Finding the Sweet Spot
Healthy Challenge vs. Strain
In the last several posts, I’ve written about the importance of staying in the learning zone and avoiding pain when possible. Now we need to refine the process so that you can begin to find the right amount of challenge to optimise your learning progress.
If you want to grow, improve, get stronger, feel better, be healthier, etc., you most likely know that you need some kind of challenge or way to increase whatever it is that you want to have/do more of. If you don’t, you’ll most likely stay where you are, or even regress. You also know that if you do too much, you’ll overwhelm or tire yourself out resulting in frustration or even pain/injury.
An excerpt from the book,
The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, by Steven Kotler, P. 116
gives us an indication of how delicate it can be to find the sweet spot.
And that brings us to the “challenge/skill ratio,” the last of our internal flow triggers, and arguably the most important. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged (i.e., in the now) when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel—the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap. How hard is that? Answers vary, but the general thinking is about 4 percent. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills. In technical Terms, the sweet spot is the end result of what’s known as the Yerkes-Dobson law—the fact that increased stress leads to increased performance up to a certain intensity, beyond which performance levels off or declines. In real-world terms, it’s not much at all. In most situations, we blow by 4 percent without even noticing.
How do you differentiate between healthy challenge and Strain?
Interestingly enough, Dr. Moshé Feldenkrais, in his Book, Awareness Through Movement has something to say about the subject.
P. 57. Feldenkrais, Dr. Moshé, Awareness Through Movement, HarperOne; Reprint edition (July 28, 2009)
Improvement of ability
The lessons are designed to improve ability, that is, to expand the boundaries of the possible: to turn the impossible into the possible, the difficult into the easy, and the easy into the pleasant. For only those activities that are easy and pleasant will become part of a man’s habitual life and will serve him at all times. Actions that are hard to carry out, for which man must force himself to overcome his inner opposition, will never become part of his normal daily life; as he gets older he will lose his ability to carry them out at all.
It is rare, for instance, for a man over fifty to jump over a fence, even if it is quite low. He will look for the way around the fence, while a youth will jump over it without any difficulty. This does not mean that we should avoid everything that seems difficult and never use our will power to overcome obstacles, but that we should differentiate clearly between improvement of ability and sheer effort for its own sake, We shall do better to direct our will power to improving our ability so that in the end our actions will be carried out easily and with understanding.
Let us use the example of the 50 year old man jumping over the fence. Perhaps he hasn’t jumped in a long time and wants to see if he still can. First he must check with his feelings, does he think it would be safe to jump over the fence? Of course this will depend on the height, but let’s assume it’s too high to just jump over. One approach would be for our friend to think, “I used to be able to do this, I should be able to make this!” Then he might grit his teeth and give it a try. He tries, barely makes it over and pulls a muscle in his groin and scrapes his arm a bit. Chances are that he’ll never try again.
Another approach would be to say, “Let’s see, I used to be able to do this but I don’t feel up to it right now, what could I do to make that possible again?” So he looks for something much lower to jump over such as a log and begins to jump, noticing how he prepares and lands (of course there are many things to notice but that would take too much text to describe). After he feels comfortable with the current obstacle, he can look for another and then another, slowly building up to the height of the original fence.
The best way for him to make progress is to seek out that 4% increase in challenge as he practices. In this way, he’ll safely reach his goal and even surpass it if he so desires.
In the next post, I’ll describe some qualities of movement that can help you find your own sweet spot. Until then, land softly!
P.S. If you know someone who would also benefit from these posts, please share. We’ll both thank you!
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