We all have our own personal comfort zone…our safe place where we feel balanced, content, relaxed in control…a place where we know what to do and how to do it.  However nice our comfort zone might feel, it turns out that our comfort zone can easily lull us into stagnation, mediocrity and obscurity.

According to a longstanding, renowned study done on stress at Harvard in 1908, no discomfort leads to no growth, no motivation and no fighting spirit. And, according to this Harvard study, there is a science to experiencing “…the right amount of struggle to achieve the right amount of growth.”

The right amount of struggle/stress turns out to be a state of optimal anxiety, a heightened level of energy and awareness needed to take on challenges.  This sweet spot of being just outside our respective comfort zone is where performance improves.

Here are ways to reach your state of optimal anxiety:

  1.  Choose areas/topics/skills that are 50% familiar…areas in which you have enough context and background to understand the basics and enough unknown to stimulate focus, motivation, energy levels and learning.
  2. Break the “new” unknowns into baby small steps.Practice each step every day and then progress to the next step.  The benefits to small, steady, progressive practicing a new unknown are a) you’ll be much less overwhelmed having to learn a small, specific step than having to learn an entire, huge, whole unknown thing, b) you’ll actually know that you’re learning a new piece of unknown content, c) the more you practice daily the more you’ll be able to expect from yourself every day.
  3. Make the learning process a continuous process.  Practice and learn a new section, new page, new chapter every day on a gradual, progressive basis.
  4. Write down what worries you during the process.  Whenever any of us steps outside of our comfort zone, we protect ourselves by giving ourselves many things to worry and obsess about.  Write down all those things, all those worries as you go through your day.  And as you go through your day, you’ll realize that most of the things that worried you didn’t happen.
  5. Keep track of each and every tiny achievement every day.  Write down those achievements.  Recognize them for what they are — accomplishments, and then reward yourself in some way for those accomplishments.  Giving yourself a pat on the back does wonders for your psyche and your neurotransmitters; that pat on the back will give you the pride your accomplishment earned as well as the motivation you need to move forward.
  6. Make sure you give yourself room to grow…every day.  In the book Life Beyond the End of Your Comfort Zone, author Neale Donald Walsh encourages his readers to translate the fear of the unknown into the opportunity you need to break what you need to learn and know into accessible steps.  Courage is about facing your fears, not about having them.