Don’t you feel uncomfortable when you have to do things in a way you’re not used to? You might think, “Not really, I’m adaptable.”
But, look more closely. A big chunk of your day involves routines whether you realize it or not. Let’s take a few examples from a normal day in life.
The overall sequence of tasks for the first few hours once you wake up
- The route you take to the nearest store, even if you have another equidistant path
- The order in which you check your emails, bottom-up or top-down
- The choice of putting the right or left shoe first
Most of these patterns, if not all, are part of your life too. That’s because our body and mind put constant effort to reduce conscious thought for every little action. The brain makes a routine of repetitive tasks to expend as little energy as possible to get things done.
In this articles, we’ll explore different ideas to challenge yourself to keep improving.
The problems of routine
Routines are like a double-edged sword. On one side, they help you navigate through life without worrying about every minute detail. On the other side, they entrap you within a comfort zone that you hate breaking out of.
I am a culprit of such habits myself. Early in my career, when I was a programmer, I had learned one way of developing websites. For the next couple of years, I stuck to the same technique. My speed increased no doubt, but my level of knowledge flatlined. I knew I was learning nothing new, but I stuck to the approach because it was easy.
After realizing my mistake, I started learning the latest technologies, new algorithms, and different ways to finish similar projects. When I changed my methods, the results were apparent. I learned in 2 years what would otherwise take me 5 years using my old approach.
You have heard the adage, “What doesn’t challenge you won’t change you.” How often do you put that to practice? If you haven’t done that yet, it’s time you did.
7 unique ways to challenge yourself:
1. Goldilocks tasks
One of the most effective ways to continuously improve yourself is to implement things that make you “a little uncomfortable”. And you know what the best part is? You can apply the method to any skill, from sharpening your sales skills to gobbling burgers at record speed.
The name originates from the tale of the three bears and the little girl named Goldilocks. Long story short, she prefers the porridge which is neither too hot nor too cold, the one that has the right temperature.
Most people make the mistake of going from the lifestyle of a lazy pig to that of a busy bee. Instead, aim for incrementally challenging yourself.
For example, if you aim to work out an hour a day for 5 days a week when you have never exercised before, you only set yourself up for failure. When you aim for a massive goal but can’t keep up, you give up faster than you started.
Instead, if you set a goal of working out 30 minutes a day for 3 days a week, you have a much higher chance of meeting your fitness targets. Over time, you can increase the timing and the frequency of your workout.
Similarly, if you have struggled to save a penny in the last few years, do not target saving 2000$ a month. Start saving 10% of your salary by cutting extravagant expenses before you up the ante.
In principle, do not set a goal so easy that you do not feel any challenge. But, do not set a goal so difficult that you give up because of how hard it is. The sweet spot of setting goals is right in between where you need to challenge yourself in the right proportion.
2. Do what you’re uncomfortable with
I have read non-fiction books for a very long time. I was uncomfortable reading anything else, due to which I never attempted to explore other genres.
Recently, I tried fiction and I found valuable things to learn from its writing style.
Irrespective of what your core expertise is, you’ll hate certain aspects of it. Instead of living in the same silo forever, challenge yourself to attempt tasks that scare you.
- If you’re an entrepreneur who hates meeting customers in person, give it a shot
- If you’re an employee who takes leave when you have to make a presentation, make an attempt
You get the point. You do not have to turn into an expert, but exposing yourself to more experiences helps you develop your all-round skills and competence.
3. Involve yourself in different groups
If you’re an extrovert, you’ll mingle with different people like eating. I am an introvert and I prefer sticking to a smaller circle that I am comfortable with. While I have no concerns meeting new people, I take time to open up or strike a good conversation.
I have realized how much one has to gain by talking to people and hearing their experiences. Every person has something to teach you. If you involve yourself with a diverse group of people you’ll hear real-life stories, gain exposure, and widen your network.
I have started taking part in volunteer groups as suggested by Judy Robinett in her book, How to be a power connector. If you have never been in such groups, I recommend trying it out. Volunteering is one of the simplest ways to meet people of different cultures, age brackets, and professions.
4. Do what you fear
I am super scared of heights. By scared, I don’t mean the usual fear. I would feel uncomfortable peeking down a 5 storeyed building.
Over the years, I have tried overcoming that fear little by little.
Recently, I managed to muster the guts to walk through the sky-walk on the Dubai Frame, which is a transparent glass floor situated at a height of 150m. The weather was pleasant, but my t-shirt was soaked with sweat. It might seem easy to you, but for me it wasn’t.
Did I manage to get over my fear of heights? Absolutely not. But I am a little more comfortable(maybe as much as the space between the thumb and the index finger) with heights today.
Try to conquer your fear little by little, instead of forever shunning it. The US Navy Seals have a saying, “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” They recommend repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear until it bothers you lesser. The underlying rationale behind it is, if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable, you can handle any situation you face.
5. Ask for feedback
I have an interesting activity for you to convey the importance of feedback. List down or think of your top 3 strengths. It should hardly take you a minute or two.
Once you’re done, ask 2-3 of your well-known people what they think your strengths are. You can pick up the phone and call up your best friend, talk to your partner, or seek feedback from a coworker. If you can ask one person right now, go for it.
I can guarantee you that what people tell will significantly vary from your assumption.
Likewise, you can receive feedback about your weaknesses too. Do not wait for people to walk up to you and spit it out for you. When you seek feedback, you’ll receive way more input than you expect. If you keep an open mind and act on it, you’ll grow professionally and personally.
If the person knows you well and is qualified enough to provide you feedback, you can ask answers for these 3 questions:
- What are the things you must stop doing?
- What are the things you must continue doing?
- What are the things you must start doing?
Two important pointers when you ask for feedback:
- While seeking feedback on your field of expertise, don’t ask any random person. Misguided feedback causes more damage than good.
- Ask for feedback only if you plan to analyze and work on it. Hearing what others have to say and then doing the usual is no different than a mad king who pays no heed to his ministers.
6. Take the first step towards a goal you fear chasing
Somewhere in the back of your head and the bottom of your heart, you have a goal which you wish you could achieve, but you fear chasing it for some reason.
Take the first step, no matter how small it is, and see where it leads you. Once you gain momentum, you might keep pursuing it with utmost devotion.
I started this blog as a part of a bigger dream. A year and a half later, I am still chasing it and loving the experience. What started as a baby step of writing one article is now engraved into my daily routine.
7. Do the usual a new way
Are you doing things the same way without changing anything at all? If you can track over actions using a hidden overhead camera, you’d notice a pattern. On most days, you’ll do the exact same things in exact same sequence during different parts of the day.
For example, when you wake up, you pull out your phone underneath the pillow, check your notifications, before you head to the washroom to brush your teeth followed by pouring yourself a cup of coffee from the kitchen.
While that is only an example, you can spot routine in many of the jobs you do, both at the personal and professional front.
Make a conscious attempt to do things a new way. Here are a few examples:
- If you’re creating a daily report the same way, think of a different method
- If you do a weight-based workout, try a cardio-based routine for a month
- If you rely on Google maps to get from one place from another, try following the signboards.
Every time you challenge yourself to do things differently, new neurons in your brain form connections to get the task done. The more you put your brain to work, the sharper it gets.
Nature has designed your body and mind to resist change. But if you have to keep improving, you have to step out of the shackles of monotonicity. Sure, you need a routine to cultivate a pattern of good habits. But, at the same time, you also need to introduce a process to constantly challenge yourself.
If you stick to doing the things you do exactly the way you do it, you will stagnate in your career and personal life. Break some sweat and push yourself to get better. Nothing wonderful in life comes easy. The good things in life happen on the other side of the comfort zone.
You can live a mediocre life of convenience or get up and get going. The choice is yours.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.