This whole year has felt like a continuous cycle of repetitiveness. Wake up, brush teeth, put on a clean-ish shirt, and begin the day. It’s become so monotonous that most of the time, you don’t really need to think about what you’re doing, you just do it. You’re on total autopilot. And before you know it, you’re scarfing down a low-fat muffin or skipping your workout entirely because your next Zoom call is about to start — even though you had loose aspirations of having this be the week you got up early to exercise or set aside time for a solid protein-packed breakfast before work.
When you’re stuck on autopilot, you’re not consciously aware of your choices. As adults, we make an average of 35,000 decisions each day. And research shows that 96% of people admit to making most of them with zero thought. 1 I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my clients say that they had no clue how they managed to polish off a whole bottle of wine in one sitting or they ate an entire bag of chips while binge-watching TV. And don’t get me started on how often I hear how tough it is to stop smashing the snooze button.
Why You Feel Stuck
I’ll admit it, change is hard. But it’s even harder when you’re running the show on cruise control. As I’ve mentioned before, the brain is always trying to protect you — it wants to keep you safe and comfortable. In this case, it develops an unconscious decision-making system to take care of routine tasks. Which is great, unless you want to change up your routine.
Operating on autopilot looks like:
Pressing snooze without knowing it
Eating leftovers off your kids’ plates
Buying the same foods at the store
Realizing you “forgot” to exercise
Checking your phone while waiting in line
Blame Your Comfort Zone
Once you know the simplest way of doing something (that could be feeding yourself, coping with stress, or ignoring your expanding waistline) your brain’s learning centers go into repetition mode and essentially shut down.2 Your mind strives to take the path of least resistance to conserve resources. It also craves routine. Because, generally speaking, not knowing what’s going to happen next is stressful.
When you don’t have to think about how to do your to-dos, it’s a much easier request of your body and brain. You do the same thing over and over again, staying neatly tucked inside your comfort zone and you don’t have to put in extra effort or feel the effects of added stress or uncertainty.
That’s why, if you’ve been continually beating yourself up about why you can’t seem to lose the weight or get in shape, your comfort zone could be to blame. There’s too much uncertainty! And really, I’d argue that 2020 has given us more than our fair share of that feeling already.
But uncertainty does have its benefits.
According to research from Yale, it signals the brain to kickstart new learning capabilities. In this study, monkeys were taught to press various targets – each with their own reward system.3 They were given a choice between hitting a red target that provided rewards 80% of the time and a green one that rewarded them 20% of the time.
Once they caught on that the red target was more profitable, and continued to press it, the researchers increased the uncertainty by making the green target more profitable instead. They noticed that the monkeys’ brain activity was dramatically reduced when they had certainty (i.e. they knew which button to press). When uncertainty became a factor, their learning centers lit up.
This just proves that, while stability is comfortable, it diminishes your ability to learn and grow. Again, that’s fine if you’re making your morning cup of coffee, letting the dog out, or driving to the store. It’s another thing entirely if you’re trying to move the needle on your health.
How to Get Out of Autopilot Mode
Making progress on your goals starts by moving beyond your current comfort zone. Because when you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always had. Here are 6 strategies I use with my own clients to help them get more comfortable with a little uncertainty.
Change your Routine, Slightly
I’m not saying you need to get up 3 hours earlier or overhaul your processed food diet overnight, but by making a small change to your day, you’re activating your frontal cortex, which starts to move your behaviours from subconscious to conscious. So, take an alternate route to get groceries, style your hair in a different way, choose the coffee cup you never use, or end your hot shower with a blast of cold water.
Ditch the Expectations
While having clear expectations works for some people, it can be intimidating to others. That’s why I love using the “I just want to see…” method with my clients. Instead of focusing on the outcome, try this on for size: “I just want to see if I can lose 30 pounds.” Or “I just want to see if I can get up at 5am every day to meditate.” Or, “I just want to see if I can sit down to eat instead of feeding myself straight from the fridge.” When you free yourself from expectations, you allow yourself to be curious enough to discover what’s possible.
Reflect on Your Wins
Use familiarity and comfort to your advantage here by revisiting some of your big accomplishments. What have you done previously that required courage or learning something new? Often, people diminish their wins (or forget about them altogether). But realizing what you’ve bravely done in the past can build your confidence and help set the stage for future accomplishments.
Find a Role Model
When you look at your circle of friends, personally or professionally, is there someone who regularly pushes themselves? Someone who never settles for average and continually does things that leave you wishing you could do stuff like that too? Think of that person as a role model, tapping into the nuances of how they act, what they do, and how they refer to themselves. Before you know it, their influence will start to have an effect on your behaviour.
Sign Up for a Class
I know we’re all strapped for time right now but consider signing up for a class or online course. Heck, it could even be a free 45-minute webinar. The point is, commit to an activity that’s going to make your brain work. By doing this, you’re activating your frontal cortex, which temporarily shuts down your autopilot mode and primes you for making a change that could benefit your health and your happiness.
Call BS on Your Excuses
When you tell yourself, “I don’t have time to work out today” or “I’ll start eating healthy on Monday,” start to become mindful of what’s the truth and what’s an excuse. Practice some self-compassion and understanding, and you might find that deep down you’re afraid to exercise because you don’t want to look silly or you’re not sure what eating healthy even means! Use this time to increase your awareness of the messages you’re sending yourself and what emotion is at the heart of it.
6 Tips for Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone
There’s no doubt this year has sent us running for comfort and familiarity. But being stuck in cruise control — especially when you don’t even know you’re there – won’t get you any closer to your goals. Use these strategies to start moving out of your comfort zone and see what happens.
Change your routine, slightly
Ditch the expectations
Reflect on your wins
Find a role model
Sign up for a class
Call BS on your excuses
Now tell me what you think! Has your comfort zone been standing in your way?
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.