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The Science behind Relentless Breakthroughs
Life isn’t supposed to be comfortable all the time. While most of us crave a degree of stability, a life without challenges robs you of your fighting spirit and motivation.
Without discomfort, there can be no growth. In a rapidly-changing world, stagnation is the first step towards obscurity and mediocrity. There’s a science behind experiencing the right amount of struggle to spur growth.
The best state: optimal anxiety
Your comfort zone exists so that you have a safe space from which to operate most of the time. In your comfort zone, you know what to do and how to behave, and there are routines and patterns that you follow to reduce stress. People in their comfort zone are generally happier than those who live in a state of heightened anxiety most of the time.
Clearly, stability is something to aspire to, but if things are too comfortable, people tend to become complacent. They may not work as hard to achieve their goals, and they may even lose their ambition altogether.
If you can reach a state of optimal anxiety, then you can enjoy some time in your comfort zone while still feeling pressure to succeed. Optimal anxiety allows you to experience the burst of energy and heightened state of awareness that you need to take on a challenge.
The Harvard experiment on stress levels
We’ve known this for over a century. In 1908, two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, sought to explain different levels of performance. People in a state of comfort could often maintain a steady performance level, but those with high-stress levels experienced decreased productivity. People who wanted to experience growth had to endure some anxiety.1
When our stress levels elevate slightly, we enter into a state of optimal anxiety. This sweet spot, just outside of our comfort zone, is the place where we can improve our performance and make greater gains in our work.
How to reach a state of optimal anxiety
Choose things that are 50% familiar to you
Things that are too commonplace, and things that are way beyond your current understanding won’t keep your attention. Without a doubt, your eyes have glazed over as you listened to someone give a technical lecture on a subject with which you are unfamiliar. You’d be equally disinterested listening to someone repeat the same story over and over. When something is 50% familiar and 50% new, it is more likely to keep you interested.
Educators think about striking this balance between familiar and novel all the time. Developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, calls this area in which we are challenged to learn but not overwhelmed as the “Zone of Proximal Development.”2 In the Zone of Proximal Development, you have enough context to understand the basics, but you also have room to grow.
Think about when you had to learn math in elementary school. If your teachers tried to teach you trigonometry in pre-school, you would not have been successful. Trigonometry is too difficult to complete without understanding basic math concepts first. It is more likely that they taught you the words and symbols associated with numbers and left the discussion of trig for your high school years.
Break things into baby steps
You might wonder how you’ll ever learn anything if you are stuck choosing things that are about 50% familiar to you because there are a lot of things that you don’t know. True, when you are trying to learn things, there are more unknowns than knowns, but narrowing the scope of your question can help.
Writers encounter this overwhelm all the time. Imagine that you want to write a book, but you’ve never written before. The concept of writing a book is so foreign that you may not even know where to begin. There’s a lot that you don’t know, and it’s going to obstruct your ability to see what you do know.
If you’ve hardly written more than a few paragraphs since high school, it is unreasonable to think that you can accomplish the Herculean task of writing a book without some steps in between. Break it down by focusing on writing one paragraph, a chapter, or a page. The more you practice, the more you can expect from yourself each day.
Make it a continuous process: Scare yourself every day
Learning must be gradual and continuous. Choose something that exists just outside of your comfort zone every day, and work to understand it. Whatever that unfamiliar thing is, keep breaking it down until you find something you are 50% familiar with. At that point, you can work to tackle the project.
Perhaps you want to be able to host a group of friends at your home for dinner, but you are afraid you’ll ruin their evening. Instead of embarassing yourself or causing too much stress by inviting over ten of your best friends, break the task down into smaller steps.
Start by trying out the recipes you want to make for your friends. Chances are, you already have some idea about how to cook, and you just need to build confidence and experiment with cooking times and menus. Then, practice by having one or two of your closest friends over. When you feel good about this step, you could invite others over for a dinner party.
People have to tackle big goals all the time. Learning to drive a car, understanding a complex concept in school, and giving speeches can all be accomplished by breaking the goal into smaller steps.
Mark down your worries during the process and review them later
When you’re stepping out of your comfort zone, your brain is going to try to protect you by giving you lots of things to worry about. The torrent of “what ifs” can hold you back from making real progress.
Instead of letting those thoughts own you, write them down. After you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone for the day, review what you wrote. You’ll find that most of the things you worried about didn’t happen. In the future, you’ll be able to recognize that most of your fears are unfounded.
Keep track of your tiny achievements every day
Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to achieve the end result that we forget to recognize the small accomplishments we make every day. Any accomplishment–regardless of how great or small it is–activates the reward centers in our brains.
If your goal is to exercise five days per week, keep track of your work outs every day. When you see how much you’re doing, it can motivate you to do more. When work seems so overwhelming that you are prone to procrastination, try taking note of each time you begin a project early instead of waiting until the deadline.
Every time you catalog a success, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine.3 Dopamine triggers that feeling of achievement and pride and energizes us to keep moving forward with our goals. Since your brain loves to be rewarded with a hit of dopamine, it will motivate you to replicate your actions.
Make room to grow every day
Busting out of your comfort zone is more than just a means to achieve your dreams. Finding your optimal level of anxiety affects everything from the amount of motivation that you feel to the neurotransmitters in your brain. A fear of the unknown is just an opportunity to break what you need to learn into accessible steps.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Neale Donald Walsch
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