The term comfort zone is one that has been tossed around for many years. I grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s and it was a phrase I heard a lot. It has been considered by some to be “cheesy” but I think it is a very useful psychological concept that helps us move away from what is familiar and gets us involved in the unfamiliar, which often leads to incredible growth and self-discovery. It can also lead to some pretty cool business results as well.
Your comfort zone, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary, is the place where you feel most comfortable (shocker!) and the place in which your ability and determination are not being tested. (italics added). While in our comfort zone, there is a feeling of familiarity, security and certainty. When we step out of it, we feel insecure, vulnerable and a sense of risk is introduced. We often feel stress and anxiety as we step into the unfamiliar and we aren’t sure what will happen next and how we will react. It is encoded in our DNA to avoid situations like I’ve just described. Our instincts have evolved over thousands and thousands of years to avoid the unfamiliar because it might be unsafe. However, just as our ancestors learned, we can discover great truths and even better futures when we take a little risk.
Operating outside your comfort zone can be stressful but that’s not necessarily a bad thing…as a matter of fact, some amount of stress can help you to be more productive and more resilient. According to some studies, good stress can actually enhance your health…not that any of us are going to go our of our way to try to find it!
As I mentioned, there are some pretty awesome benefits to leaving our nice, peaceful and safe comfort zone. While in it, we might feel like we are in control and have that warm, fuzzy feeling, but in most cases we are actually not doing ourselves a favor by staying there. For most of us, when we DO venture outside our personal zone of comfort, we timidly stick our toes out and sample what it’s like just outside. In most instances, that doesn’t help us either.
In order to learn and really have some growth, we have to take some risk and subject ourselves to some stress. When we do, we find that we really can do hard things but until we take that leap, we hamper our ability to achieve meaningful forward progress.
Feelings of anxiety can actually help propel us into action. Optimal anxiety is that place where mental productivity and performance reach their peak. Being comfortable can kill our productivity because without the sense of unease that comes from having deadlines and expectations, we tend to do the minimum required to get by.
In this article at The New York Times, Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, explains that one of the worst things we can do is pretend fear and uncertainty don’t exist. By taking risks in a controlled way and challenging ourselves to things we normally wouldn’t do, we can experience some of that uncertainty in controlled and manageable surroundings. Learning to live outside our comfort zone when we choose can prepare us for life changes that force us out of it. This will help us adapt and overcome as we move through our lives.
Staying in our comfort zone can result in consistent, steady performance but stepping out of our comfort zone and tackling a new and challenging task can help us achieve optimal performance. Think about it: Did you ever do something you were really proud of when you were in autopilot mode? Most of the really important discoveries about ourselves happen when we were pushed to do what we considered to be “beyond our limits.” Beyond our perceived and self-imposed limits is where the true magic happens!
I’m not suggesting we go TOO FAR outside our comfort zone. “When demands become too great for us to handle, when the pressure overwhelms us, too much to do with too little time or support, we enter the zone of bad stress,” author Daniel Goleman writes in Psychology Today. “Just beyond the optimal zone at the top or the performance arc, there is a tipping point where the brain secretes too many stress hormones, and they start to interfere with our ability to work well, to learn, to innovate, to listen, and to plan effectively.”
Trying new things can make us reflect on our old ideas and where they clash with new things that we’ve learned. It can inspire us to learn more and challenge our own biases. It’s human nature to only seek out information we already agree with. A positively uncomfortable experience can help us brainstorm, see old problems in a new light, and tackle the challenges we face with new energy.
So, go and step outside your self-imposed box. Breathe the air out there, get a feel for it and learn to embrace the new and uncomfortable. When you do, I promise that you’ll discover important things about yourself and you will realize that you really CAN do hard things…and the hard things are the ones that are most rewarding.