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How to train your brain to be more spontaneous

Here are three ways to get better at saying yes to spur-of-the-moment opportunities.

How to train your brain to be more spontaneous
[Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

Some people are willing to take advantage of opportunities that lie in front of them, while others fear to step off the path they have set for themselves. If you’re the kind of person who wants to know what’s coming before trying something new, then you might benefit from taking a few more chances.

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Your work life (and your personal life, too, for that matter) will likely benefit from a willingness to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. After all, it’s hard to predict in advance which projects, situations, or engagements will be the ones that define the important story lines of your career. If you avoid new situations, though, then your career can only take paths you have already envisioned for yourself.

If you have trouble being spontaneous, then you are probably low in a personality characteristic called openness to experience, which reflects how you are motivated when faced with a new situation or opportunity. People high in openness find new situations full of opportunities to be explored. They do not want to miss out on those potential benefits. In contrast, people low in openness are concerned about the potential problems or dangers that may lurk in new situations. They prefer the comfort of the known to the threats of the unknown.

Here are three ways to get better at saying yes to opportunities:

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1. Practice outside of work

For some people, being spontaneous is a problem only at work, but for many, it’s something that is true across situations in their lives. If that’s true for you, then start your journey by saying yes to more things in your personal life, where the risks are often smaller. If you resist a new activity with friends or doing something the way your partner or kids want to do it, drop your objections and go with it.

After it is over, ask yourself whether the things you feared were going to happen actually occurred. You may not have fun doing new things the first time—it takes time to overcome your trepidation and many new activities are ones you need to do a few times before they feel comfortable. But, each new experience you try builds up your courage to agree to another new thing.

After you practice at home a few times, give it a shot at work. Seize a new opportunity and see what happens.

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2. Ask: Which risks really matter?

Of course, for every proverb like “He who hesitates is lost” that suggests you dive into something new, there’s another proverb like “Look before you leap” that reinforces the wisdom of careful deliberation. So, how can you overcome the need to be sure that every risk has been addressed?

It’s important to figure out which risks really matter in your workplace. You can address this in two ways:

First, find a person who seems to be successful at taking new opportunities as they arise. Talk to them about what they see as the biggest downside to trying something new. Seek to understand the way that people who are more open to experience than you are evaluate situations.

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Second, recognize that there are some common fears that are not as significant as they seem. Many people at work fear taking social risks. They do not want to give presentations to groups, to lead meetings in front of big clients, or to engage with top leaders of a firm. People are concerned that they will say or do something wrong that will create a negative impression.

The risks of creating a really bad impression are quite low. Most talks people give are fine, some are amazing, and few people remember the really bad talks they have attended. Leading a meeting is safe, because you always have colleagues who can help to pick things up if there is a problem. And even when you do commit a faux pas in a public situation, most people don’t remember it later.

The big lesson is that your fears are often more substantial than the actual risk. Get some advice on what you really need to watch out for and don’t let the other concerns get in the way.

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3. Focus on benefits

There really is a mindset in which you focus on everything that can go wrong. When you are aware of most of the threats in the world, you will also discount the upside of opportunities. As a result, the advantages of trying something new may seem slim.

This mindset is one you can shift just by looking on the bright side. Really. When there is a chance to do something new, you may find that you generally gravitate to all the reasons why you shouldn’t do it. Instead, stop yourself and think about one or two reasons why you should say yes. Not only will this help you to see a few reasons why you should do something, but you may also find that this helps make some of the potential reasons against trying it seem less important.

If you practice this method frequently, you may find that you start to notice some of the benefits of opportunities without having to do it intentionally, and that some of the disadvantages of spontaneity loom less large. The new mindset can actually become a habit.

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