A lot of bullshit has been written about the comfort zone.
Some people make it sound like magic. As if the moment you “step out” of your comfort zone a genie will appear ready to grant you three wishes.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not how the comfort zone works.
But, before we get into how it actually works (and how you can profit from stretching it), let’s take a look at:
What is the comfort zone?
Judith M. Bardwick, author of “Danger in the Comfort Zone”, describes it as “a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position.”
In other words, the comfort zone is that state (call it routine, if you want) in which you feel secure; at ease. No stress, no anxiousness, no uncertainty or vulnerability.
Now, is that bad? No, it’s not. Should we try to step out of our comfort zone just because the Internet tells us to in motivational posters? No, we should not.
That said, there are benefits to expanding our comfort zone, but they’re far from magical. Truthfully, they’re kind of painful.
What you can gain from stretching it
Turns out that when we operate within our comfort zone we’re not at our most productive. Makes sense–we are, by definition, pretty comfortable in our routine, which means we become complacent. Rest in our laurels a little bit, if you will.
When we are forced to step out of our zone of comfort and do something different, a certain anxiety kicks in that makes us more focused, aware, and careful; we’re doing something new and we don’t want to screw up.
That’s called “optimal anxiety”. “Optimal”, because if we were too uncomfortable, we enter the “panic” zone, wich would also make us unproductive.
In other words: productivity-wise, the sweet spot is juuust outside our comfort zone.
Should I step out of my comfort zone?
That depends. The comfort zone is not good or bad in itself, it just is.
If you’re happy with your life, and content, and feel no need to try new stuff, then save yourself the pain and stay within your zone of comfort.
However, if you’re unhappy, or feel there are aspects of your life that could be improved if only fear, complacency, or procrastination weren’t holding you back, then it might be time to challenge yourself.
Why stepping out of the comfort zone might be painful
Our brains are programmed to avoid pain.
The comfort zone is what we know, where we feel secure and at ease. Outside of the comfort zone, there’s the unknown. And facing the unknown can be really scary, which in turn can make us feel anxious and stressed.
Hence why our brain will try to avoid stepping out of the comfort zone at all costs.
The good news? If we do step out of it, our discomfort won’t last forever; because, thankfully, our comfort zone can be stretched.
☞ I’m going to give you a very simple example of that:
Say the latest installment of our favorite movie franchise premieres on Friday, and we’re eager to watch it. However, no one we know wants to accompany us. What do we do?
- Option A: We go by ourselves and enjoy our favorite movie on the big screen.
- Option B: We don’t want to go to the movies alone, so we wait for months until it’s available on a streaming platform.
What’s holding us back here from doing something would genuinely enjoy? That’s right, going to the movies by ourselves is outside of our zone of comfort.
In other words: the only thing holding us back in this situation is fear.
We might fear people will judge us, or that we’ll feel awkward, or anxious, or lonely.
But, the truth is–nobody really cares if we are alone. And, once the lights dim, everyone in that theatre will be watching the movie by themselves.
If we take Option A, we will most likely feel awkward and anxious… At first. Because, once we have done it a couple of times, our comfort zone will expand to accomodate this new experience and going to the movies by ourselves will feel like no big deal.
How do I expand my comfort zone?
The only thing keeping you from doing things outside your comfort zone is fear (of pain, of unpleasant feelings, of not being good enough… the list goes on). And the only way of dealing with fear is by being brave.
You don’t need to take huge steps, either–you can expand your comfort zone inch by inch.
☞ Let’s take the example above:
We don’t need to go see the film on Friday night when the theatre will be packed. Instead, we can go on a different day at a time we know not many people will be there.
Once we gain confidence, then we can work our way to primetime-Friday.
- The comfort zone is not some magical artifact.
- Being in the comfort zone is normal and not inherently good or bad.
- The comfort zone makes us unproductive.
- Experiencing “optimal anxiety”, which is just outside our zone of comfort, makes us productive.
- Stepping out of the comfort zone is painful, but can be done step by step.
- The comfort zone is like a muscle: if we exercise it, it will expand.