Getting out of the comfortable rut

I love dresses with pockets. To me, pockets in dresses feel like a safe haven- as cozy as my Dad's hugs, and as homey as a hot rice porridge on a Christmas morning. There's something so comforting about having the option to place your two hands inside your dress when you're feeling cold, shy, or a little bit unsure.

We love to be comfortable. This is why people willingly break the bank for business class seats, memory foam mattresses, and ergonomic office chairs. It's our constant search for ease that has led man to invent things like glamping, grocery delivery apps, and uhm, Crocs. 

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While I too, am a big fan of comfort (one of my measures for success was being able to buy 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets without guilt), I have come to learn that too much of it in certain aspects of your life could lead to stagnation. Studies on Neuroplasticity say that our brain is like a muscle- it gets bigger and stronger the more you expose it to challenges. At the same time, brains that are too comfortable and do not get enough 'exercise' miss out on improving their mental cognition, and strengthening their brain's mental functions like memory.

This September, Mano Amiga Philippines will turn ten years old. This means that I've had the same job for over a decade. While the constant challenge of running a nonprofit school has gifted me with valuable life skills like grit, resourcefulness, and resilience, I must admit that there were times during those ten years when parts of my work came a little too easy, and had slowed down my rate of learning. 

According to Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, while comfort leads to a steady state of performance, a healthy amount of stress is actually needed for a person to do his best work. This explains why sometimes, cramming leads to amazing results. The external stimuli help push the person to an optimal state of productivity.

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This doesn't mean that being in your comfort zone, or the state where risk and stress is at a low level, is bad. It just tells us that staying in it for too long stunts our growth so we should consciously leave that bubble once in a while.

1. Take a different route to work. 

I got this advice from an architect who makes it a point to take a new route to work, though it often takes longer, at least once a week. More than anything, it's about breaking routines and traditions you unconsciously subscribe to and turning them into creative opportunities for learning. 

2. Dedicate yourself to learning something new. 

A friend once told me that he tries to start something new or to learn a new skill every three years, which enables him to reinvent himself every five years. This could mean learning a different language or a new musical instrument, acquiring a new productive hobby like carpentry or diving, or pursuing a new career. Though I have held the same job for ten years, I never got bored because our model was constantly evolving- from being a school to a community center, and now to a training hub. I also made sure that having a demanding 9-5 job did not stop me from pursuing my passion projects on the side, like learning how to paint and forming She Talks Asia.

3. Travel on your own to a country whose language you do not speak.

Traveling exposes your brain to new sights, scents, and people. Traveling on your own leaves you no choice but to be fully immersed in the experience. Make sure to bring a journal and to turn off your mobile connection. One of my best travel moments was successfully filing a police report in Madrid using my Mexican Spanish, after my passport got stolen in the subway. Finding a way to survive the ordeal of being stuck in Spain on my own for two weeks with a very small amount of money, gave me a sense of confidence that I can go and thrive anywhere. 


4. Find your why.

Oftentimes, we make the change because of a compelling reason. Set the time to reflect and find yours. Is it because you want to have a more successful career? Do you want to find more joy and purpose in your work? Is there a particular end goal you're after? For me, spending time with the kids and the communities that we're helping always recharges my why, and gives me the motivation and inspiration to act. 

5. Lastly, be your self's biggest cheerleader.

Most of the time what stops us from moving out of our comfort zone is our fear of the unknown, and the pain or inconvenience that comes with any form of growth. One thing that works for me is to reframe the doubtful voices in your head. Look back on all those moments you tried something difficult or you overcame something challenging. Remind yourself of how fearless and resilient you are, and hold on to it every time you find yourself being held back by a limiting belief. 

In the end, life is a dance. Our days are a constant balancing act between meaningful rest and purposeful work. May your trips outside your comfort zone be filled with learning and adventure.