Leave your comfort zone

How Leaving Your Comfort Zone Can Impact Your Lifestyle Positively

A graphic depiction of comfort zone

Life has a lot of challenges. Sometimes they are easy to handle, other times they require a lot of effort. As human beings who are naturally averse to difficult situations, it is normal to find a metaphorical “safe space” to escape these problems.

This is okay, if it is only temporary. But when it becomes a permanent dwelling place, it affects our resolve to face inevitable problems and find solutions to them. This safe place is commonly referred to as a comfort zone.

The comfort zone can be a dangerous place when it is the only place. Amongst other things, it hinders personal growth and keeps one in an “island of false security”. In this article, we shall be discussing the truth about comfort zones; its disadvantages, how to leave them and the benefits of living in the “liberated zone”.

What is the comfort zone?

It is vital to nudge the boundaries of your comfort zone- in fact, it is a big deal when you do. But before we dig further, what exactly is a “comfort zone”? Let us assess this terminology from a more scientific angle.

Ask yourself these questions; why do we tend to be more comfortable with familiar situations and routine procedures? However, when someone introduces us to different and interesting ideas, the excitement wanes quickly, why? It is an interesting thing to consider but it is not so difficult to understand. Let’s begin.

Your comfort zone is a behavioural place where your actions and behaviours match a specific pattern or routine that reduces stress and risk. It provides a state of mental refuge- a sanctuary, if you must. The common benefits are regular happiness, less stress and reduced anxiety.

A performance metre

Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson developed the concept back in 1908. It was the result of a classic experiment they conducted at the time. Yerkes and Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort provided a stable form of performance. However, to increase performance, a state of relative anxiety is necessary, a place where our stress levels are higher than usual.

This space- with elevated stress levels- is known as “Optimal Anxiety”, and it exists just outside our comfort zone. Both psychologists maintained that in small quantities, optimal anxiety helps us perform better, but too much of it and we will be too stressed to be productive. This state automatically affects performance in a negative way.

The concept of Optimal anxiety

Optimal anxiety is no new feeling. Anybody who has ever ‘gone the extra mile’ or pushed themselves to the next level of achievement knows how impressive the outcome can be, when you really challenge yourself.

There are studies that buttress this point. But there is an effect of “diminishing returns” when you push too hard. When this occurs, it tends to reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad thing. As a result, we naturally return to our state of neutral anxiety and comfort. Now it is easy to see why changing the brain’s paradigm to leave the comfort zone is usually very difficult.

Some people may argue, that living in the comfort zone is neither a good nor bad thing. For them, it is simply a natural state of life- a human default mode. While they have a point, it is better to look at it from the benefits of leaving the comfort zone.

As a species, most of our successful breakthroughs occurred when we left our comfort zones. Perhaps the most relatable example is the circumnavigation of early voyagers who braved the seas to discover new lands. Prior to that time, people believed that the far end of the sea represented death, and anyone who ventured further would fall off the surface of the earth.

In 1522, Ferdinand Magellan set off to disprove this myth. With a capable crew of sailors and a fleet of 5 ships, he left his ‘comfort zone’ to circumnavigate the world. Today, the rest is history. The voyage not only discovered new lands and opened trade routes, it provided a better understanding of the earth as a round globe in the galaxy.

Other noticeable benefits of leaving the comfort zone include Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccine, pioneering of aeronautics by the Montgolfier brothers, the moon landing and other major scientific breakthroughs.

Why you should break-free of your comfort zone

The comfort zone may be a safe place, but nothing great happens there. The world is too dynamic to reward stasis. If you are not growing, you are shrinking. To experience magic, one must emerge from their comfort zone.

Our mental productivity and performance is at its peak in optimal anxiety. Here are reasons why you should break free from your comfort zone and try out new things:

  1. It makes you more productive

The so-called safe space can be a boring place. Comfort diminishes productivity, because if there is no ‘pressure’ to deliver or expectations, we generally become lax and give a mediocre performance. It also kills our drive and ambition to learn new things and produce more.

People in their comfort zone at work fall into a work trap, and end up looking towards close of business so they can leave. On the contrary, leaving your comfort zone exposes you to more learning opportunities, new skills acquisition and career advancements.

  1. Become more flexible to handle unexpected changes

Life is dynamic. Ironically, the only constant thing is change. Wherever you are, it is best to be prepared for any kind of change. People deeply ensconced in their comfort zone are usually the most affected whenever a major change occurs.

For example, in the early period of digital evolution, companies that failed to push their boundaries like Kodak and Blockbuster were punished severely by more dynamic competitors. They ended up going bust. When you leave your comfort zone, you become more flexible to adapt to new changes and grow.

A kid with wings

  1. It is easier to develop new ideas and grow creativity

Although it is a soft benefit, it is common knowledge that finding fresh experiences, acquiring new skills, and welcoming different ideas, inspires and edifies us in ways few things do. When we adopt new ideas, we reflect on the old ones and where they conflict with the new knowledge. This helps us overcome biases and become more amenable to other societies.

Even in the short-term, a positively anxious experience makes us brainstorm, visualise old problems in new ways and tackle upcoming challenges with renewed vigour.

  1. It gets easier to embrace new challenges in future

As you continue to step out of your comfort zone, it becomes easier with time. As stated in this article, pushing your boundaries constantly, enables you to build a tolerance for optimal anxiety. The productive discomfort becomes a norm, and makes it easier for you to push farther before the performance drops.

This concept has been captured correctly in a detailed infographic by The Future Science Leaders. From the data, it is evident that the more you challenge yourself, the more your comfort zone adapts. So, what used to be complex and stressful before, becomes easier as you reiterate it.

  1. It helps us age better

This is a natural way to defeat the aging process- which is always a major concern for most people. As we grow older, our comfort zone gets smaller. But if we find a way to continue expanding it, we will open ourselves a higher sense of fulfilment and enhanced well-being as we age.

A study about The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults, was published in 2013. It was conducted by researchers in University of Texas, and it revealed that learning new and complex life skills, while maintaining a strong social network, enhances cognitive functions in older adults.

Practical ways to break free from your comfort zone

Now we know why it is important leave the comfort zone, the next step is practicing the break away. Since the concept of the comfort zone is ideally a state of mind, and brain-oriented, it can be difficult to break free.

It requires a period of ‘unlearning’ and training the brain to accept a new ideology. In order words, your brain must first break away. The following are practical steps you can perform:

  1. Know what is outside your comfort zone

This is a strong play on, goal setting. It is only normal to know what you want to achieve before you go out of your way to achieve it. What scares you the most? What positive accomplishment would you like to make, but are afraid to try?

You can start by drawing a circle and writing those things outside the circle. This process helps you identify both your discomforts and comforts, so you can understand them. Write your comforts inside this illustrated “comfort” zone. Each time you successfully complete a ‘discomfort’, put it into the circle. This way, you will be expanding your comfort zone.

A boat in a river

  1. Try out new things everyday

Over time, we tend to adopt a routine; a heuristic way (shortcut) of doing things. While this is helpful in easing the decision-making process, it can sink you deep into a comfort zone. Start by changing a few things you do. Switch up your work routes, try a different coffee or ice-cream flavour, or use a new operating system.

Whether it is a big or small change, ensure you do something differently every day. Consider the outcome that comes with a change, even if it is not positive. If they don’t work out the way you expect, don’t be discouraged.

  1. Get used to discomfort

One way to emerge from your comfort zone is to expand it, literally. Make a conscious decision to stop avoiding discomfort. If conflicts scare you, approach it- but not in with dangerous intent. For instance, if you notice someone doing something wrong, call them out on it.

Or if you get nervous around large gatherings, like a party, try to stay a bit longer and converse with more people. The more you get comfortable with your discomfort, the easier it is to deal with.

  1. Learn from your failures

One of the common reasons people stay in a comfort zone is the fear of failure. Being rejected or disappointing a team can break a person’s self-confidence, and cause them to retreat into their shell. However, one of the worst things you can do is to let failure discourage you.

Former NBA champion, Michael Jordan is a poster figure for learning from failure, “I have failed over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed”. Treat failure as your teacher. Every time you ‘fail’ write about the experience. Ask yourself, what were the learning points? Think about how you can use them to succeed next time.

  1. Snap out with an app

Sometimes, taking your time to analyse a decision can fill you with doubts and fear. Trust yourself to make snap decisions on some occasions. It may not always turn out as you expect, but it helps you get the job done. Of course, this is only essential for worthwhile activities, not reckless ones.

To follow Nike’s mantra, “Just do it”. In the army, it is also referred to as a “judgement call”. There are apps designed to help people get out of their comfort zone. The Failure Games App will challenge you to get out of your comfort zone with a series of steps. Whether you want to make a travel decision or a food choice, it has got you sorted.

  1. Spend time with risk takers

This is a critical step. It is common knowledge that if you want to get better at something, start spending time with those who are great at it. By emulating them, their influence will eventually rub off on you. Are you scared of heights? It may be time to make friends with mountain hikers.

A common example is public speaking. This is often a weakness caused by shyness. If you hang out with bold people, you are likely to imbibe that assertive charisma, and thus shake off the discomfort associated with addressing a crowd.

  1. Take baby steps

There is a reason why you first crawl before you learn to walk. Everything has stages. In the previous example, if public speaking is your ‘discomfort’, start small and work your way up. You can begin by talking in small groups at a social setting or asking a question at conferences. As you become more comfortable with addressing a crowd, you can take up bigger challenges. A debate club is usually a good place to start.

How is this helpful? People who make their voice heard have a chance at growing wherever they are. Unfortunately, if you remain in the timid comfort zone, nobody will hear the great ideas you have.

  1. Be wary of making false excuses

Be honest with yourself when you avoid your fears. There is a difference between saying, “I can’t do this now because I don’t have time”, and “I am scared to do this”. The former is a denial, which prevents you from improving because you will keep finding excuses not to do it.

Conversely, the latter is an admission of fear which is a good start. Now, you know your problem and can take necessary steps to address it. Being honest is the first step in helping you overcome your fears and breach the comfort zone.

  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself

We are often our own worst critics. Instead of encouraging ourselves to be better, we berate our little efforts. This intrinsic pressure is one reason people are afraid to try out new things. Learn to laugh at your mistakes. It is true that risk taking can result in failure that make you look silly, but don’t let it define you.

Take a cue from comedians and be happy to roll with the jokes when others poke fun at you. Later, consider the reasons for your mistake and try again. Not everybody achieves success on their first attempt.

  1. Focus on the fun part

Trying something different is a process. No doubt, it will have its difficult aspects, but there is the fun side as well. Unfortunately, we are naturally conditioned to focus on the hard parts- and it can be daunting. By concentrating on the interesting aspects, we take away the boundaries and make it easier to traverse the comfort zone.

Instead of worrying about that massive office project, think about the learning opportunities it presents. Are you meeting new people, or working with new tools? This perspective can make it more fun.

Finally, achieving a new milestone brings a sense of fulfilment that enhances your mood and makes you feel better about yourself. Remember that feeling when you first learned to ride a bicycle?

Comfort zones still matter

At the beginning of this post, I said comfort zones are okay only when used as a temporary space. Occasionally, it is good to come back to it and process your experiences thus far. This way, you can avoid hedonistic adaptation; that is when your interesting new experiences quickly become ordinary and boring.