5 Reasons Why Playing It Safe Is Ruining Your Progress.
Us humans are creatures of comfort. Our brains crave a state where our behaviours and routines minimise stress and risk. Essentially, our brain tries to limit the type of situations that can cause stress, anxiety and – death. Unfortunately, because our brain’s automatic response is to play it safe (and you know, stay alive) we naturally lean towards what is easy and comfort-inducing. We wake up in our soft cushiony beds, have a refreshing shower and grab food from our fridge - all within the walls of our house. This might not be everyone’s level of comfort, but you get the idea. Most of us living in first world countries are VERY comfortable.
Now I might seem like I’m coming across a bit negative towards this comfort zone we’ve created - I’m not - I freakin’ LOVE and madly appreciate being snug in my warm bed. But can our progress and success become road blocked as a result of our clench to comfort? Is it possible to be TOO comfortable? Let’s discuss a few of the most common ways you may be limiting your potential by staying put in “the comfort zone”.
1. You work within your means (You never fail)
As a general statement, you can have a pretty good job, relationship and fitness ability if you just do what you’re capable of and not push any further. This is called our comfort zone, it’s nice here. But not ever going for that promotion, opening up to your partner on a deeper level or adding more weight to the bar is stopping you from progressing in any of these areas. Yes, choosing the hard path is scary, but for real progress it’s necessary.
Psychology can tell us a few things about why we need to have a little bit of risk in our lives. In 1908 psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dodson, found that the state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. Good to hear: our comfort = steady performance. But in order to maximise performance, we need a state of relative anxiety, just slightly higher than your normal arousal levels – the “Optimal Anxiety Zone”.
This beautiful graph is the ‘Yerkes-Dodson Law’. It states that as our stress levels increase we hit a ‘sweet spot’ (scientific term) where our progress/productiveness or success is more likely. As we get too stressed, and our anxiety levels increase too much – we lose our ability to be productive and our performance drops off drastically. Yes, I know, just because you’re IN the ‘Optimal Anxiety Zone’ doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful, you might still fail. But you’ve got a far higher chance of progressing if you’ve pushed yourself to get there.
In the gym we can see this in clients who never allow themselves to fail or push to that place of challenging discomfort in workouts. However it’s not just our clients, I personally had never failed a squat rep until last year… because I had never let myself risk failure, I never really knew what I was capable of. I had allowed myself to get to a comfortable weight on the bar and had worked within these boundaries. When these limits were finally pushed (with the help of my fellow coaches), I ended up adding 15kg to my squat and (in the spirit of pushing myself) I failed attempting 20kg more than my previous max lift. So what happens when you allow yourself to finally fail or push to your limit in a workout? You become aware of your real limitations. You know what you are capable of, but you also know these too will change again with effort and time. This is how we grow. Failure becomes your friend.
Tip: Fail. Period. If you know you fight to avoid it, start with failing small.
2. You quit even before you start
Have you ever talked yourself out of something before you gave yourself a chance to give it a good crack? As the classic “don’t let the fear of striking out, keep you from playing the game” saying suggests, just because you have a preconceived idea about the outcome, doesn’t mean it should squish your ability to participate.
For us coaches, this is the client that was so eager to sign up to the gym and then decides it’s not for them before they’ve even completed a month of training. The idea that if you don’t try you can’t fail. This is a load of crap. You not attempting something and quitting before you get the chance to fail isn’t avoiding failure, it is failure – through regret.
If taking the plunge into the unknown is too much for you right now. Take a smaller step. Make it seem like it’s less of a big deal to your brain. Is it the early mornings that make your goal of getting to the gym 4x a week harder? Why not bargain with yourself and allow a few of these sessions to be at night or at lunchtime? Don’t make it any harder than it has to be.
Opposingly, avoiding putting yourself into unknown situations can leave you with a inflated sense of what you’re capable of. Think of it as your ‘head in the sand’ moment. If you maintain unaware of your abilities you don’t need to change. But no one deadlifted 100kg whilst simultaneously avoiding picking up any weight. You’ve got to be in it to win it.
Committing to a gym that gets to know you (and your potential harmful habits) is the key to success here. It is our time to shine as coaches when a member falls off the radar and signals out a cry for help. We are here to support you … but we are mainly here to challenge you. Which may mean we become that friend you don’t necessarily want - but the one you desperately need - dishing out some tough love because we believe in you & want to see you succeed.
Tip: Spend less time self criticising and more time acting/doing
3. You lower your expectations
When you didn’t go that extra mile, or put in the work you should have, it’s an easy option to lower your expectations. You are aware of what your outcome might be, so why not just expect less and then you won’t be so disappointed when you don’t hit that high goal you were so hoping to achieve!
Except - here’s the thing, deep down your expectations are already set. It takes courage to acknowledge that you didn’t do the work. That - “I thought I could get to X. I didn’t put in the work I needed to, so I didn’t get X. I know next time how much work I need to do”. If we take ourselves out of the game too soon, play down expectations and avoid holding ourselves accountable, we’ll never reach or fulfill our true capabilities.
This is why we create goals at the gym. We give ourselves something to focus on, to shoot for that is scary and gets us striving to be a little better. For the perfectionists among us this is hard, because hey - you might not get there this time. But you’ve got something concrete to refer back to you. It takes courage to tell the world you want something, it also makes you accountable. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and uncomfortable at the gym (and in life!) and watch it open doors and opportunities for growth and adaptability.
Tip: Write down your goals. Make them audacious and scary.
4. You’re living into what you’ve been told
Remember back to when you were a kid. Do you remember being told you were a ‘natural’ at something? That you’re a ‘sporty’ type? Or that you’re ‘creative but not book smart’. At the time, whoever told you this (most likely a parent, coach or teacher) was attempting to congratulate you or give you praise. This is referred to as a ‘fixed mindset’. This mindset gets you to believe that these specific qualities are naturally yours. Which immediately creates this idea that so many skills are just that - your birth gift. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone (the fixed mindset) creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” Dr Carol Dweck.
We are told certain things throughout our lives that sit in our psyche for longer than we could ever imagine. We live into what we’ve been told. So if you’ve been told that you’re not the sporty type, I can imagine you’ve already put certain limits on you are the sporty type, you might have never had to realise the value in working hard or how to cope with setbacks/injuries. The fixed mindset is just that, a mindset. Changing the way you think about your abilities can be enough to change your actual abilities. Whether you are a “natural” lifter or not, you can learn to be better and ultimately become GREAT. Those girls you see in the class who storm through a workout and make burpees look easy? They didn’t wake up like that day 1. They worked hard, stayed committed and persisted over time. Try changing up that internal dialogue from “I’m bad at this” to “I’m not good at this YET” and see how your performance evolves over time.
TIP: Is the gym something you’ve always assumed you’re not fit enough for? I want you to think about how many times a baby falls before it finally learns to stand steady on its feet. Imagine it said “I’m just not good enough for this walking thing” and quit. Change your story. Put in the work. The only shot you’re guaranteed to miss is the one you never take.
5. You make excuses
Are you guilty of the following?
“I don’t have the time to .. eat healthy, go to the gym, stretch”
“I’d be really fit and healthy if I had enough money for the gym and organic food.”
We’re all guilty of making excuses. It comes back to the notion of not having ‘enough’. Not being enough. In most cases these things come down to lack of prioritising and a lack of valuing how you spend your time. How do we know when we’re making up excuses or these points are valid? Talk to your coach. It’s their job to give you as candid of feedback as possible.
Maybe you want to be fitter and healthier but you want to be successful in your career more. Being honest with yourself and your coach about these things will help set real expectations and realistic actionable items instead of constantly chasing that need to “have it all”. Wanting to focus more time on your career is not an ‘excuse’, but you can’t then get frustrated with your lack of results at the gym if you haven’t made it your priority. The truth is, you have the time & you probably have the funds, just acknowledge you’d rather spend it in other areas. The grass you water … is the grass that grows. If you want to be healthier and that is a real goal for you this year - then be prepared to devote time & effort to making that goal happen. You can’t do what you’ve always done and expect different results. When your values shift, so do your priorities. It’s that simple.
TIP: Replace “I don’t have time to eat healthy” to “I don’t value eating healthy”. See how it makes you feel. We make time for what we value. Sit down and figure out what your values are and how you’re living them – or not.
In order to get the most out of our training we have to get out of the comfort zone, know our end game and learn from our failures. I tend to love quotes – so here’s one from Michael Jordan on embracing his failures. In one of his famous ads for Nike, he says: “I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”
I’m going to go ahead and bet that nobody ever lays on their deathbed wishing they’d worked more at their job, valued their health and family less, or put in smaller efforts for what they really wanted. Just some food for thought next time you chose to play it small.