Learning: 5 ways to step out of your comfort zone
A new year can be a time to make plans, to look forward – we might think about opportunities we’d like to create, relationships we’d like to build or aspirations we’d like to make real. Equally, we may wish to consolidate or even hibernate!
I often reflect at the start of a year on what I’ve learned during the previous 12 months and then, on how to shape learning for the coming year. Learning is a huge motivator for me and I can’t imagine a time when I won’t seek out opportunities to grow and develop. Sometimes, the learning is experiential – there’s been a lot of that this year using Zoom, making videos and podcasts and other and developing new resources. Other times, it is learning through reading or sharing ideas with friends and colleagues (again, there’s been lots of that this year – thanks to everyone for the book recommendations and sometimes life-changing conversations!) or the learning might even be through structured workshops, programmes or coaching – formal or informal.
Learning as a way to wellbeing
One of the videos I created for #12DaysInDecember was around learning and particularly learning in relation to wellbeing. It draws on a time when I did learned something creative with my son. The Five Ways to Wellbeing explains that learning something new helps:
* boost our confidence and our self-esteem
* give us an opportunity to connect with others, which is vital to wellbeing
* develop ‘challenge and mastery’, both important in growing our resilience.
Pretty good reasons to engage in learning I’d say!
Levels of learning
Can you remember the last time you learnt a new skill? Maybe it was learning a language (we’re all signed up for Duolingo in our family!), a musical instrument, how to drive a car or how to use a new piece of software?
Once we recognise we would like to learning something new, we’ve moved from ‘unconsciously incompetent’ – we don’t know what we don’t know – to being ‘consciously incompetent’ – we now know we don’t know how to do it (yet – more about ‘yet’ later). As we begin to learn and persevere, we progress to feeling ‘consciously competent’ – we know we can perform the new skill at a cognitive level, which may take some effort and thought during the process. Finally, we become ‘unconsciously competent’, that is, able to perform the skill without necessarily being aware we’re doing it. For example, if you’re an experienced driver, contrast the times you arrive home in your car without thinking about the actual process of driving with the early days of learning to drive and the fear you might have felt as you consciously checked the mirror, signalled and manoeuvred.
Comfort, stretch, panic
Sometimes learning is driven by need – learning to drive might be a good example of this. Sometimes, the fear of learning, or of getting it wrong or of having to perform can be the reason people either avoid learning new things or have a strong ‘fight or flight’ reaction to it. Certainly, my friends who are teachers report this can be the case for some students if asked to have a go at something they perceive to be too difficult or challenging. For these students, learning is perceived as a threat and sends them into ‘panic’ mode, running away from the learning or becoming disruptive in lessons; the ‘fight or flight’ response in play.
You are probably familiar with the concept of comfort zones. I’ve included an illustration here.
What words come up for you when you think of your comfort zone – safe, comfortable, easy, stable? Or maybe bored, stagnant, low energy? In our comfort zone, all things are familiar and cosy – yet at the same time, there are no challenges and little reflection. Things tend to stay the same and are often unquestioned.
Now think of the words which arise when you consider the ‘panic zone’. Stressed, tired, anxious, fraught, overwhelmed? Learning is impossible here because all our energy is being used to control our fight, flight or freeze response. We struggle to think properly and make decisions and if we stay too long in this zone, we become burnt out or retreat to our comfort zone are reluctant to ever step out of it again.
So what about the stretch zone? What words do you think of now? Excited, challenged, possibilities, expectant? Or maybe concern, wariness or trepidation? The stretch zone is uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar, yet this is where the magic happens! It’s where learning takes place and where we grow and develop. Spending time in ‘stretch’ can expand our comfort zone as we become familiar with new skills, situations and knowledge and we develop competence; our comfort zone grows and we can allow ourselves to be ‘stretched’ towards things which may previously have felt like they were in ‘panic’.
And the more new things we try, even small things like finding a new walking route, trying new foods or learning a language online, can help us grow more generally.
The power of ‘yet’
Psychologist Professor Carol Dweck’s (2008) research identifies two distinct belief systems: fixed mindset and growth mindset. You can see a talk she gave about the Power of Yet by clicking on the picture here.
When we hold a fixed mindset, we believe we have very little control of our ability, for example, we may believe that some people are ‘naturally’ better than us at learning or language or getting to grips with computers! When we’re not able to perform a particular task, we can experience a sense of failure or inadequacy and criticism has a negative effect on our self-esteem.
A growth mindset on the other hand means recognizing that we all have the capacity to learn and develop. From this perspective, setbacks become opportunities for learning (Dweck, 1999) and our potential becomes unlimited.
A fixed mindset can keep us trapped in our comfort zone and a growth mindset can facilitate our transition into stretch, growth, development and wellbeing.
Ways to step out of comfort into learning
1. Reframe stress
What does stress mean to you? I’m guessing much of what you’ve identified has negative connotations?
Psychologists have identified that we all have a need for ‘eustress’ or ‘positive stress’, to do things like deliver a presentation, apply for a new job or go on a first date. Yet our tendency can be to assume that all stress is bad. If we consider the feelings of stress we might experience when stepping out of our comfort zone as negative, it can reduce our desire to take that step and exacerbate anxiety; conversely, re-framing these feelings as excitement and anticipation can give us the drive and motivation to step out of our comfort zone into a learning space which has a positive impact on our wellbeing, our potential and our confidence.
2. Start small
Where are your opportunities to invite manageable challenge into your routine? The smallest changes can help us move in a controlled way into our stretch or learning zone. I’ve started leaving my phone in another room while I’m asleep so I’m not drawn to look at it first thing. Maybe you could choose to slow down a little while on a walk, read a different genre of book or call a friend you’ve not spoken to in a while. The little things are cumulative and the more we invite in small challenges, the more able we are to deal with and indeed embrace the bigger ones when we need to.
3. Shift your limiting beliefs
What are you assuming which may be getting in the way of your taking on a new challenge or learning something new? Spending some time with this question might feel uncomfortable but when you dig deep you’re likely to unearth those entrenched beliefs which are blocking your way to stretch, learning and growth.
4. Be creative
Whether it’s writing a poem, working with clay or building a business, creativity can help us develop and nurture a growth mindset because when we do these things, they generally don’t happen first time; we have to re-do, evaluate, re-shape and start again and in doing so, we remove the need for a perfect outcome from the beginning.
5. Develop new skills
Creativity, confidence, resilience and a sense of achievement come from learning new skills. They can also increase our opportunities in our professional lives. Where are your opportunities to invest in your professional development this year? Will you sign-up for a formal course or workshop or will you work with a mentor or join a mastermind group?
Reflecting on learning
- As you reflect on your own learning throughout your life, who are the pivotal people of influence? What did you learn from them and how what was the impact then and now?
- How has your relationship with learning changed over the years?
- What is important about learning for you now?
- How will learning continue to influence your future?
- What is your next step?
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