This episode has been recorded shortly after I recorded episode 4. It was done not only the same day but literally done within two hours of each other. That’s why I have a similar mood and quietness in my voice. The calmness from previously still persists and helped me to go after my daily goal: being uncomfortable or rather stepping outside my comfort zone. I touch on the point why I try to step outside my comfort zone, especially in social settings. I often struggle to initiate conversations with people I barely know or maybe don’t know at all. Yet I made it a point in my life to overcome this.
Besides that, the simple fact of living constantly in your comfort zone is harming you in your progress of life. Whenever you move around in your comfort zone, you in the end only do things that you already know that you can. That’s why you feel comfortable. There is no progress in this setting, only stagnation. In my view stagnation is your biggest enemy and a huge hindrance to personal growth and development.
What Is The Comfort Zone
I touched it already but to set the context correctly. The comfort zone is a psychological state of mind in which you or any other person can move around with control and ease. This means those are areas in which you are familiar with your environment (work, people, hobbies). Hence you experience a low level of 1) stress and 2) anxiety. This behavioral state allows steady performance as we feel under control as we move within a state of mental (and possibly physical) security.
This anxiety-neutral zone has not only disadvantageous. I will take about this further down the article.
The Science Of The Comfort Zone
As stated in the introduction the comfort zone stays in contrast to personal growth. You remain the same, as you constantly do the same. In order to grow you need to stress your systems with new signals. The tricky part is, that too much or too intense stress will impact your growth negatively. So what to do? The comfort of the known creates steady performance. If you wish to maximize performance, you need to enter the zone of optimal anxiety. It’s just outside your comfort zone, but close enough to still feel relatively safe and not so far as to be shocked frozen by anxiety and stress.
In other words, push yourself a little further, get to know the unknown and then you will return to baseline, which is your natural state: the comfort zone.
Why You Should Step Outside The Comfort Zone
There are several benefits of this step outside of the comfort zone into the area of optimal anxiety:
Once you make the step you will find it easier to deal with new and unexpected changes or circumstances. The main reason being, is that you already know by fact that you can. This means your brain has adapted to this shift in mindset and accepts it. It will cause less anxiety and reduce the fear factor for future leaps outside your comfort zone. Or in other words, you just got more comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Thanks to this shift, and this acceptance of the uncomfortable, you will find it easier to push those boundaries even further in the future. It is in a way the second step. After getting a feeling of the zone of optimal anxiety you start moving around in it. You test your new boundaries while feeling still secure enough to not be negatively impacted by the potential stress from this.
As you keep enlarging your comfort zone and thus increasing your overall skills in form of knowledge, information and tool-sets, your next big benefits will be that you find more ease while performing brainstorming activities. This is because you have said bigger sets of tools at hand which enables you to harness your creativity. We discussed previously how seemingly unrelated pieces of information and an increase of overall knowledge is the leading driver of creativity.
Ultimately all of those steps combined will lead to a much more productive version of yourself than you were previously.
“You have your today’s normal on one side and the moment you step outside of this area (your comfort zone), you create a new normal with more knowledge, information and tools to work with, on the other side.”
How To Step Out of The Comfort Zone
The big question remains. How to step out of your comfort zone? The good thing is, you often already know rather well what you feel comfortable with and what lies outside of this zone. The moment you get anxious or feel fear of doing something, chances are that you have reached the outer bounds of the comfort zone. Here are a few things you can do.
Let Go Of What Is
I am a routine person and I try to minimize decision fatigue as much as I can. This trait has its perks and benefits, but it’s also keeping you in your comfort zone. That is why you can try to do everyday things differently.
This doesn’t have to be something major. For instance, in the gym, I usually have the same locker, the same place and the same routine walking from A to B. It’s fully automated. Yet when I do my workouts (make sure to change your workout program frequently), I make it a point to take different paths to get to where I want occasionally. I approach a machine from different sides, take a weight with the left hand first instead of the other way around. Or at home: while cleaning the dishes, just switch the dominant hand, it’s going to be hard at first, but it’s a great training and it definitely feels very uncomfortable.
Next, I recommend trying something new every day. This is in part linked to the previous point, where doing something you do daily in a different way, is also something new. Yet, instead of ordering your usual sandwich for lunch, why don’t you try a soup or a salad. Different and new. Drive a different way to work. I try to smile at strangers daily. It’s in a way a routine, but it’s also something new too. On top of that it’s also a very good tool to practice mindfulness, as you easily get lost in your thoughts while walking on the streets. As a neat side effect, you will be a bright light for someone for a second and might change their day completely.
You might have realized by now that I am not going from zero to 100 in one step. And that is the key, do it in small steps. You won’t overshoot on stepping outside your comfort zone and won’t be blocked by anxiety and fear. Many small steps will lead to something big eventually. It’s the compound effect and you will benefit from it the moment you start implementing new things in your life.
Take Your Time For What Comes Next
Many of those little changes are mainly based on rather impulsive behaviors. You won’t ponder for an hour about which strangers to smile at, you will just smile. That’s why this last point might sound a little counter-intuitive. In order to find your ways outside your comfort zone, you ought to take your time making decisions. In order to fully appreciate this, understand that taking your time for a decision forces you to look closely at a situation.
You need to understand what lead you to it and what you want to achieve next. In order for this next achievement, you need to figure out what you need. Most of the time it’s not going to be more of the same, but rather a little of the new. It means you need to gather new tools, knowledge and information and those are not – yet! – part of your comfort zone. Soon they will be.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Revisit Your Comfort Zone
Now that we established the importance and benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone I want to highlight that revisiting your comfort zone is important too.
For one, constantly being outside of it keeps you moving in a constant zone of heightened stress by pushing fear and anxiousness. Constant stress can negatively effect your body and mind. That’s why it’s important to come back to baseline and “recover” from what you discovered and learned. You basically ought to “digest” what’s new in your system and get settled in there.
Second, all the new information needs not only to be digested but also to become part of your comfort zone. In order to accomplish this you need to revisit the outside of it sometimes because you (still) lack of routine. Ultimately it will become baseline knowledge, thus part of your comfort zone. This only works by using what you learned. Now that you don’t need to fear it anymore, you can make it part of your set of tools. You can use it in projects, in your daily business or your hobbies. This is only possible within your comfort zone.
As a third point I want to mention the state of flow. It’s a buzzword nowadays, but a very strong and important one in my opinion. The flow state is a state of hyper-focus of sorts in which you will operate and perform in a mental state of highest performance with a feeling of maximum involvement and energy. In other words, when you enter the flow state you will be completely absorbed by the activity at hand and lose all sense of space and time.
The State of Flow
According to The Handbook of Positive Psychology the following six factors are part of the flow experience:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment,
- Merging of action and awareness,
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness,
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity,
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered and
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience.
OK, this gives us an idea what flow means or could mean. The question of how to enter the flow state remains open.
Entering The Flow State
In the theory of flow it is argued, but not proven, that the following three conditions have to be met by a person in order to enter the flow state1:
- A person must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task at hand.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps you to negotiate any changing demands and allows you to adjust your performance in a way to maintain the flow state.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. This means that you need to have confidence in your ability to complete the task at hand.
Basically, in order to get into the flow state you need to know your goal, how to move forward to reach it, all the while having the chance for clear feedback. All of this is only possible if you have a good balance between the perceived degree of difficulty versus the perceived level of your own skills. The last part is where you operate within your comfort zone. Only if you know what you are capable of within a framework that you can oversee, you have the chance to enter flow state.
Please realize that being in your comfort zone and being in the flow zone are two different things. The same way being in the comfort zone and zone of optimal anxiety are two separate things. The only thing they have in common is the place of origin: the comfort zone.
I cannot write about the flow state without directing you to the Flow Genome Project, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal’s Stealing Fire.
1 Csikszentmihályi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698
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