What you need to know about your comfort zone

“Taking risks is the safest thing you can do”. I stumbled upon this quote from an interview with Seth Godin. In the same interview, he says that we should stop equating comfort with safety. By staying in our comfort zones we let opportunities pass us by. Being afraid to go after them means stagnating in our careers, private lifes or personal development. In reality the danger lies not outside of our comfort zone, but in us staying in it. It is disheartening to think about all the things that could have been, if one just tried. Think about all that wasted potential. And due to what? What is it that we are scared of? We should dig deeper and find out.

What is the comfort zone

First, let’s start with what is a comfort zone. Psychologists explain it as a stress neutral zone. When you’re in this state you don’t feel vulnerable or at risk. There are no events or occurrences that significantly spike your stress levels. But, there are no spikes in motivation either. You don’t feel particularly excited about anything. Each person has their own different version of a comfort zone, since we all have different representations of what risk means to us. However, it is safe to generalize that being in this zone is like running on autopilot.

In relation to the comfort zone, psychologists talk about two more zones. The first is a stress positive zone and the second is a stress negative zone. The stress positive zone is the zone we should aim to be in. It turns out a little bit of stress can be good for you. It can give you a push to go the extra mile and to work harder. It can actually make you more productive.

Sounds counter intuitive, I know. Maybe this will help to better explain it. Think of stress as salt. Not adding it to a meal will make the food taste bland. Adding a little bit will enhance the taste, while adding too much will make the meal inedible. If the first part of this metaphor represents the comfort zone, the second - the stress positive zone, then the third part is the stress negative zone. In this zone you are faced with an amount of stress that you can’t cope with. You are overwhelmed with anxiety and are not able to be productive. Stress in large quantities does not create positive outcomes. Only burn outs and frustration. That’s why it’s important to test our limits bit by bit. If you were afraid of heights, you wouldn’t go bungee jumping as your first step towards overcoming that fear.

Getting out of the comfort zone

Most of us aren’t even aware when we have been passive for too long. It takes an outside push or deep introspection to signal that we have been stuck in our comfort zone and that it’s time to get out. In order to exit successfully we need a mindset shift. First, we need to realize that the comfort zone is neither good nor safe. As mentioned in the first paragraph, staying comfortable won’t help us achieve our goals. Understanding this gets us closer to developing our own motivational push to get out of it.

The second part of shifting our mindset is facing the fear of exiting the comfort zone. Most commonly this is the fear of the unknown. Being naturally risk averse, most of us would stay in a familiar situation that we are not satisfied with, rather than risk to change it. Not knowing what that change could bring can really scare us.

If you want to cross the borders of your comfort zone, first you have to know where they are.

Here’s a little exercise for you. Write all the things that you want to achieve. Then arrange them into two groups. Group 1: Goals that you can achieve without taking any risk (staying in your comfort zone). Group 2: Goals that in order to achieve you have to go outside of your comfort zone.

What is stopping you from going after the things from the second group? Write it all down. Will you have to take actions that you’re uncomfortable with? Will you have to take risks? Does it require a lot of hard work? Does it scare you that success is not a sure thing? Maybe you’re worried about what other people might think of you. This list of obstacles represents the borders of your comfort zone. So be honest with yourself when writing it

Take time to acknowledge what you have written. Process all the feelings and fears. Overcoming them completely is not possible. But you can learn to take action even when you feel scared. You can become comfortable with the feeling of being uncomfortable. Remember, that is just your old mindset pushing back. Resist it’s influence an push forward. Do this in baby steps at first. Do one small thing that scares you. Then do something that scares you a bit more. Think of being uncomfortable as experiencing growing pains. It means that you are now operating in the stress positive zone. As you go you’ll gain more confidence and develop a habit of going after the things you want, even if it is uncomfortable or scary.

You can watch the Seth Godin interview that inspired this post here