Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone
Do you ever feel that you're stuck in a rut? Most people get this feeling at some point in their working lives. When we fall into predictable routines and get too comfortable in our roles, we tend to "play it safe." We feel bored and less fulfilled, and we end up achieving only a fraction of what we're capable of.
This is why it's so important to push yourself regularly, and to try new things. Challenges, whether running a marathon or learning a new skill, can bring a sense of power and exhilaration. When challenged, we feel fully alive and engaged, because we're actively participating in life, and we're doing our best to achieve our full potential.
In this article, we'll look at why challenge is so important, and we'll explore how you can push yourself in all aspects of your life.
The Importance of Staying Challenged
Stop and think about what happens when you "rest on your laurels" and get too comfortable in your career.
Your knowledge and skills can stagnate, making you less competitive in the job market. You put less effort into spotting new opportunities or engaging in new ways of thinking, and you may "coast" at work. You might also become increasingly afraid of taking risks, or of doing anything that makes you uncomfortable or that undermines other people's good opinions of your reliability.
One of the problems with getting too comfortable is that it can affect your performance. When you're working on tasks that you're extremely familiar with, it can be tempting to do the bare minimum to get by. This can eventually have a negative impact on your reputation, your team, and even your career.
Doing new things can make you feel acutely uncomfortable – after all, you're putting yourself into unfamiliar situations, and you don't know how you'll perform. However, you grow as a human being when you step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself to pursue new opportunities, ideas, skills, and relationships.
Another benefit is improved performance. The Inverted-U Model shows that, when pressure is at the right level, people's performance increases. When you learn a new skill, or put yourself in an unusual situation, you can create an optimal level of pressure that pushes you to perform at your best.
More than this, challenging yourself gets easier the more you do it. It gives you the strength and flexibility to cope with unexpected changes, take risks, and overcome a fear of failure.
How to Challenge Yourself
Regularly challenging yourself is difficult, because it means that you have to be vulnerable. You must have the courage to accept uncertainty, risk and potential failure, which can be a tall order for some people.
However, it's important that you take the first step, and start with something small. Use the strategies below to challenge yourself, and to grow your knowledge and skills.
1. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
In his 2008 paper, "From Comfort Zone to Performance Management," Professor Alasdair White defines a "comfort zone" as a "behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk."
Most of us know when we're in our comfort zone. We experience it when there are tasks and routines that are so familiar, or that we're so good at, that we don't have to think twice about them.
By their nature, comfort zones are undemanding, and spending too much time in them means that you're not learning anything new. Greatness is never achieved inside a small circle of familiarity!
To step outside your comfort zone, first make a list of all the tasks and routines that you are familiar with, and try to identify common themes. Why are these tasks so comfortable for you? What skills or strengths do they rely on, that you may not be achieving the most with?
Next, write down the tasks that you know you should be doing but aren't, because they fall outside your comfort zone.
For instance, you might know that public speaking and networking are important for career advancement, but you don't pursue these opportunities because they make you feel uncomfortable. Or, you know you'd get more recognition if you applied to work on an upcoming project, but you're holding back because you're nervous about joining a new team.
Look closely at each of your tasks, and identify the excuses that you've been making to avoid them. Why are you afraid of this challenge? What benefits does this task offer you? What's the worst that could happen if you made the leap and gave it a try?
2. Set SMART Goals
Once you've identified a task that will challenge you personally or professionally, set a SMART goal to get started. The goal should be challenging, yet still achievable. If it doesn't make you feel a bit uncomfortable, then it's probably not challenging enough!
Next, break the goal up into smaller steps that you can work into your daily routine, or put on your To-Do List, so that you make meaningful progress every day.
For example, if you want to learn a foreign language, invest in an audio course that allows you to learn during your daily commute to and from work. Set a goal that you'll spend 30 minutes a day learning the language. To strengthen your commitment, you could also engage a tutor once a week to help you with your pronunciation.
Don't be afraid to customize this goal to fit your needs. For instance, imagine that your goal is to attend a networking event every week. Instead of focusing on talking to everyone in the room (which might fill you with so much anxiety that you decide not to go), focus on getting to know just one person really well. This is a smaller goal, but it's still challenging and meaningful.
Make sure that you work on your challenge every day, or several times a week, to stretch yourself and grow your confidence. You might need to develop persistence, make time for professional development, or break some bad habits to achieve your long-term goals.
3. Reimagine Routine Tasks
Many of the tasks that fall inside your comfort zone might be necessary parts of your role. Although you can't give them up, you can challenge yourself in new ways by rethinking how you do them.
Take a look at the tasks that you're regularly responsible for. How could you add some extra challenge to these? What could you do to put a bit of positive discomfort into your role?
For example, bring forward deadlines to add a bit more pressure to get things done. If you're in the habit of making quick decisions, slow down and take more time to consider your options. Ask your boss for a new project, or additional responsibilities. Or, find a mentor or coach within your organization who could help you make your role more challenging.
It's also important to look at the tasks that you frequently procrastinate over. Too often, we put off tasks that challenge us or make us uncomfortable. Instead of doing this, embrace them. Identify what you can learn, or what benefits you'll see, by completing them early.
Another way to challenge yourself is to develop a career strategy. This can help you clarify where you are and where you'd like to be, so that you can develop a plan to grow your skills and make progress.
Challenge is an important part of living a happy and fulfilled life. Without it, your knowledge and skills can stagnate, and you can stop growing personally and professionally. However, regularly challenging yourself can energize your life, lead to new opportunities, and help you live and work to your full potential.
To stay challenged in your role, make a list of the tasks, skills or experiences that you want to be involved in. Choose one or two of them, and set SMART goals that are achievable, yet still difficult. If the goal doesn't make you anxious or uncomfortable, it might not be challenging enough.
Add more challenge to your daily routine by reimagining the work that you do. Volunteer for new teams, give yourself tighter deadlines, or find a mentor who will push you to achieve more in your career.