus for a short burst of time, before taking a break. This is known as the Pomodoro technique and it is both simple and effective. You literally set a timer for 25 minutes and try to focus 100% on doing something. Then take a 5 minute break and repeat.
I use this for completing admin tasks (not a challenge but boring) and for learning new things. I also use it to blog, but I often find myself deciding not to take a break when I get into the zone when writing.
Increasing your awareness
One reason for not adopting new approaches or trying new things is that we are too busy to notice when we are going back to our old habits.
It is hard to pay attention all the time so I often write myself a “not todo” list for the day or a “try to do” list. A more effective way is to define when you will stop to pay attention and deliberately try a different, less comfortable approach using what I call habit cards. These are really just some thinking patterns I stole from some good coaching books, written on a card or in a notebook to help prompt your memory.