In all of my many challenges, habit changes, book writing, and learning, I’ve found one thing to be the most powerfully beneficial to all growth.
I call it the “Rule of the Edge.”
Here’s the rule: practice at your edge most of the time.
Go to the edge of discomfort, just to the edge of what is difficult for you, to where you are pushing your boundaries a bit.
If you’re practicing music, and you only practice the scales, after awhile doing the scales is too easy. Sure, it’s still good practice, but you will have to push to something that’s more challenging to keep progressing.
If you exercise, easy exercise is a good thing, but you also need to push yourself. Just a bit.
Your edge isn’t pushing yourself until you’re ready to collapse. It’s not pushing to injury, or to where you can’t practice tomorrow. It’s not studying until your brain melts.
Go to the edge, but don’t dive off.
And when I say, “Practice at your edge most of the time,” notice the phrase “most of the time.” You shouldn’t be at your edge all the time. It’s exhausting, and can take a lot of focus. Instead, try to be there more than half the time. Don’t be lazy, but also give yourself some easy practice.
There’s a lot of value in easy practice—it cements your learning, and keeps you sharp and in shape. It locks in the easy stuff and can be a lot of fun.
You can also experiment with pushing a little past your edge, if you have the experience to know that it’s safe. It might be best to do this under supervision of a teacher or trainer if you’re unsure.
So mix it up. More than half of your practice should be at your edge, but anywhere from 20-40 percent of your practice should be easy stuff. A blend is best.
What Edge Training Looks Like in Practice
Here’s how this kind of edge practice might work in real life:
- If you’re practicing yoga, you might do an hour-long practice where about 60 percent of the poses (roughly) are challenging for you (but not so challenging that you’ll be injured or exhausted), and the rest are easy ones that allow you to focus on your breath and recover from the edge poses.
- If you’re running, you’ll mix up your running days—four days will be challenging but not crazy, and some with easy ones thrown in between. And a rest day or two, of course.
- If you’re learning chess or go, you’ll do problems or drills that are hard for you, and also a bunch of easy ones. The easy one cement the patterns. The edge ones teach you new patterns.
- If you’re creating a habit, like learning to meditate, start with just short meditations of 2-5 minutes. Eventually, you’ll want to do longer meditations of 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or even more. Find the spot that’s your edge. Mixing in some shorter, easier sessions will help you stay sharp at your edge.
- If you want to train yourself to get comfortable with discomfort and uncertainty, you find a way to make yourself uncomfortable each day, and practice mindfulness in the middle of that discomfort. For example, taking a cold shower might be your edge. But another day, you might just go outside when it’s a little chilly, with only a T-shirt on, for 20 minutes. You might practice at the edge of your discomfort with exercise, speaking on a stage, meditating for longer, etc.
The Way to Practice at Your Edge
When you’re at your edge, it’s one thing to just tolerate it, to grit your teeth and bear it until it’s over … and quite another thing to actually practice with the discomfort and uncertainty of being at that edge.
If you want to get the most out of practicing at your edge, here’s what I suggest:
- Go up to the edge and stay there for a little longer than you’d like. You want to collapse, you want to exit. Instead, hold the pose for a little longer. See it as your growth in action.
- Now drop mindfully into the discomfort & uncertainty. Drop into your body, noticing the sensations of the discomfort. Standing on stage in front of hundreds of people? Notice the sensations of anxiety or nervousness, or excitement, whatever you’d call it. Running a hard mile? Notice the sensations in your legs and torso.
- Practice opening in that uncertainty and discomfort. See what you can do to relax into this feeling of being at your edge. Can you bring a sense of curiosity? Explore the bodily feeling for a bit, noticing what it’s like. Relax your muscles around these sensations. Bring a sense of gentleness, compassion, or humor to it. Open your mind to all sensations and your surroundings in the present moment. Open up to a vast skylike mind.
With practice, your edge can even be a place where you find comfort. A sense of ease and joy at the deliciousness of the groundlessness.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net