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Break your routine: Why it's time you got comfortable with being uncomfortable

Wake up. Gym. Protein shake to go. Work. Happy hour (the usual, at the usual). Takeout for the third time this week. Catch up on that report. Netflix. Bed. Do it all again.

There’s nothing wrong with routine, to a point. No matter your idea of “normal,” take it and multiply it by seven days a week, 52 weeks a year; and you risk fraying at the edges over time. Enter stress, hopelessness, boredom and inhibited ambitions, not to mention their attendant hazards—heart disease, depression, mood swings.

Ritual is linked to steady performance, and that can make complacency an easy fallback. Yes, change is hard, and unfamiliar, and nerve-wracking. But hey, there’s a reason why they call it your comfort zone. If you’re gunning for the corner office, hoping to score a date or striving to nail your New Year’s resolutions, you can’t expect different results by doing what you’ve always done. It’s time for business as unusual.

If your hands get sweaty and your blood pressure spikes at the thought of switching things up, you’re not alone. The upshot is that there’s something positive about that healthy anxiety you feel burning in your chest. Indeed, the excitement of the unknown brings out the best in us—it forces us to focus, found researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, who discovered athletes actually performed better in high-pressure scenarios than during practice. Translation: those who embrace discomfort, paradoxically, succeed more and feel better. Crazy, right?

Now here’s an even crazier idea: this can be you. Exploring the boundaries of your comfort zone can be a healthy exercise in personal exploration and growth. Do it right, and the bounty of your efforts can be rich.

Changing careers

We spend a great deal of our lives at work, so we ought to do something that makes us happy. Those of us lucky enough to do so actually live longer and feel less stress, discovered a decades-long 2011 University of California report that studied the effects of stress on longevity. So why do we find it so hard to leave unfulfilling careers? For one, it’s hard to escape the grind without a plan; a career coach or counselor can show you the possibilities, as can plotting out a career map. Networking events can give you a feel for industries you may want to consider next, and it’s important to remember it’s never too late. The American Institute for Economic Research found that more than 82 percent of workers polled over the age of 45 reported a successful transition and made back any initial pay cuts they took. A second shot at happiness could start with “I quit.”

Speaking up

Many of life’s sweetest achievements—getting a raise, nailing an audition, scoring a date—require us to speak up. In fact, a University of Melbourne study of corporate successes discovered a strong correlation between self-confidence and career advancement. For those of us terrified to risk embarrassment, that’s easier said than done, but sharpening communication skills is the surest way to boost our confidence and, as a result, our career prospects. Improve upon your palaver at improv groups or public-speaking clubs like Toastmasters, which force you to interact with others and stay on your toes. Alternately, you can let your body language do the talking until you’re ready—a 2015 study in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that wearing formal clothing made people feel more included and confident. When you start talking, you get results.

Facing fears

Being afraid of certain dangers is healthy, but when we avoid taking part in life due to phobias, we can become prisoners to our comfort zones. According to the principles of exposure therapy, confronting our fears one small step at a time can help us conquer them, for example, building up from viewing photos of dogs to petting them. In the case of serious phobias or conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, virtual reality can safely immerse us in uncomfortable situations to take away their power over us, over time. The goal is allowing us to live on our own terms, however exposure to new experiences has the added benefit of improving our learning and memory, according to a 2015 study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews that measured novelty’s effect on the brain. Additionally, knowing that even long-held fears can be conquered, teaches us resilience that helps us think positively.

Meeting new people

Actively taking part in the lives of people whose daily experiences differ from our own isn’t just Canadian it’s healthy. Building new relationships helps you learn new skills and improves your cognitive strength, according to a 2013 Psychological Science study measuring the impact of social interactions on the mind. And a 2016 University of Oxford study examining breast cancer survivors suggests having larger social networks makes for more resilient people. One way to put yourself out there is by volunteering—the mission of making a difference takes the pressure off of the social interaction, and volunteers tend to be happier people according to a 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey. Speed networking events can also provide a quick social boost (with a built in exit strategy) and may even pay off professionally.

Take a break

These days it’s easy to convince ourselves that replying to emails in the wee hours of the morning is normal; a 2014 Gallup survey found that the average American works 47 hours a week even if they’re on a nine-to-five contract. We’re often so addicted to work that stepping out of our comfort zone may actually mean stepping away from the hustle. Work breaks lasting even a few minutes can help vastly improve focus and make us more efficient at a task, according to a 2011 University of Illinois study of prolonged work. Increasing diversions also helps to reduce burnout. Longer-term breaks from routine work, like sabbaticals, can improve reported well-being by a margin, found a 2010 Journal of Applied Psychology report that tracked faculty members who took such respites. If you find yourself craving a break, it helps to know that sabbaticals are no longer career suicide—in fact, a 2006 study by Hewitt Associates’ HR Consulting Services notes that 44 percent of Canadian companies offer unpaid breaks, and another 12 percent will pay you to get away.

Say no—and mean it

Avoiding conflict makes things simpler; until it doesn’t. Constantly saying “yes” to appease a pushy boss or staying in an unfulfilling relationship is an easy habit to fall into, but sticking to the status quo can breed resentment, stress and unhappiness for you over the long run. Learning to say “no” when you mean it can let you focus on what makes each type of relationship meaningful. At the office, turning down extra projects allows you more time to ace your existing responsibilities. And if you’re convinced declining overtime will make you fall behind, consider a 2014 Stanford University discussion paper that found working longer hours significantly decreased workers’ productivity. When it comes to matters of the heart, ending a bad relationship can free you to find your soul mate in the future. If you have trouble deflecting oncoming advances, start small by offering alternatives when turning someone down. A response to higher-stakes asks should always be firm, polite and offer a solid reason for saying no. This doesn’t mean you should say “no” to everything that makes you uncomfortable—compromise is healthy—but when you give yourself permission to be honest, you give yourself permission to be your best self.