Bursting out of the box

Tuesday, 01 April 2014
Stay too long in your comfort zone and you might find yourself stuck in a ‘comfort box’ that stops you learning new skills. Val Cox offers an escape route.

It’s human nature to adopt routines. If we didn’t carry out thousands of tasks automatically, we wouldn’t have enough brain power to think about anything else while brushing our teeth or walking. We like routines, because a little predictability helps us to feel more secure and comfortable.

There is another side to routine, however. We’re hardwired to learn new routines, even for relatively complex tasks, including activities that might benefit from conscious attention. They can involve physical tasks, such as driving, or mental tasks, such as how we think about particular areas of our lives.

Whenever you find yourself trying to avoid changing something, stop and ask yourself why you’re resisting...then consider whether your reason is realistic

Physical habits are visible externally, so, if you develop bad habits while driving, others can point them out – hopefully before you have an accident. Thinking habits are more difficult for someone else to identify and we all find it hard to see our own blind spots. Without a conscious effort, people tend to perceive fewer ways of thinking about or doing things as time goes by. The comfortable predictability becomes a comfort zone, which eventually becomes a comfortable box that we can’t see out of. Once you’ve learnt particular habits, good or bad, it’s difficult to unlearn them.

For example, most people can cope with learning how to use a new device or software, but IT professionals are constantly surprised by how users will cling on to old technology, no matter how much a new product will improve efficiency. Why do we do that? Because we don’t like having to unlearn, and then relearn, how to do tasks that we can currently do without much thought. It takes a conscious effort to ignore that temporary discomfort, even if you’re told that something new will enhance your work and save you time.

When someone’s built up a high level of competence in a particular skill and hasn’t had to do more than update their knowledge in that specialist subject for some time, it can be hard to go back to being a beginner at any other skill. No one likes the feeling of trying and failing, and competitive workplaces motivate us to avoid showing weakness.

People also fall into the ‘it’s too late to do that’ trap, or, in a CPD context, think: ‘It’s too late for me to pick up further qualifications.’ Different people will define ‘too late’ as anything from the age of 25 to 105, based on their own ideas of when learning ends. For those who choose a lower number, the routine thinking that creates that trap is usually an assumption that learning ends when you leave school, college or university. Fortunately, that isn’t the case for the majority of modern professionals. 

How can we free ourselves from repeating limiting thoughts? Whenever you find yourself trying to avoid changing something, stop and ask yourself why you’re resisting. Some of the common reasons given by people who don’t want to do something are:

  • I don’t have time;
  • it isn’t a priority right now;
  • my current method still works; and
  • I’m no good at learning about these things.

Once you’ve worked out what’s stopping you, consider whether your reason is realistic. For example, someone who loves the idea of playing the piano, but routinely says ‘I’m no good at learning how to play musical instruments’, may have tried a few lessons and decided they weren’t learning fast enough. Are they really no good at learning musical instruments? Or did they give up in frustration and then repeat that idea to themselves, until it became their default answer?

If you can train yourself into a new routine of questioning the responses you give automatically, you might find that you can see a broader range of options and opportunities. If you need a new skill and can overcome your discomfort, maybe you can ask a colleague to coach you through it. If you’re mentoring someone in your area of expertise, maybe they have skills in other areas that they could teach you in return. Some companies have even begun to ask junior staff to coach their managers in the use of social media tools, which must have involved some questioning of assumptions about staff roles.

For more ideas on how to coach yourself and others in opening up your thinking, the Alchemy Performance Assistant tool is available for members through the CPD Centre at www.step.org/cpd-resources. The ‘Questioning Skills’ and ‘Coaching Yourself’ resources address some of the issues described above.

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Val Cox

Val Cox is CPD Manager at STEP.

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