Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

By Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk

 Illustration - Andrea Ucini

“As a young cellist I wish that I had known about the term Deliberate Practice (invented by prominent psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a pioneer in the study of human learning and performance in multiple domains). Although I was taught many aspects of Deliberate Practice, one important feature that I was not aware of was that it takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires you to constantly try things that are just beyond your current abilities.

I started playing the cello when I was 15 years old, and I constantly pushed myself very hard to get better fast. I had a lot of friends in music school that made fun of me for practicing so hard and I must admit that I often felt poorly and would be in a very bad mood after long and difficult practice sessions. If I had known that pushing yourself very hard is often required to get to the next level, I think that I would have been able to plan and control my practice efforts a lot better and would also have been able to deal with getting myself in a bad mood much better.” -Hans Jensen 

The following is a short excerpt from Chapter 15 of PracticeMind: The Complete Practice Model by Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk

Going Outside Your Comfort Zone

“Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”— K. Anders Ericsson

The how and the when to push yourself close to maximum effort are the keys to athletic training and the secrets to a great practice mind. It is impossible to push yourself to the limits all the time when you train and practice, whether mentally or physically. Long practice sessions without breaks lose their efficacy with time and put you at risk of injury. However, developing playing endurance and strength in your practice sessions prepares you for challenging days of stacked rehearsals and performances.

Musicians can learn a lot from the science-based training of top athletes. Running is an activity many musicians enjoy for both physical and mental health benefits. To prepare for races and build their skills, runners often follow carefully planned training plans. From Couch to 5K programs to ultramarathon training, there is valuable insight for musicians to learn from. 

There are many reasons why it is important for musicians to understand how athletes train:

  • To maximize their training effectiveness, runners must train at different paces and at different levels of intensity. Realizing how detailed and systematic runners are about their training can inspire musicians to think about their training in similar organized ways.
  • Musicians deal with similar aspects of building strength, flexibility, and mental and physical endurance when practicing and performing. Sports training offers many answers about those topics. Many musicians who train seriously for triathlons or other races report that their athletic preparation has a positive impact on the ways they approach practicing and performing.
  • Understanding how much physical effort to use when playing and knowing how long to practice before taking breaks are both issues that musicians share with athletes.
  • People who want to become first-rate performers in any discipline often push themselves beyond their limits, both mentally and physically. In order to avoid the potential repercussions of this overtraining, practice mindful awareness of your limits and structure your learning accordingly.

Pushing yourself past your comfort zone is a necessary step in the learning process. Within the metacognitive learning cycle, each step of planning, implementing, and evaluating holds possibilities for expanding your own limits and developing your physical and mental skills to new levels. By the very nature of the term, leaving the comfort zone is uncomfortable! For this reason, many people hesitate to push themselves sufficiently to grow as artists and musicians. Going to the next level takes a lot of focus, and it is often necessary to push beyond what is enjoyable.

Expanding Your Comfort Zone

Try these steps for expanding your comfort zone and embracing new challenges during practice and performance.

Don’t only practice what you are good at or enjoy

One common phenomenon is that people like to do and practice what they are good at. Some performers are technically oriented and love practicing pieces that are fast, while others lean toward slow and soulful music and will avoid playing difficult and technical pieces at all costs. Without a doubt, all musicians must be well-rounded and able to play a wide range of musically and technically demanding repertoire. One helpful way to overcome your resistance to pushing your comfort boundaries is to remind yourself that the following is one of the practice requirements that Ericsson states as most important for becoming a first-rate performer:

Use that mindset to get yourself practicing the things that you are not good at. Here are a few additional ideas that might help you get started:

  • In the next practice session, schedule the most difficult passage or piece as the first thing you practice, and limit your time on it to fifteen minutes.
  • Break the difficult task into several smaller steps and focus on just one step at a time. Think of each small step as the ultimate goal without worrying about the larger end result.
  • Face the challenge head-on and tell yourself that just doing it is already good. By overcoming your own aversion, you are already starting to implement going outside your comfort zone, and that in itself is a great thing!
  • Break the fifteen-minute task into three small goals, and complete one of these five-minute sessions at random times during your regular practice session.

The above excerpt is from Chapter 15 of PracticeMind: The Complete Practice Model by Hans Jensen and Oleksander Mycyk