Advertising
Advertising

The Science behind Relentless Breakthroughs

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]

Advertising

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

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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

Advertising

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

Reference

More by this author

Brian Lee

Chief of Product Management at Lifehack

I’m Feeling Bored: 10 Ways to Conquer Boredom (and Busyness) How to Set Ambitious Career Goals (With Examples) Dismissing Sadness Will End up Making You Sadder How To Protect Your Focus From Being “Robbed” By Notifications and Social Media Why We Say What We Won’t Do (but Still Say It Anyway)

Trending in Psychology

1 20 Amazing Facts About Dreams that You Might Not Know About 2 11 Essential Philosophy Books That Will Open Your Mind 3 4 Simple Ways to Make Boring Work Become Interesting 4 How to Detect a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing 5 How to Be Happy: Why Pursuing Happiness Will Make You Unhappy

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on February 11, 2021

20 Amazing Facts About Dreams that You Might Not Know About

20 Amazing Facts About Dreams that You Might Not Know About

Dreams — Mysterious, bewildering, eye-opening and sometimes a nightmarish living hell. Dreams are all that and much more.

Here are 20 amazing facts about dreams that you might have never heard about:

Fact #1: You can’t read while dreaming, or tell the time

    If you are unsure whether you are dreaming or not, try reading something. The vast majority of people are incapable of reading in their dreams.

    The same goes for clocks: each time you look at a clock it will tell a different time and the hands on the clock won’t appear to be moving as reported by lucid dreamers.

    Fact #2: Lucid dreaming

    There is a whole subculture of people practicing what is called lucid or conscious dreaming. Using various techniques, these people have supposedly learned to assume control of their dreams and do amazing things like flying, passing through walls, and traveling to different dimensions or even back in time.

    Want to learn how to control your dreams? You can try these tips:

    Advertising

    Lucid Dreaming: This Is How You Can Control Your Dreams

    Fact #3: Inventions inspired by dreams

    Dreams are responsible for many of the greatest inventions of mankind. A few examples include:

    • The idea for Google -Larry Page
    • Alternating current generator -Tesla
    • DNA’s double helix spiral form -James Watson
    • The sewing machine -Elias Howe
    • Periodic table -Dimitri Mendeleyev

    …and many, many more.

    Fact #4: Premonition dreams

    There are some astounding cases where people actually dreamt about things which happened to them later, in the exact same ways they dreamed about.

    You could say they got a glimpse of the future, or it might have just been coincidence. The fact remains that this is some seriously interesting and bizarre phenomena. Some of the most famous premonition dreams include:

    • Abraham Lincoln dreamt of His Assassination
    • Many of the victims of 9/11 had dreams warning them about the catastrophe
    • Mark Twain’s dream of his brother’s demise
    • 19 verified precognitive dreams about the Titanic catastrophe

    Fact #5: Sleep paralysis

    Hell is real and it is called sleep paralysis. It’s the stuff of true nightmares. I’ve been a sleep paralysis sufferer as a kid and I can attest to how truly horrible it is.

    Two characteristics of sleep paralysis are the inability to move (hence paralysis) and a sense of an extremely evil presence in the room with you. It doesn’t feel like a dream, but 100% real. Studies show that during an attack, sleep paralysis sufferers show an overwhelming amygdala activity. The amygdala is responsible for the “fight or flight” instinct and the emotions of fear, terror and anxiety. Enough said!

    Advertising

    Fact #6: REM sleep disorder

    In the state of REM (rapid-eye-movement) stage of your sleep your body is normally paralyzed. In rare cases, however, people act out their dreams. These have resulted in broken arms, legs, broken furniture, and in at least one reported case, a house burnt down.

    Fact #7: Sexual dreams

    The very scientifically-named “nocturnal penile tumescence” is a very well documented phenomena. In laymen’s term, it simply means that you get a stiffy while you sleep. Actually, studies indicate that men get up to 20 erections per dream.

    Fact #8: Unbelievable sleepwalkers

      Sleepwalking is a very rare and potentially dangerous sleep disorder. It is an extreme form of REM sleep disorder, and these people don’t just act out their dreams, but go on real adventures at night.

      Lee Hadwin is a nurse by profession, but in his dreams he is an artist. Literally. He “sleepdraws” gorgeous portraits, of which he has no recollection afterwards. Strange sleepwalking “adventures” include:

      • A woman having sex with strangers while sleepwalking
      • A man who drove 22 miles and killed his cousin while sleepwalking
      • A sleepwalker who walked out of the window from the third floor, and barely survived

      Fact #9: Dream drug

      There are actually people who like dreaming and dreams so much that they never want to wake up. They want to continue on dreaming even during the day, so they take an illegal and extremely potent hallucinogenic drug called Dimethyltryptamine. It is actually only an isolated and synthetic form of the chemical our brains produce naturally during dreaming.

      Fact #10 Dream-catcher

      Advertising

        The dream-catcher is one of the most well-known Native American symbols. It is a loose web or webs woven around a hoop and decorated with sacred objects meant to protect against nightmares.

        Fact #11: Increased brain activity

        You would associate sleeping with peace and quiet, but actually our brains are more active during sleep than during the day.

        Fact #12: Creativity and dreams

        As we mentioned before, dreams are responsible for inventions, great artworks and are generally just incredibly interesting. They are also “recharging” our creativity.

        Scientists also say that keeping a dream diary helps with creativity.

        In rare cases of REM disorder, people actually don’t dream at all. These people suffer from significantly decreased creativity and perform badly at tasks requiring creative problem solving.

        Fact #13: Pets dream too

          Our animal companions dream as well. Watch a dog or a cat sleep and you can see that they are moving their paws and making noises like they were chasing something. Go get ’em buddy!

          Advertising

          Fact #14: You always dream—you just don’t remember it

          Many people claim that they don’t dream at all, but that’s not true: we all dream, but up to 60% of people don’t remember their dreams at all.

          Fact #15: Blind people dream too

          Blind people who were not born blind see images in their dreams but people who were born blind don’t see anything at all. They still dream, and their dreams are just as intense and interesting, but they involve the other senses beside sight.

          Fact #16: In your dreams, you only see faces that you already know

            It is proven that in dreams, we can only see faces that we have seen in real life before. So beware: that scary-looking old lady next to you on the bus might as well be in your next nightmare.

            Fact #17: Dreams tend to be negative

            Surprisingly, dreams are more often negative than positive. The three most widely reported emotions felt during dreaming are anger, sadness and fear.

            Fact #18: Multiple dreams per night

            You can have up to seven different dreams per night depending on how many REM cycles you have. We only dream during the REM period of sleep, and the average person dreams one to two hours every night.

            Fact #19: Gender differences

            Interestingly, 70% of all the characters in a man’s dream are other men, but women’s dream contain an equal amount of women and men. Also men’s dreams contain a lot more aggression. Both women and men dream about sexual themes equally often.

            Advertising

            Fact #20: Not everyone dreams in color

            As much as 12% of people only dream in black and white.

            Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

            Read Next