Ever pondered the question: If you could have dinner with a historical figure, who would it be? I have. The answer: I have not one person in mind but a LIST. Oh yeah, another List. (For my fascination with lists please see some of my other posts –Overthinking, One more thing). Today, from that list, I choose Gregor Mendel. To share his lessons on How to get outside your comfort zone.
Gregor Johann Mendel
Gregor Mendel was born in 1822 in Austria and raised in a rural setting in a family with limited means. To avoid working at the family farm, where he saw no future, he chose to join a monastery as a priest where he had to tend to the sick and dying. This made him quite ill and so he became a substitute teacher instead. He later applied for a credentialed teaching position at the monastery but failed the exam, twice, since he found the oral part of the exam nerve-wracking. He continued working at the monastery taking on administrative duties which included spending a lot of time in the botanical gardens breeding fuchsias and pea plants.
Among other things, the monastery depended on Merino wool from its sheep for revenues. Worried about competition from Australia, the Abbot at the monastery encouraged Mendel to look at animal hybrids/crossbreeding for answers. Mendel opted to create hybrid edible Pea plants.
He would grow peas, count peas, observe, take notes and change one variable at a time in the growing process. If you wonder why, despite knowing this, I’m still keen to dine with him, keep reading!
Father of Modern Genetics
Mendel cultivated thousands of pea plants over the course of many years, using paintbrushes to transfer pollen from plant to the other to observe the effects of crossbreeding. Ultimately, he published his work in 1862, although it largely went unnoticed.
What Mendel discovered during this time were the laws of inheritance. He showed us how genetic traits, dominant and recessive, get transmitted in families. The Mendelian theories of inheritance explain why, despite tugging at the bridge of my nose for ten years when I was young, I still don’t have a sharp nose because I simply did not inherit that trait. It wasn’t years until after his death that Mendel got the recognition he deserved. He is called the Father of Modern Genetics. And for good reason.
Lesson in courage and Grit
So, how is this story relevant to us today? It is a lesson in Grit and how to get outside your comfort zone. Mendel wanted to be a teacher but ended up making one of the largest scientific discoveries through what he termed “some courage”. So, this is would have been my dinner interview topic with him. But I’m about 200 years behind. Since he’s not available, I figured I’ll engage with you instead.
Comfort zones and why we need to step out of them
A comfort zone is a situation in which you feel comfortable and don’t have to do anything difficult. For some, it’s their secure job, for others it’s their perceived physical limitations regarding diet or exercise, for some others it’s bland relationships. It is so easy to fall in to the trap of staying put in our comfort zones. But the magic happens, when you step outside this bubble. Not too far to make you miserable but at least enough to shake you up and awaken you from the eyes-wide-open slumber state that we all are in when within our comfort zones.
Whoever said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” had a point. (Note: No, Einstein did not say this). This is a classic case of being stuck in the comfort zone.
Earlier this year, I had posted about habit formation and how I wanted to close the 3 rings on my Apple watch activity tracker for at least 30 days. Check this link for the post – Habit formation. I was pretty stoked when I got to 90 days instead of the 30, I originally aimed for.
This week, I got to 150 days. Closed all 3 rings for 150 consecutive days. Not bad, huh? Doing anything for 150 consecutive days (other than eating and sleeping) is cause for celebration. Of course, I had luck on my side. Not sidelined due to injury or ill health or terrible weather. Still. The takeaway from this for me is the lesson on how to get outside your comfort zone.
Resistance to change
Was it easy? Believe me when I say that on MOST days, one or more of these random thoughts popped into my head as I laced up for my daily run.
- There are far more important things to do than wasting time going out for run
- C’mon you don’t need to run 5 miles to stay active, a 30 min session 3x week will do.
- Who are you trying to impress?
- Running daily is bad for your knees
- Remember the 15+ mile runs you used to run last year? These 5 are simply junk miles not worth your time. Save up and run 15 later.
- Remember super fit Kelly who has never run a single day in her life?
- Nutrition is far more important than running, so you should focus on not eating the donut in the break room instead. Far easier and more efficient!
- It’s windy/cold/dark outside
Droning on and on. Like a creative yet angry voice that won’t shut up. Each argument on its own seemed completely rational and probably has an element of truth to it. But, context matters. The same argument would be flipped on its head when faced with a different situation. I can justify a donut in the break room with the promise of a 5-mile run later.
So, no it wasn’t easy. But I persisted because I learnt something about the brain and human behavior. Are you thinking – uh, oh here she goes again with her science lesson? Too right!
We all experience some form of the incessant chatter, as described above, especially as we embark on uncomfortable tasks. This is really your brain trying to stop you from venturing out of your comfort zone. Evolutionarily, we are built to conserve.
Since the brain likes to conserve energy by not being on high-alert at all times, it tries to dissuade us from being in “perceived” uncomfortable situations. So, your well-evolved brain (yes, YOUR well-evolved brain) is trying to keep you safe, in conservation mode, and is resistant to change.
Comfort zone behaviors occur within the basal ganglia of the brain. With a behavior that is “automatic” you disengage the ‘learning brain’ also known as the Prefrontal cortex (PFC) from being an active participant. The PFC is part of the neocortex (aka new cortex, meaning, evolutionarily, the most recent part of the brain that has developed) and is the seat of executive function. This area of the brain is involved in what we generally attribute to ‘intelligence’ and is involved in learning new skills, planning, memorizing, thinking, reasoning, impulse control etc.
Turning discomfort into comfort
Think back to when you learnt a new skill, such as driving. The effort, the attention, the focus/fear etc. are all telltale signs of an actively functioning PFC. With repetition of the skill through practice, you gain enough mastery and attention. At this point, you free up the PFC to focus on other new activity or skills to learn.
Consider these situations:
- Your first time driving to a new job in a part of the city you are very unfamiliar with
- Driving to the same location 5 years later. (Advance sympathies if that job isn’t fun enough – 5 years is a long time!).
In Situation 1, you were hyper-focused on following your GPS instructions as you drove to work. You ignored your sister’s congratulatory phone call in the car morning of your drive. That’s your PFC at work involved in thinking, learning, decision-making.
Five years later (Situation 2), as you start the ignition, you simultaneously start a secondary task, a Bluetooth-enabled conversation with your friend. You drive all the way and pull in to the parking lot at work, pretty much on autopilot, while still on the phone. The PFC, here, was involved in the phone call this time, not the driving. The Basal Ganglia directed your driving. (See Footnote 1).
Situation 1 is outside your comfort zone but with enough practice it BECOMES your comfort zone (Situation 2).
How to get outside your comfort zone?
Based on my experience, I have narrowed this down to an easy 5-point plan.
1. Be intrinsically motivated
First, when you pick a task or habit that requires you to go beyond your comfort zone, make sure it’s one YOU want to truly excel at. Not something forced on you, or because someone else thinks it’s a good idea. Intrinsic motivation really helps.
2. Plan, plan, plan in advance
Remove any last-minute decision making to avoid self-sabotage. For instance, when I have a morning run, I take 5 minutes the night before to plan the distance, route, time, clothes I’m going to run in and what music or audio book I want to listen to. When it’s go-time, just GO. Every second you linger, gives your brain a chance to argue with you. When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
3. Schedule early and consistently
See my previous post on Habit formation for more information. It’s important to be consistent. This is the only way you develop a new normal.
4. Make it non-negotiable
Tell yourself that if you only did one thing in a day, it would be this task or activity. I certainly have days when I wake up with a serious case of the blahs. I tell myself I could spend the day on the couch if I only managed to get my run in for the day. As it turns out, after I run, I somehow find energy to do other things on my list.
5. 10% rule
This one is a game changer. Gradually, increase your activity level by a little bit until it becomes the new normal. Then again by the same amount. Keep doing this until you get to where you’d like to be. Hold your plank for an extra 10 seconds. Or read an additional 10 pages of your book. Or wake up 10 minutes earlier than you planned. This is the Goldilocks rule for effective change, in my opinion. The change is not large enough for your brain to shut you down in protest but significant enough over time to make a difference in your life.
Mendel started with his experiments with a handful of plants and at some point, the sample size for his work was around 30,000 plants. Working with paintbrushes is the opposite of being in the comfort zone.
When you step outside your comfort zone in one area of life, it has this innate ability to influence other areas as well. You just become a better person overall, not simply in terms of achieving more but BECOMING more. That’s usually how it is. No good deed goes unpunished.
PS: 1. On a side note, this is why multi-tasking while driving is not recommended because you have effectively switched off your decision-making brain from influencing your driving. Not a good place to be if anything untoward happens on the road!