3 Steps to Stretch your Edges and Overcome Barriers to Success

Before jumping in and defining the concept of an edge, I like to use the metaphor of a rubber band. If you have a rubber band, I want you to go and get one now. It can be a rubber band, hair tie, ponytail holder, scrunchy, rubber bands from your kid’s loom kit, or a silicone wristband. I’ll wait a few minutes while you go and get one for real.

Step 1: Identifying Your Comfort, Stretch, and Panic Zones

Comfort Zone

If you hold your rubber band (or other items that you grabbed to simulate the rubber band) up with one finger, I describe this as the comfort zone. The rubber band is in its natural up-stretched state. When we are comfortable and not challenged, then we are in our comfort zone or status quo. If you find yourself stretched outside of your comfort zone and it gets too hard or uncomfortable, you naturally go back to your comfort zone. It isn’t necessarily a negative or bad thing. This state allows you to you have some sense of stability. As we stretch ourselves, our comfort zone naturally increases as a result. The steps in this guide will help you with this.

Now that you have your rubber band and you’ve seen what it looks like for your comfort zone, I want you to reflect and write down areas of your life or situations where you are comfortable. Think of your career, finances, health, relationships with family/friends/significant other, personal development, fun/hobbies, or community. There are many areas of your life. You could be in the comfort zone with some but more stretched with others. How is your overall job or routine tasks you do daily? How are your relationships with your significant other, friends, parents, or sibling? What about routines like driving to the grocery store during non-rush hour traffic and shopping for items on your shopping list? As a runner, going on a 5K (3.1 miles) run at a comfortable pace is right inside my comfort zone (now that I have acclimated to Colorado). I’m not getting stretched, and I could do the run daily without having any problems with my legs or feet. I’m also not decreasing my time to complete a 5K, nor am I increasing the distance I can run. When you are in your comfort zone, you are happy, calm, and stress-free. When your body releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) or serotonin (the happiness hormone), it can make you feel good about being in your comfort zone. I know whenever I finish running a 5K, dopamine is released as a reward for me completing my run. Even serotonin is released when I am running (even the sunlight in Colorado Springs helps with the release).

Here's where I want you to get involved and brainstorm where you are comfortable (i.e., career, finances, health, relationships with family/friends/significant other, personal development, fun/hobbies, or community). Think of at least five different areas or events, and brainstorm for 5 minutes. I suggest writing down your ideas. We will soon start our little experiment.

Stretch Zone

If you take your rubber band (or another item you grabbed to simulate the rubber band) and stretch it with two or more fingers, I describe this as the stretch zone. This zone is where you are doing your stretching or growing. This is not an easy zone to be in because the rubber band naturally has some resistance when you are trying to stretch it. As humans, we are creatures of habit, and the path of least resistance would be staying in the comfort zone. Physically, when we don’t stretch, our muscles may become shorter and tighter. What this does to our body is limit mobility and flexibility of our body over time. Metaphorically, this is what happens to our minds as well. The stretch zone enables individuals to learn something new or grow in an area they are not comfortable with. If you have a new job, a new relationship, or learning a new skill, this may be in the stretch zone. Keep in mind that a stretch zone can be different from person to person. For example, I grew up with computers starting with an Apple IIGS and an IBM computer with an Intel 8080 processor. Every year, I’d experience an upgrade of the processor or a different operating system. The more time I spent with computers, the less of a stretch it was to learn a new model or upgrade to an operating system. The amount of time that you stay in the stretch zone before it becomes comfortable will vary as well.

When I moved to Colorado from Texas, I had not run in about eight months. When I tried to run again in the spring when it was warmer, I was embarrassed because I struggled to run 1 mile. Not only was I challenged due to not running, but the altitude increased from practically sea level to almost 7,000 impacted my running ability. What used to be my comfort zone now turned Figure 2- Your Stretch Zone into my stretch zone. I was frustrated, and my stress levels increased due to not being able to run the way I had in the past. I got to the point where I thought I might not be able to run another 5K. I spent the next three months getting back to the point where I could run a 5K using different running techniques and exercises to get my distance and speed back. I constantly had to remind myself why I was doing what I was doing and what benefits it will bring. The challenge was not during the run. It was more of what happened before I began taking my first steps in the run. During the run, I was getting endorphins (these neurotransmitters help you cope with pain or stress and help you feel good overall) released as I was running. This contributes to the “runner’s high” after you finish an exercise. The bonus was the release of dopamine as soon as I completed a milestone goal. When working on your stretch zone, there are other ways to release endorphins and dopamine. As a side note, after three months, I still was not at my peak running performance. I was still about 1:30 minutes per mile slower than I had been only a year back. While this was a little disappointing, this became my new stretch zone goal.

As we did in the previous section for the comfort zone, reflect on where you are currently stretched or can enter the stretch zone. Take a moment and explore areas of career, finances, health, relationships with family/friends/significant other, personal development, fun/hobbies, or community. Don’t limit yourself to this list if you have something different. After you reflect on the areas in your life where you are in the stretch zone, write them down. Think of at least five different areas or events, and brainstorm for 5 minutes. I suggest writing down your ideas.

Panic Zone

For the final zone, take your rubber band (or another item that you grabbed to simulate the rubber band) and stretch it with two or more fingers as far as you can (safely) to the point it feels uncomfortable and it’s about to break (don’t break it though). I describe this as the panic zone. You don’t want to be in this zone too long, or you will potentially experience extreme discomfort, break, or panic. Also, let’s not get into any traumatic situation. It can relate to career, finances, health, relationships with family/friends/significant other, personal development, fun/hobbies, or community. You may have areas of your life, job, or relationships that can fit this category. In this zone, your worst fears become a reality and can cause your body to shut down physically. For some, this can be public speaking or even turning your video camera on during a Zoom or WebEx call. It might be a physiological reaction that happens automatically if the event is stressful or frightening. You may experience severe anxiety, increased heart rate, pale or flushed skin, and dilation of the pupils. It is typical in a fight or flight response where we are in a perceived state of danger. I remember several instances in college when I was going to class to take an exam, and I did not prepare for it. There was my state of panic. I would have rather failed the exam than go to the class to take the exam. I thought that if I didn’t face it, then it would go away. The effect was the opposite - it just made the situation worse.

As we did in the previous sections for the comfort zone and stretch zone, take a few minutes to reflect on where you stand. Reflect on situations that can elevate to the panic zone in your career, finances, health, relationships with family/friends/significant other, personal development, fun/hobbies, or community.

Don’t spend too much time in this section. After you reflect on the areas in your life where you are in a panic zone, write them down. When you finish, please get up and move around. Shake it off, or do something that makes you smile. Spend 5 minutes brainstorming and write down your panic zones on a sheet of paper. List as many areas or events as you want.

Step 2: What are Your Edges?

Now that you have identified areas or events that fit your comfort zone, stretch zone, or panic zone, let’s talk about your edges. Think of an edge as a barrier or resistance from going where you are to somewhere different.

Based on the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the definitions that stands out is “the point or state immediately before something unpleasant or momentous occurs.” In the running examples I gave above, just waking up and getting out the door to do a run was an edge. Jumping into a new job or project may be an edge because it is unfamiliar.

When most people hit an edge that causes discomfort or unpleasantness for an extended period, they often give up. Instead of having a rubber band, grab something like a phone charger cable and put a loop in it. If you try to stretch it, the cord doesn’t really give. Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, referenced a fixed mindset as being unable to improve your abilities over time (like trying to stretch the cell phone charging cable). In contrast to a fixed mindset, she says, “challenges are exciting rather than threatening in a growth mindset. So rather than thinking, oh, I’m going to reveal my weaknesses, you say, wow, here’s a chance to grow.” By having a growth mindset, you can get into the stretch zone and have the potential to cross edges that might have once been a barrier. In fact, some of the advantages that may have looked like mountains before may look like a small hill or pebble.

Let’s look at potential edges starting with items or events you listed in your comfort zone. Think about what might take this item or event from the comfort zone to the stretch zone. What are areas that are unfamiliar or uncertain? If it is relationship-based, where is there a need for belonging, not be in a state of abandonment, or not be in conflict? For opinions or ideas, where might you have a different view that might not be as popular? We see polarizing opinions everywhere (i.e., cell phone brands, vaccines, politics, religion) that might not be popular to express our views. If it’s dealing with emotions or feelings, we might not be comfortable with exposing our surfaces.

As you think about each edge, what are you holding onto? Also, what are you avoiding? You might also think about why you want to cross that edge in the first place and what it might cost you to either go over the edge or not go over the edge.

Pick two items or events and identify potential edges that you may experience preventing you from going into the stretch zone. For example, running a 5K at a comfortable pace is my comfort zone. My edge might be decreasing my time for a 5K or running a full marathon (26.2 miles). My edge could also be running in an official race since it’s been over 5 years since my last 5K race. Either one of these edges will put me in the stretch zone. Write the items down on a sheet of paper.

Not all items or events in the list you made previously in the stretch zone are edges. We want to think about which items on the list make you feel uncomfortable to the point you no longer wish to continue or there is a barrier to your success. Let’s jump back to my running example. One of the edges, when I was in my prime running condition, was getting to a 7-minute mile for a 5K (back in 2014!). The training was not helping me decrease my time; I was stuck at a 7-minute and 30 seconds per mile pace for over a year. This was a barrier I thought I’d never cross until I started using different running techniques after reading books, watching YouTube videos, beginning strength training, and even getting a running coach. I finally crossed the barrier and ran a 5K distance in 21 minutes and 35 seconds. It wasn’t a 7-minute mile, but it was close enough for me because it beat my previous times. Here are some other edges that were around getting to this time. Finding the time for training due to work and family commitments. Finding and paying a coach money to help improve my performance. Other distractions are more accessible than running.

Pick two items or events and identify potential edges that you may experience in the stretch zone where you feel stuck or are not making progress. Keep in mind that things in your stretch zone may eventually end up in your comfort zone. The more you stretch and grow, the bigger your comfort zone becomes. You can write the items down.

Trying to think about any of the items from your panic zone list may cause physical discomfort. Crossing an edge of the panic zone will significantly impact you. Please don’t do something that may put you in harm’s way, either physically or emotionally. One event that I pushed back on in my life was getting a divorce (even though I was no longer living with my ex). My edge from getting a divorce was losing custody of my two daughters, who I had been taking care of for 5 years as a single father. Just thinking about this did have a physiological impact on my body, resulting in increased stress. Pretending it wasn’t there wasn’t helping. However, I thought this was the coping mechanism I put in place to keep me safe. I did get the divorce and full custody of my two daughters as a side note. That was a massive weight off my shoulders and relieved my worst fear. What finally helped me cross the edge? The more time passed, the more confident I got in taking care of my daughters. I also had discussions with my ex, and I hired a lawyer that explained the process and everything that could happen.

Pick two of the items or events and identify potential edges that you may experience in the panic zone that significantly scares you. This might not be something that you immediately deal with. It took me 5 years to deal with something in my panic zone. You can write the items down on a sheet of paper.

Step 3: Work on Your Edges and Build your Backlog

One of the books on my bookshelf that I pull out periodically is The One Thing by Gary Keller. From your work in step 2, you should have identified 6 different edges (2 each from your comfort, stretch, and panic zones). The easiest ones to work with are from your comfort and stretch zones. The overall message from The One Thing is to break down what you are trying to accomplish into small pieces down to the daily level. When I was trying to run a 5K after moving to Colorado, I made it easy to succeed. I set my alarm, set out my running clothes and shoes the night before, had an accountability buddy, and set a small goal. My small goal was to run for 5 minutes, and if I was not feeling it, I’d go back home. The endorphins helped me cross the 5- minute threshold every time. Over the three months, I was doing this, I never went back home after running for 5 minutes. Your edges also evolve once you cross them. My initial edge was rerunning a 5K, and the next one was decreasing the time to run the 5K. Focus on how to get actions small enough so you can make small steps towards crossing your edge.

Out of the 6 edges you identified, pick one advantage using SMART language (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely). For running my 5K, I wanted to run a 5K at a 9:00 minute per mile pace within 3 months. This was something that I could measure and reasonably achieve when I specified. If that’s too big, make it smaller. I could have simply had the action of getting up and running for a total of 5 minutes per day for a week if I was struggling. I have had the edge before of just waking up and running. Next, you want to identify what you can do daily to progress towards the selected challenge. I would recommend choosing these actions daily. Another item you want to put down is how will you celebrate your success? I planned on buying some new running shoes when I crossed my edge and successfully ran a 5K at my pace. I also chose a destination where I wanted to run on the weekends. I did several runs on the weekend at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, where I watched the sunset after a run. You can use the following as a template. I’d recommend writing this in a journal or a task tracker.

For the other 5 edges that you have identified, try turning those into something smaller and achievable using the SMART language. Don’t try to tackle all of these at once. You may locate more edges from your comfort zone and stretch zone before looking at your panic zone. Once you have crossed your first edge, take on another edge. After using this approach, my mantra became “becoming more comfortable with the uncomfortable.” I ended up doing improv at the Dallas Comedy House for a year, doing musical improvisation, singing in a band, playing bass, doing stand-up comedy, running a half marathon, and taking on additional roles at work.

In Gary Keller’s book, one quote stands out, “no one succeeds alone. No one.” Often, individuals are afraid to ask for help or are unaware of who can help them. In my career, I’ve had many different mentors and coaches to help me succeed where I didn’t have the knowledge or had blind spots. Sometimes you must have a little help stretching your rubber band, seeing your edges, and even crossing it. If you need that extra boost or push in the right direction, I can help you. I can’t wait to hear about what edges you have crossed.

Bonus - Step 4: Your Edge Journal

One of the things that have helped identify and cross edges is creating an Edge Journal. During the day, as you face edges, write the edge down and determine if it’s in your comfort, stretch, or panic zone. You’ll find that some opportunities are smaller than others and are easier to approach. For edges that are too big or too scary, break them down into something more digestible for you. Look at step 3 for the SMART language to put each edge in to cross. You will also increase your serotonin and confidence in crossing more significant edges as you cross them.

Here’s one way you can format your journal. You want to identify the edge, what type of it was, and if you were able to cross its border. For those too big edges, be sure to break them down and add them to your backlog.