Excel at anything by breaking free of comfort zones

The right amount of fear will help you go the distance
Take a leaf out of Mozart and Tiger Woods’s book – practice like hell.
The demands of work can mean taking on tasks and responsibilities that require intense learning curves. While maths-based work might terrify the more creative among us, number crunchers can often feel daunted by presentations and report writing – self-improvement is never a walk in the park.
But back in 1908, a study, published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, showed that while playing it safe will lead to consistent results, stepping outside of your comfort zone is the only way to heighten performance in the long term.


The “practice makes perfect” cliche isn’t worth reiterating at length, but if you do want to stretch yourself, the right attitude towards it is vital.
Albert Einstein is quoted as having said that “genius is 1 per cent talent and 99 per cent percent hard work” – comforting for the rest of us. Author and table tennis champion Matthew Syed has worked to show that it’s tenacity that counts: those who excel at something don’t do so because of innate talent – the achievement is almost all through determined practice. Citing examples like Mozart and Tiger Woods, Syed says big-timers have actually completed considerably more hours of practice than their lower level peers.
But context is important. Hours of piano practice should eventually lead to better playing, but even the most studious business school graduate could be surprised by the realities of being an entrepreneur. Good fortune can be just as crucial as tenacity in some fields.


Regardless of your field, it’s worth forming rigid processes for dealing with something new and uncomfortable. A recent study by academics at the University of California found that memory is enhanced when we’re tackling unfamiliar ground. So while challenging yourself will boost your performance, ritualising your approach to those challenges will help you master new skills.
Psychology professor Roy Baumeister points out that self-discipline is much harder to achieve than we think, and the best way to get there is by building ritual. Schedule inviolable times for working on a task, break it into manageable chunks, and decide on what you’ll achieve before starting. Author Daniel Coyle recommends aiming for a daily “smallest achievable perfection” (SAP). These mini-targets will help you get used to ticking things off your list, which in turn will satisfy your reward system and help you grow in confidence.


Building confidence also means seeking feedback – but at the right time. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz recommends doing so intermittently – too much feedback can create a “cognitive overload, increase anxiety, and interfere with learning”, he warns. Take small doses to give yourself time to put what you’ve been told into practice.
Of course, it’s also important to hold onto the belief that you’ll succeed ­– even in the absence of evidence.­ Syed explains that a belief system, whether in yourself or something else, can act as a placebo. In the world of sport, he says, it’s often the most powerful determiner.

Get where you want to be
Goals on Track

Invoking a system of accountability can be vital in achieving personal aims. Complete with several apps, this software system allows you to set goals. It’ll then track your progression, pushing you towards action when the going gets tough. Its goal journal, time tracking and report systems allow you to visualise where you are and where you want to be. Each aim has a percentage of completeness alongside it, and you can make use of its charts function to gauge how you’re doing.