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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]

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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Brian Lee

Chief of Product Management at Lifehack

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Last Updated on October 30, 2019

How the Stages of Change Model Helps You Change Your Habits

How the Stages of Change Model Helps You Change Your Habits

Change is tough, there’s no doubt about it. Old habits are hard to shift, and adopting a new lifestyle can feel like an uphill battle!

In this article, you will learn about a simple yet powerful model:

Stages of change model, that explains the science behind personal transformation.

You’ll discover how and why some changes stick whereas others don’t last, and how long it takes to build new habits.

What is the Stages of Change Model?

Developed by researchers J.O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente over 30 years ago[1] and outlined in their book Changing For Good, the Stages of Change Model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, was formed as a result of the authors’ research with smokers.

Prochaska and DiClemente were originally interested in the question of why some smokers were able to quit on their own, whereas others required professional help. Their key conclusion was that smokers (or anyone else with a bad habit) quits only when they are ready to do so.

Here’s an illustration done by cartoonist and illustrator Simon Kneebone about the different stages a smoker experiences when they try to quit smoking:

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    The Stages of Change Model looks at how these conscious decisions are made. It emphasizes that change isn’t easy. People can spend a long time stuck in a stage, and some may never reach their goals.[2]

    The model has been applied in the treatment of smoking, alcoholism, and drugs. It is also a useful way of thinking about any bad habit. Social workers, therapists, and psychologists draw on the model to understand their patients’ behaviors, and to explain the change process to the patients themselves.

    The key advantages to the model is that it is simple to understand, is backed by extensive research, and can be applied in many situations.

    The Stages of Change Model is a well-established psychological model that outlines six stages of personal change:

    1. Precontemplation
    2. Contemplation
    3. Determination
    4. Action
    5. Maintenance
    6. Termination

    How are these stages relevant to changing habits?

    To help you visualize the stages of change and how each progresses to the next one, please take a look at this wheel:[3]

      Let’s look at the six stages of change,[4] together with an example that will show you how the model works in practice:

      Stage 1: Precontemplation

      At this stage, an individual does not plan to make any positive changes in the next six months. This may because they are in denial about their problem, feel too overwhelmed to deal with it, or are too discouraged after multiple failed attempts to change.

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      For example, someone may be aware that they need to start exercising, but cannot find the motivation to do so. They might keep thinking about the last time they tried (and failed) to work out regularly. Only when they start to realize the advantages of making a change will they progress to the next stage.

      Stage 2: Contemplation

      At this stage, the individual starts to consider the advantages of changing. They start to acknowledge that altering their habits would probably benefit them, but they spend a lot of time thinking about the downside of doing so. This stage can last for a long time – possibly a year or more.

      You can think of this as the procrastinating stage. For example, an individual begins to seriously consider the benefits of regular exercise, but feels resistant when they think about the time and effort involved. When the person starts putting together a concrete plan for change, they move to the next stage.

      The key to moving from this stage to the next is the transformation of an abstract idea to a belief (e.g. from “Exercise is a good, sensible thing to do” to “I personally value exercise and need to do it.)[5]

      Stage 3: Preparation

      At this point, the person starts to put a plan in place. This stage is brief, lasting a few weeks. For example, they may book a session with a personal trainer and enrol on a nutrition course.

      Someone who drinks to excess may make an appointment with a drug and alcohol counsellor; someone with a tendency to overwork themselves might start planning ways to devise a more realistic schedule.

      Stage 4: Action

      When they have decided on a plan, the individual must then put it into action. This stage typically lasts for several months. In our example, the person would begin attending the gym regularly and overhauling their diet.

      Stage 4 is the stage at which the person’s desire for change becomes noticeable to family and friends. However, in truth, the change process began a long time ago. If someone you know seems to have suddenly changed their habits, it’s probably not so sudden after all! They will have progressed through Stages 1-3 first – you probably just didn’t know about it.

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      Stage 5: Maintenance

      After a few months in the Action stage, the individual will start to think about how they can maintain their changes, and make lifestyle adjustments accordingly. For instance, someone who has adopted the habit of regular workouts and a better diet will be vigilant against old triggers (such as eating junk food during a stressful time at work) and make a conscious decision to protect their new habits.

      Unless someone actively engages with Stage 5, their new habits are liable to come unstuck. Someone who has stuck to their new habits for many months – perhaps a year or longer – may enter Stage 6.

      Maintenance can be challenging because it entails coming up with a new set of habits to lock change in place. For instance, someone who is maintaining their new gym-going habit may have to start improving their budgeting skills in order to continue to afford their gym membership.

      Stage 6: Termination

      Not many people reach this stage, which is characterized by a complete commitment to the new habit and a certainty that they will never go back to their old ways. For example, someone may find it hard to imagine giving up their gym routine, and feel ill at the thought of eating junk food on a regular basis.

      However, for the majority of people, it’s normal to stay in the Maintenance period indefinitely. This is because it takes a long time for a new habit to become so automatic and natural that it sticks forever, with little effort. To use another example, an ex-smoker will often find it hard to resist the temptation to have “just one” cigarette even a year or so after quitting. It can take years for them to truly reach the Termination stage, at which point they are no more likely to smoke than a lifelong non-smoker.

      How long does each stage take?

      You should be aware that some people remain in the same stage for months or even years at a time. Understanding this model will help you be more patient with yourself when making a change. If you try to force yourself to jump from Contemplation to Maintenance, you’ll just end up frustrated. On the other hand, if you take a moment to assess where you are in the change process, you can adapt your approach.

      So if you need to make changes quickly and you are finding it hard to progress to the next stage, it’s probably time to get some professional help or adopt a new approach to forming habits.

      The limitations of this model

      The model is best applied when you decide in advance precisely what you want to achieve, and know exactly how you will measure it (e.g. number of times per week you go to the gym, or number of cigarettes smoked per day). Although the model has proven useful for many people, it does have limitations.

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      Require the ability to set a realistic goal

      For a start, there are no surefire ways of assessing whereabouts in the process you are – you just have to be honest with yourself and use your own judgement. Second, it assumes that you are physically capable of making a change, whereas in fact you might either need to adjust your goals or seek professional help.

      If your goal isn’t realistic, it doesn’t matter whether you follow the stages – you still won’t get results. You need to decide for yourself whether your aims are reasonable.[6]

      Difficult to judge your progress

      The model also assumes that you are able to objectively measure your own successes and failures, which may not always be the case.[7] For instance, let’s suppose that you are trying to get into the habit of counting calories as part of your weight-loss efforts. However, even though you may think that you are recording your intake properly, you might be over or under-estimating.

      Research shows that most people think they are getting enough exercise and eating well, but in actual fact aren’t as healthy as they believe. The model doesn’t take this possibility into account, meaning that you could believe yourself to be in the Action stage yet aren’t seeing results. Therefore, if you are serious about making changes, it may be best to get some expert advice so that you can be sure the changes you are making really will make a positive difference.

      Conclusion

      The Stages Of Change Model can be a wonderful way to understand change in both yourself and others.

      While there’re some limitations in it, the Stages of Change Model helps to visualize how you go through changes so you know what to expect when you’re trying to change a habit or make some great changes in life.

      Start by identifying one of your bad habits. Where are you in the process? What could you do next to move forwards?

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Psych Central: Stages Of Change
      [2] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [3] Empowering Change: Stages of Change
      [4] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [5] Psychology Today: 5 Steps To Changing Any Behavior
      [6] The Transtheoretical Model: Limitations Of The Transtheoretical Model
      [7] Health Education Research: Transtheoretical Model & Stages Of Change: A Critique

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