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Refusing to Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone Will Keep You Stuck

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Are you dissatisfied with the status quo? Do you need a change in your life? Are you repeating the same routine over and over, like a broken record? Are you stuck in a rut and can’t get out? If so, you need to ask yourself how can your life change if you are not willing to make changes in your life? Obviously the only way we can get out of a rut is by doing something different, by changing. Those who don’t learn how to change are not in a rut; they’re in a grave. So, if we don’t want to be counted among the living dead, we’ll have to learn what is preventing us from moving forward. Let’s look at three possible causes and how to overcome them.

1. Inertia

What would happen if you were to stop using the muscles of your body? Without use, they begin to waste. Eventually, you’ll experience muscular atrophy. You’ll become immobilized, unable to move. The same applies to our mental health. Suppose I begin to slack off. What if I were to stop practicing self-discipline and neglect my tasks? If I were to stop my activities, wouldn’t I develop intellectual atrophy? Wouldn’t I wind up in a rut? Leonardo da Vinci thought so, for he wrote, “Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.”

In 1687, Isaac Newton described the law of inertia. He explained how a body in motion tends to remain in motion while a body at rest tends to remain at rest. The only way to get a resting body to move again is to apply a force. I am an example of a body at rest when I doze on the couch. My wife kicking me in the behind and telling me to mow the lawn is an example of a force propelling me to action. Kicks in the behind, however, can be self-directed. That is, we can kick ourselves out of a rut. We begin by reviewing our situation and recognizing its seriousness. At first we may think we’re just standing still, pausing for a rest. But once we realize the rest of the world is moving away from us and we’re falling behind, we’ll recognize the need for action.

What is the cure for inertia? Simple, action! However, trying to start a project after a long spell of inactivity is like trying to start your car on a freezing winter day. It’s difficult. If you want to succeed, the trick is to do something that is easy and will bring you closer to your goal. For example, let’s say I have to write a letter to Aunt Matilda and I hate to write letters. To accomplish my goal, I create a plan that is so easy to do, I cannot fail. Here’s an example. Today I will fill out the envelope and put a stamp on it. That’s easy enough, I can do that in less than a minute. Tomorrow, I will make a list of six subjects to write about in my letter (no more than five minutes). The day after, I will write paragraph one. And so on, until the letter is completed and dropped into the mail. Each small action that I take is grease that unclogs the cogwheels of inertia and gets me back on track.

Although the plan I made to write Aunt Matilda should take a week or longer to complete, I would actually perform the task in half that time or less. Why? Because, as Isaac Newton explained, once a body is in motion it tends to remain in motion. Another way of putting it is, the small action steps I take generate the energy to take further action steps. Once started, the project almost completes itself. So, start lifting yourself out of the rut today. Pick a goal and divide it into easy action steps. This is a prescription for fun and success and may be all you need to do to turn your life around.

2. Resistance Syndrome

The Resistance Syndrome is a coping device we develop in childhood. For instance, as a child we may be told to keep our room tidy or mommy will be angry. How can children understand why being organized and tidy is important? They can’t. But what they do understand is that they need mommy and daddy to survive. They can’t survive alone. Fearful of being abandoned and denied love, they are forced to comply with mommy’s wishes. Understandably, children don’t want to yield their wills completely. They want to retain some independence, some identity. They don’t want to be reduced to slaves with broken wills. So, what are they to do? They do what has to be done, but not completely. They resist to protect their individuality. They may clean up the room, but deliberately place some items in the wrong places, or perhaps clean up most of the room but leave a corner undone.

Over the years, the Resistance Syndrome becomes an ingrained habit. We take it to school and later to the workplace. What once helped us to retain our identity in childhood, now prevents us from doing what we want to do for our own good, such as working out in the health club or making repairs on the house. Understand that your boss, your spouse, and others are entitled to make legitimate requests. Don’t misinterpret everything as an attempt by others to control you. You stopped wearing diapers a long time ago, now it is time to stop carrying around the Resistance Syndrome and accept responsibility for your own happiness. By becoming aware of the problem you will loosen its grip on you, and by taking small, easy action steps you will be able to overcome it.

3. Avoidance of Discomfort

Primitive man avoided pain and discomfort and was attracted to pleasure because his survival depended on it. If our ancestors were uncomfortably cold, they could freeze to death. If they were comfortable before a fire, they would survive. The pleasure of eating and discomfort of hunger were powerful forces that enabled them to endure. Today, we no longer have to hunt for our food or make fires to keep warm. Yet, instinctively, we continue to avoid discomfort. This is why we avoid anything that requires effort and take refuge in anything that gives pleasure. But if we allow ourselves to follow our instincts, we will become trapped in our comfort zone, stuck in a rut.

The cure for this problem is the same as the cure for the Resistance Syndrome: awareness and action. The principal component of which is action. For as American folk hero Ben Stein said, “You must take the first step. The first steps will take some effort, maybe pain. But after that, everything that has to be done is real-life movement.” It also helps to change your perspective. The next time you feel uncomfortable, don’t flee from it but embrace it. For discomfort is an indicator that you are going in the right direction, outside of your comfort zone. And that is the road of change and the path to a better you, so welcome it and enjoy the journey.

Case Study 1

What follows is in response to a reader. His lengthy e-mail has been condensed. He writes:

“I have been looking all over the Internet for ways to overcome my bad habits. There must be hundreds of self-help books but none of them offer any solid solutions to my problems.”

A map doesn’t take you where you want to go. It merely points the way. If you have a destination in mind, you’ll have to get off the couch, get into your car, turn on the ignition, and start driving. Books are maps, not solutions. What I’m writing is a map, not a solution. There is only one solution to your problems, and that is you. When you are ready to start your journey to a new, better you, pick a map, study the directions, and do what is necessary to get there.

Our reader continues:

“Self-help books aren’t geared towards the people that can’t find a way to help themselves.”

What you really mean is “books aren’t geared towards people who aren’t willing to find a way to help themselves. You see, it is a decision we make. We either decide to help ourselves (“I will do whatever is necessary.”) or we decide to become a victim (“I can’t or won’t do whatever is necessary.”). Why would anyone want to become a victim? Well, in their mind, it is convenient. You don’t have to do anything; after all, you’re helpless. So, you just sit around and wait for someone or something to solve your problems. This type of thinking is akin to feeding crocodiles. I’m referring to something Ronald Reagan said: “To sit back hoping that someday, some way, someone will make things right is to go on feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last − but eat you he will.” Don’t feed your problems, but face them, and do something about them.

Our reader goes on:

“I’m not asking for a solution to all my problems I realized that only I can do that after all the therapy.

I would however, like to know what you have done to overcome laziness and what steps you took to become a more productive person.”

You mention that you are undergoing therapy, so I’ll share some views on that subject. The word “therapy” has its origin in Greek and means to heal or treat. That’s what a knowledgeable therapist does. Good therapists treat their patients for a short time, enabling them to get on with their lives as soon as possible.

Suppose you were wounded and the doctor applied balm to your wounds. If your wounds weren’t healing after treatment, the doctor would realize that something is wrong and would try another form of treatment. Yet, some patients see psychiatrists for long periods of time. Sometimes as long as 10, 15, or 20 years. Isn’t that odd? If the patient isn’t being healed, how can that be called therapy?

So, be forewarned. There is good therapy and poor therapy. An example of good therapy would be Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (R.E.B.T.) or Cognitive Behavior Therapy (C.B.T.). Both forms of therapy recognize that our problems are caused not by external events, but by our internal beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. So treatment consists of teaching patients how to change their beliefs and thoughts. When patients do so, their feelings and behavior also change, empowering them to handle their own problems. You can learn more about the subject here.

While taking therapy, one of the dangers is some patients put their lives on hold. That is, instead of thinking, “I will start solving my problems now,” they think, “My life will improve after I’m cured.” In other words, they use their therapy as another excuse for not changing (“I will change after I get better.”).

Morita Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy both address this problem. They both teach there is no need to wait until you understand the cause of your problem. There is no need to wait until you master an elaborate coping strategy. You can start right where you are today. You can accept your flaws, weaknesses, and problems. You can say to yourself, “Yes, I’m not perfect, but I’m not stupid either. I know I have problems. I know I have to change. I know what I need to do. So, I will begin taking action steps today. One baby step at a time. I will do something to improve every day, no matter how small the step. And as long as I persist, one step at a time, it is impossible to fail. So, I begin now.”

You can also easily teach yourself Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A.C.T.). In fact, this will be my first suggestion to our reader. Please pick up a copy of Dr. Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith’s workbook Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Morita Therapy (which is a mixture of Zen philosophy and Western Psychology) and A.C.T. are firmly entrenched in reality. For example, it is well known that it takes effort to achieve anything worthwhile. M.T. and A.C.T. practitioners, are well-grounded people that accept that fact. They don’t fight it. They don’t resist. They don’t run away from a little ‘pain.’ They focus on the prize and do whatever it takes to get it.

But some try to replace ‘pain’, discomfort, and effort with pleasure, such as food, drink, and TV. Now, here is the paradox. Those who seek a life of pleasure end up in pain, for by refusing to make the effort to succeed, they fail and experience regret, shame, and guilt. And those who willingly accept ‘pain,’ end up with pleasure. For what can be more pleasurable than achieving your goals and reaching your dreams? This being so, the effort needed to overcome challenges is the seed that contains our happiness, which is exactly what we are looking for! So it makes sense to embrace ‘pain’ (“no pain, no gain”).

Regarding how I overcame laziness, it is not a matter of being lazy or productive. Rather, it is about having good or bad habits. You are not lazy; you just have a bad habit. As David Hasslehoff said, “If you stand still long enough, you’ll get stuck.” That’s what happened to you. You stood still so long you got stuck. The cure, as suggested above, is to take small action steps every day.

If you’re not impressed by what David Hasslehoff had to say, consider the words of Leonardo Da Vinci, “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.”

Finally, for the benefit of our readers wanting to become their own therapists, I recommend the following book: How to Be Your Own Therapist, A Step-by-Step Guide to Taking Back Your Life.

Case Study 2

A reader, Neale Watson (fictitious name), writes:

I am a grateful member of Alcoholics Anonymous for nearly two years now. But I always saw myself as afraid of living life. I still do. I’m finding it hard to be confident, to change my life to what I know it can be. I feel inferior and yet I know I have what it takes to succeed if only I could get off my tuff and do it.

I’m nearly 60 and want to go to college. But I’m scared! I wonder if I’m smart enough and feel overwhelmed by the fear of failing again. I know that to conquer fear one must be willing to place one foot in front of the other and begin the journey. But what if your feet are frozen? What if you’ve been leading a guilt-ridden life for years? I know I was destined to help others − I feel it in my whole being − so why am I so afraid to help myself?

Neale lacks confidence. Because of that he is afraid to act. As time passed, his inactivity became habitual. It is now a life pattern. He is plagued by inertia, apathy, lethargy, and listlessness. He is overcome by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness. He feels trapped, immobilized, and paralyzed. His plight is as common as the flu, and like the flu, we can recover from it. I’m sure most of us can relate to Neale’s difficulty because we all suffer from the same malady. The only difference among us is the extent to which this insidious affliction has a grip on our lives.
The first step in freeing ourselves from the mire of inertia is to be aware that all success and failure starts in our mind. It is not outside events, but our thoughts that block us. As suggested in my answer to our first reader’s question, when we change our thoughts, our feelings change. When our feelings change, our behaviour changes. (This is because it is our emotions that cause us to act.) When we change our behaviour, the outcome, or our experience, changes. When our experiences change, our beliefs, attitude, and perspective change. When our beliefs and attitude change, we change. And, finally, when we change, our world and the people in our lives change.
One of the thoughts Neale can change is his idea of failure. He says he is afraid to fail. But what is failure? There is no such thing. There is only learning. When our actions result in success, we learn from that and keep repeating it. But when the results of our actions do not turn out as we would like them to, we do not fail, but learn what to avoid and change. Can you see that when we eliminate the idea of failure from our thoughts, we also eliminate the fear of failure?

Dorothea Brande expresses her thoughts on the subject differently, and they are worth repeating: “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. That is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.” In fact, there is no need to act as if it were impossible to fail because as long as we are persistent, right action always leads to success. It is impossible to fail. For example, if you start lifting weights every day, you will grow stronger. It is impossible not to. It is impossible to fail.

Perhaps by now you can see the solution to all of Neale’s problems is to take action. Take lack of confidence, for example. We don’t acquire confidence by sitting still and waiting for it to appear. It doesn’t pop up out of nowhere just because we want it. Rather, it is a natural consequence of taking right action. For instance, something was troubling Neale. Instead of sulking in self-pity, he decided to do something about it. He took a small action step by writing to me. Much to his surprise and pleasure, he received an answer. His small action step led to the discovery that he can wrest control of his life. He discovered action leads to power, pleasure, and confidence.

The major hurdle he has to overcome is inertia. There, too, the solution is action. For example, if he wants to go to college, all he has to do is keep applying until he is accepted. Once accepted, all he has to do is keep studying until he graduates. It’s a simple plan. As long as one persists it’s impossible to fail. He took the first small step. Now all he has to do is continue taking small steps until he achieves his goals. He definitely has the power to do so. After all, he was once troubled by alcohol, but decided to join AA and ended up changing his life for the better. He can do it again.

We have an infinite capacity to change, grow, and learn. Don’t be discouraged if your life seems to be crumbling around you. Before a caterpillar becomes what it is meant to be, its cocoon or chrysalis enshrouded body slowly dissolves into a sticky ‘soup’ that eventually reshapes into a butterfly. The rubble and devastation that surrounds you are your sticky ‘soups.’ They are the very source of all you are meant to be. Knowing this, stop worrying about the future. Instead, create it. Create it by drilling through the rock of inertia. The drill’s bit is action. If you remain persistent, like Dr. Alexis Carrel, you will discover that “Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” What’s more, it doesn’t matter when we begin, for as it was written by George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans Cross), “It is never too late to become what you might have been.”

And now for some caveats and suggestions. At times, the enormity of our goals may make us feel overwhelmed. At such a time, don’t ask yourself, “How will I ever achieve this goal?” Instead, ask, “How can I begin?” Don’t ask questions that inspire fear. Instead, ask questions that empower you, questions that lead to solutions. Although we cannot do everything at once, we can always do something. Do what you can and remain relentless.

Besides being persistent, you will also need to be patient. For before we can change you, we have to change your habits. No wonder you feel frozen in place, unable to act, for you are locked in the grip of the habit of inaction. It will take about ten days of willful action on your part before your bad habit will loosen its grip on you. It will take another ten days for your new habit and self-discipline to establish some roots. Finally, it will take another ten days for your new habit of positive action to become established in your life. Thirty days in all, so be persistent and patient.



Stop Saying You’re Fine: The No-BS Guide to Getting What You Want by Mel Robbins

UNSTUCK: A Story About Gaining Perspective, Creating Traction, and Pursuing Your Passion By Dan Webster and Randy Gravitt

Get Unstuck Now: How Smart People Gain Clarity and Solve a Problem Fast, And How You Can Too by Laura van den Berg Sekac

Get UNSTUCK: 12 Steps to Eliminate Overwhelm and Accomplish Your Most Daring Goals in HALF the Time by Betty Oteri

Get Unstuck, Be Unstoppable: Step into the Amazing Life God Imagined for You by Valorie Burton

Get Unstuck: 10 Tools of Wisdom that Help You Achieve Greater Love, Energy and Growth By Terry Belmont and Nina Engstrand


Terry Singh: How to get unstuck

Katy Hansell: Getting unstuck in work & life