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Turtle hiding in its shell

This is a guest post by Jess Whittlestone, a behavioral scientist at Warwick Business School. She also helps run and blogs for 80,000 Hours. We’re delighted by her lifehacking spirit and proud to have her sharing her thoughts here on increasing her own awesomeness (with Beeminder!). This post is crossposted on Jess’s blog.

Recently, I’ve been trying to get myself out of my comfort zone more often. I’ve been finding it… uncomfortable.

One thing I’ve been trying to do is talk to strangers more frequently. I genuinely want to get better at this. I think it will make me more comfortable socially as well as being a valuable skill generally. But every time I think about approaching a stranger in the street, my brain starts coming up with reasons that it’s a bad idea.

It struck me that this problem is an instance of akrasia. Stepping outside of my comfort zone might be beneficial in the long run, but there’s a short-term cost: being uncomfortable. What do I do to overcome akrasia? I use Beeminder!

There are a number of different reasons that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is so difficult, and I think Beeminder is well designed to help with many of these. Here’s some of what I’ve learnt so far about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and how Beeminder can help:

Make your goals concrete

“Part of the problem is that ‘getting outside of your comfort zone’ is just way too vague a goal — it’s not an action you can complete straight away.”

It’s all too easy to say you want to get outside of your comfort zone more often, but never follow through with it. I know that I’ve done this plenty of times in the past. Part of the problem here is that “getting outside your comfort zone” is just way too vague a goal. It’s not an action you can take right away. If your goals aren’t actionable, they’ll never get done — because you’ll never start. If you want to achieve any goal — uncomfortable or not — you first need to break it down into concrete tasks, with clear conditions for success.

Beeminder forces you to do this. If you want to beemind doing things outside of your comfort zone, you need to have a clear sense of which actions count and which don’t. These can be however big or small — you might have a goal of talking to a stranger a certain number of times per week, or going to a certain number of new things every month, for example. The important thing is making it concrete.

Progress isn’t an excuse to slack off

After a few months of trying to do more things outside of my comfort zone, I realised I had a problem: although I was pushing myself to do challenging things, I didn’t actually feel like I was getting much more comfortable with anything. I think it was because I was only doing any given thing once, and then moving on to a new challenge. Without repeated exposure, my confidence in doing any particular thing wasn’t increasing.

One thing I’d been finding uncomfortable was going into the free weights room in the gym. My problem wasn’t motivating myself to exercise but that, as a fairly petite girl, I felt intimidated going into a room packed with sweaty, muscular men. So I avoided it. One day I managed to overcome this discomfort and just go in there, which felt like a great achievement. But the next time I went to the gym I found myself thinking “well, you went in there last time — maybe it’s ok to let yourself off this time.” It was weeks before I went in again.

I realised that I was essentially using my success as an excuse to slack off. As a result, I wasn’t getting much closer to my real goal of being comfortable in the free weights room.

Of course, breaks and rewards when you make progress towards a goal can be incredibly beneficial. But it’s easy to slip into slacking off, which isn’t helpful. Having a clear goal with a yellow brick road leading towards it is a great way to avoid this. If you make progress and get yourself above the road, you can reward yourself with some time off — but this reward period is limited. Soon you’ll be under pressure to get going again. So if you talk to a stranger today, maybe you can chill out tomorrow — but you’ll have to talk to someone again the next day.

Notice yourself making excuses

Sometimes I’d tell myself I was going to do something outside of my comfort zone, but when it came down to it I’d manage to come up with a whole load of excuses to put it off. It took me a couple of tries to actually go to a Toastmasters meetup, for example. The problem, I realised, was telling the difference between good reasons not to do something — like serious illness — and mere excuses.

“Do you feel ill enough that you’d rather pay $5 than have to go out and socialise with people you don’t know?”

One solution to this is to precommit to only being able to back out in exceptional circumstances. If you think about what a valid excuse is in advance, then you can’t just weasel your way out at the last minute. If you need ultimate precommitment (so that only a doctor’s note or similar will suffice), Beeminder lets you do this with the “weasel-proof me” check-box. Having money at stake also helps a lot, because it provides a way to value your excuses. Ok, you feel ill — do you feel ill enough that you’d rather pay $5 than have to go out and socialise with people you don’t know?

Sometimes having money on the line just makes things simpler, too — especially if it’s a lot of money. If you’re going to lose $100 if you fail to do something, you basically leave yourself with very little choice — which means no agonising over whether your excuses are good ones. In a way, I find this can sometimes feel quite liberating. Often the worst part of doing something uncomfortable is agonising with yourself about whether to do it or not. When you have to do something — whether you’ve created this situation artificially for yourself or not — it sometimes makes it easier.

Commit to specific people

One of the most useful motivational hacks I’ve found is committing to a specific person to do a specific thing. If you know you’ve got someone personally holding you accountable, it’s much harder to weasel out.

One thing that was on my list of comfort zone challenges right from the start was going and having dinner in a restaurant alone. For me, there’s something highly uncomfortable about doing things that would normally be done with other people, alone. I’d probably never have done it if I hadn’t committed to a friend to do it by a certain date. But like pledging money, this commitment made it much easier, by turning a choice into something I just had to do. And I actually quite enjoyed it in the end!

Beeminder’s new Supporters feature means you can make yourself accountable to your friends and family as well as the Beeminder Bot. I think this helps a lot. I feel much worse derailing on my goals if I know someone else is going to find out too.

Take gradual steps

One of the best known ways to overcome fear is using exposure therapy: start by doing something that scares you just a tiny bit, and work up from there. Rather than jumping into the deep end, taking small steps seems to work because each stage is doable, but you still gradually progress towards your goal.

I’ve found this kind of approach really helpful for expanding my comfort zone. I’ll start with something that makes me just slightly uncomfortable, but is totally doable: smiling at a stranger, say. Once that becomes easy, I’ll move on to something a bit harder, like striking up a conversation.

Beeminder provides a really nice way to track and visualise a graded exposure approach. I set a goal for talking to strangers, but with the condition that each datapoint had to correspond to a slightly harder challenge than the last, which helped ensure I actually did keep pushing myself.

Don’t forget to ask why

Sometimes you’ll derail. I actually derailed on the goal I just mentioned: my talking to strangers goal. At first, I felt really discouraged and despondent. But when I talked to a friend about my failure, he asked me why I thought I’d struggled. And it suddenly struck me that I didn’t really know, but that it was an important question for me to answer.

Derailing on a Beeminder goal is really useful feedback. It’s an opportunity to ask why: why did I fail to do what I set out to do? Is it just because the pledge I had wasn’t motivating enough? If so, you can start again. But it might also be that there’s a stronger underlying reason that you don’t want to do the thing.

Asking “why” seems especially important when it comes to pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. A lot of the discomfort we feel holds us back. But sometimes, your comfort zone is there for a reason — embarrassing yourself publicly on a regular basis might well end up having negative consequences! You don’t want to just keep pushing through your discomfort without thinking about why it might be there.

To summarise: I think that pushing yourself to do things outside of your comfort zone can be a really valuable activity. But it’s not easy, for similar reasons as why eating healthily or exercising regularly isn’t easy. Beeminder is a really great tool for helping to make comfort zone expansion easier, because it helps you to:

  • Be really specific about what you want to achieve
  • Reward yourself for making progress, without allowing you to slip off track
  • Prevent last-minute excuses
  • Make yourself accountable to specific people
  • Start small, and progress to bigger challenges
  • Think about why you really find something uncomfortable.

I’m still experimenting with this myself, so if anyone else tries using Beeminder for these kinds of challenges, I’d be really interested to hear how you find it!


Image credit: All over the interwebs.