The truth about comfort zones

We’re often advised to step out of our comfort zone, to push ourselves to try new things. But what are comfort zones, and why are they so… comfortable?
February 18, 2021
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We’re often advised to step out of our comfort zone, to push ourselves to try new things. But what are comfort zones, and why are they so… comfortable?

Admitting to not challenging yourself is a brave thing in the real world. Praise and admiration are won by hard work, risk-taking, questioning the norms and a pioneering vision, not by doing the same thing over and over.But in truth, we all have comfort zones and we may work hard daily to cover up how much we want to stay firmly rooted in them. These spaces are a frame of mind or mental state that is safe, unthreatening and gives time to breathe, aside from the busyness of day-to-day tasks.

It might be that we overplay how busy we are so we don’t need to take on new tasks we are unfamiliar with, or we might shy away from learning a new skill because it would mean changing a trusted method.

We might opt not to share a great idea because it would mean speaking out, or putting ourselves on the line, or taking the lead… plus it might not work out.

There seem to be so many reasons to stay tucked away in a non-confrontational routine.

“When there’s a significant increase in uncertainty, there’s always a tendency to go back to styles of coping that used to provide comfort."

- Judith Bardwick

Comfort zones are necessary: much like the resting state our brain needs to make new connections, our old faithful behaviours allow us to operate without thinking too hard or feeling mentally or emotionally strained. Author Judith Bardwick calls this state ‘anxiety-neutral’.

But actually, we need a little bit of anxiety to shift our efforts up a gear. Psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson called it ‘optimal anxiety’, and that was back in 1908, so it’s not a new concept. Optimal anxiety is useful and not overbearing, the mental state where productivity peaks.

The saying ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ (which is, of course, also a book title on the subject) is useful, to some extent. When we step out of our comfort zone and experience an unsettling sensation, that is OK; it’s to be expected.As long as the sensation is not crippling, it is simply your system telling you it recognises the newness of it all and it needs to assess your safety.

Working with this adrenalin makes us more alert. By regularly challenging yourself, you will meet uncertainty with more confidence and with each attempt to move out of your comfort zone, you will gain the reassurance that you managed the last time you pushed yourself. Author Daniel Pink calls it ‘productive discomfort’.

“If you’re too comfortable, you’re not productive. If you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not productive. Like Goldilocks, we can’t be too hot or too cold."

- Daniel Pink

Working against this adrenalin and settling back down into the norm makes us believe we should not try, should not aspire, should not step out of that safe place we have created. We confirm our own self-imposed limitations if we give up or don’t give our minds a chance to get used to the new scenario. Confirmation bias may sound more acceptable than the derided term ‘comfort zone’ but it is no less inhibiting if it isn’t tested.

Habits take time to form – psychologist Jeremy Dean found that different habits take different amounts of time to set in. That’s not to say you no longer need a comfort zone when a new habit is established. It remains a necessity to have a safe place to retreat to but training yourself to take steps to try new things and make your safe place bigger, broader and richer is a healthier approach than barricading yourself in with old behaviours.

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