When you brush your teeth every morning, you start on the same tooth and repeat the same sequence of brushes every single day. You stir the sugar in your coffee the same number of times every cup. You put the same leg first, into your trousers every time you get dressed. These are our ‘automations’ or routines carried out by our subconscious in an effort to make us efficient. Every time you learn a task using your conscious mind, it requires effort and intent, however through practice, you create a strong neural pathway, or pattern, that turns it into a subconscious routine.
That frees up your conscious and intentional brain to be able to do other things. You can listen to an audiobook while your legs carry you around the block on your regular morning walk. You can drive to work while you contemplate your day ahead. You can feed yourself while you watch that Netflix episode; however you may have noticed that you can’t do TWO intentional things at once… Multitasking is only possible if conscious and subconscious work in tandem.
If that TV episode is gripping and interesting, you are not tasting the food you are eating. If you are thinking deeply about something important, you will drive to the office on a Sunday by mistake. Our subconscious is smart enough to do complex things even while we’re not looking. If you are reading a book and your consciousness shifts, you will ‘read’ to the end of the page and have to turn back because you have absolutely no idea what you’ve just read! ‘Reading’ is a process; ‘understanding’ needs attention.
On the other hand, too much going on in our conscious mind is taxing on us. Multiple conscious tasks are impossible – you have to keep switching. This ‘multitasking’ slows down your brain and increases stress levels, so it’s far from an effective way to get things done.
Finding the sweet spot
If you play racquet sports or golf, you will be aware of those shots you hit with all your strength that pretty much go nowhere. That’s because you’ve hit a part of the racket or club face that ‘deadens’ the impact with the ball, poorly transmitting the energy into ball speed. Yet if you do hit the right spot, designed on the racket or club face to give maximum energy transfer from your arm to the ball, you get an amazing (and deeply fulfilling!) result. All coaches of these sports will tell you that force does not equal distance or speed. Swing easy, to get the best results. What they mean is that by swinging easy and in control, you are more likely to hit the sweet spot and get the best results.
This ‘sweet spot’ metaphor is sometimes used in sports to describe the state of mind of an athlete. Often described as ‘being in the zone’ or ‘on fire’ because the results of an athlete seem to belie the effort the individual is putting in. When every shot seems to hit the target, and everything looks easy, you’re in your personal sweet spot. We also see it in high performing teams that seem to read each other’s minds and coordinate miraculously and effortlessly to beat their opponent. For this to happen, the stakes need to be high and the athlete needs to be perfectly focused.
This ‘sweet spot’ is sometimes described as a flow state, explained by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and later Jamie Wheal and Steve Kotler, as a state of ultimate performance. However this state is often fleeting and unattainable unless a number of ‘conditions’ are met. I’ve experienced this many times during endurance events, as well as when deeply engrossed in a problem to solve, or a deep meditative state. I’ve always been a proponent of flow and attaining this state of consciousness through manipulating our environment to predispose it. (See A Million Steps, on Amazon). But it rarely lasts, which is a pity.
I am now curious to explore the possibility of LIVING in the sweet spot. Is this possible, with all the ups and downs, unpredictability and out-of-control forces that act upon us? Here are some ideas I’d love your feedback on:
Living your life as an observer
We all want to be involved in our experiences, and ‘feel’ what it is like to be alive, however we sometimes can’t see the wood for trees. The emotions that run through us enrich our experiences and shape our personalities. Whether good or bad stuff happens, we become more human by being in the thick of it. However this reduces our ability to consider the big picture. It’s tough to see the positive side when you are stuck in a rut. Or to curb our enthusiasm when we are living on a high. Being an observer dilutes the emotional impact, but perhaps gives us a more realistic viewpoint of the overall state of play. Whilst at the risk of sounding stoic, an observer’s view is necessary for us to determine the boundaries between boredom, pressure, excitement, stress and anxiety.
We need the right descriptors of our emotional state to equip us with the ability to be effective observers. In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown (also a Netflix series) gives us a remarkable toolbox to navigate our emotions and be a better observer of our own lives. By putting a label on our emotions, we can draw these lines between states more easily.
Crossing the threshold
The line between boredom and excitement is the line that demarcates our comfort zone. Too long on the side of comfort and our brain fogs up, reducing our ability to be creative and imaginative. Exiting the comfort zone makes us feel alive, as it triggers excitement (in the form of pressure, in a work setting) and challenges us to perform at our best. Our brain floods us with amazing chemicals that make our hair stand on end, our heart race and our mind focus on the task at hand – like riding on a rollercoaster.
This is the sweet spot of our best self, and we know it! If curated well, we can live this way for days, even weeks, as long as we have adequate rest and a good night’s sleep. Fortunately, science tells us this ‘exiting the comfort zone’ only requires a small dose of pressure; Roughly four per cent ‘stretch’ is enough to get the chemical cocktails we need to grow new neural pathways. Four per cent is easy to recover from, so we can “go again”, day-in, day-out, keeping the game going indefinitely.
“The sweet spot of our lives is just a little outside of our comfort zone, not more.”
If the pressure continues to mount and we go way beyond the four per cent, pressure turns into stress. The chemicals switch to noxious substances that make us edgy, anxious and, in the long term, cause burnout. This stops us dead and forces us back into our comfort zone, weary of ever exploring our limits in future.
By backing off before pressure turns into stress, we continue to hover in that sweet spot, pushing and receding gently as our resilience builds and our abilities grow. Essentially, the right amount of pressure is good, too much causes stress. As we experience these shifts, we build enough resilience for the threshold to keep moving forwards. We can take more pressure and what stressed us out yesterday no longer does. It’s the only way to grow.
It is also the only way to stay in the sweet spot! As the threshold increases, so does the line of boredom. What challenged us yesterday becomes too easy; un-stimulating and uninteresting. We lose those positive chemicals and we instinctively seek more daring experiences.
Look at your daily routines, and think creatively of how you could stretch them.
“Can you spice up your food, or your love-making? Watch a scary movie, or one that makes you laugh out loud? Drive a new route to the office, say ‘yes’ to more responsibility at work? Learn something new or break an old habit? Travel without a plan, climb a tree, or a mountain? Get that artistic project going, challenge the critics, break trends and be unusual? Let your hair down, talk to the person you fancy, or get on the dance floor and show your moves? I dare you!
In essence, can you push your physical and intellectual limits a bit further than you are used to?!”
My journey into 2023 is going to be one of exploration. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is a good way to keep pushing the threshold of pressure/stress upwards, allowing me to thrive in uncertainty as a state of perpetual curiosity. Overeagerness is a danger to that fragile balance. Fear, on the other hand, stops us from even trying.
Every time you feel a bit of tension, know that you are close to entering the sweet spot. It’s an opportunity to raise your game and get into the zone. Don’t shy away from it – keep pushing. Welcome the pressure; seek discomfort; feel the excitement. The return on effort is 10x and you’ll be amazed at how much potential you can unlock if you live in your sweet spot!
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