“Comfort Zone” is a greatly overused and cliched phrase, coined by psychologists in the 1980’s. From its inception, it was grabbed up and used by cheesy corporations and “pop” psychologists in their bid to have us all believe that we can never achieve great things if we don’t face some unfamiliar and uncomfortable personal challenges.
A simple Google search of the phrase gives the first hit as a dictionary definition reading:
a situation where one feels safe or at ease. "the trip is an attempt to take the students out of their comfort zone"
a settled method of working that requires little effort and yields only barely acceptable results. "if you stay within your comfort zone you will never improve"
The predominant school of thought appears to be then, if we are within our “comfort zone” we are destined to under-achieve. We will yield only “barely acceptable results”. In addition, we choose the path of least resistance because we are intrinsically lazy as we don’t have to expend too much energy in pursuit of those “barely acceptable results”.
In our comfort zone we are “in control”. The knowledge of our circumstances is routine, we know what to do, how to do it and what results we can expect. Everything is familiar. Living in that comfort zone is a relatively stressless existence where anxieties are minimised and consistent level of performance can be generated. The question is this… in a society where mental health issues are better understood, where anxiety, panic attacks and depression are increasingly common, is it wrong for individuals to stay in their controllable, predictable comfort zone?
By its very definition, “stepping out of your comfort zone” is to leave behind all that is familiar and routine. It requires us to consciously and actively place ourselves in a position where we are open to insecurity, where we are fundamentally exposed and can make mistakes. We place ourselves in a position of uncertainty, not sure of the outcomes or intrinsically what we must do to achieve the given result. Our existence becomes one of anxiety and fear of failure. Then we look back with the benefit of hindsight and see our previous comfort zone thing in a different light. It’s secure, easy and stress-less position invites us to return and we sprint back to it’s warmth and comfort as quickly as we can. in a society in which cultures shift, technology advances and trends change as rapidly ours is it really of any surprise that most of us wish to avoid the road less travelled and are happy to stay put? Why should we consciously place ourselves in a position of anxiety and insecurity, when it’s pretty likely that we will find ourselves facing something imposed on us which makes us feel a little disconnected and unsure?
“Do something different…”; “Start something new…” ; “Make a positive change…” the stereotypical mantras of self help gurus, who tell us that nothing is really possible if we stay locked inside that intangible zone of "comfortable wellbeing". We are told that if we want truly satisfying work, relationships or lives, we need to push beyond the barriers of our own comfortable bubble of existence and embrace the uncomfortable unknown. Unfortunately for the majority, this approach just won’t last. The initial motivation and energy to embrace the unknown, to go through the “pain” for the “gain” that rests on the other side, quickly ebbs and flows away. We find ourselves left in a naked position, with our limitations exposed to the "monsters" that are the influences of new circumstances. That sprint back has already begun, we return to comfort reaffirming that we should never have tried to change in the first place.
What if being comfortable was ok? What if knowing what to do and how to do something is actually a good thing? In this crazy scenario, what if you took the decision to say “NO” to growth and “YES” to staying put. Not just do you say “NO”, but also you choose to dive deeper into the thing you’re good at. Stay within that comfort zone and plunge as deep into that particular pool as possible. Safe waters are by definition safe waters, that doesn’t mean that you’ve reached all the way to the bottom of the pool though. Why not stay in those safe waters and find out how deep you can go. Become the expert within your own comfortable, intangible bubble.
Our brains love predictability, contentment, connection and safety, all those qualities of that comfort zone. Whilst it’s important to guard against complacency, being truly comfortable with another person is what we crave for in regards of relationships. The issue for interpersonal relationships is often we confuse the word comfort, having that positive bond and attachment, with disengagement and indifference. The stereotypical model of a partner who comes back tired from a day at work, collapses on the sofa and waits to be waited upon isn’t a reflection of comfort, it’s a fundamental absence of caring. Comfort in a relationship is knowing the other person, having a common bond and genuine connection that doesn’t take effort. The results are far from the “barely acceptable” level suggested by the Google dictionary however. The results of being in a comfort zone for a relationships are fulfillment, security, love and happiness, all of which are completely and wholly acceptable outcomes for anybody.
In a work setting is it wrong to stay within the area of your skill set and capability. There’s a genuine school of thought here which suggests unless that which you want to achieve is something you deeply value and care about, you should stay put. There’s no result to be gained from pushing personal development, because peers or colleagues expect that. Indeed in a work setting there’s an awful lot to gained from ‘mastery’ of the current skill set you have.
In Japanese martial arts the concept of “Shuhari” describes the stages of learning (or competency) that we go through towards mastery.
"It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws." (Endo Seishiro Shihan, 2011)
This approach towards understanding mastery in martial arts is just as relevant to understanding the benefits we can gain within a workplace setting. Within a new role we are first told what to do, we then learn how to do it. Through repetition and reinforcement we develop technical capabilities. Over time and through review we appraise our methods becoming more streamlined in our process in order to attain the same results. Productivity then increases as we are able to generate greater results in a similar time frame. We have become creative in the way we approach our original task, having mastered the capabilities required. Mastery is the epitome of staying within the safe waters of your comfort zone and fully immersing yourself in the pool.
Another aspect of life where we are told that we must push outside our comfort zone is that which surrounds fitness and health. The “push harder, embrace the burn, no-pain, no -gain” mantra of many gyms would have us believe that discomfort is a pre-requisite condition for physiological change. Whilst it may well be true that the exercise that we are physically unaccustomed to will be the one that physiologically engages us the most, psychologically this may have the opposite effect. Often times the unaccustomed activity is the one that made us feel most useless, weak and uncoordinated. Further it’s misguided to suggest or believe that doing the same routine, week in week out, will not be beneficial. Sure, you can’t beat the physiology and there will be an ultimate point where the systems within the body have adapted versus the exercise. However this doesn’t mean that the whole routine needs to change. The psychological factors such as, improved self efficacy and self confidence that are generated from doing a familiar routine are fundamentally important in facilitating long-term adherence to an activity programme. There are equally hormonal, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal strength outcomes to be gained from maintenance of the same comfort zone workout routine. At the end of the day here, results are key there’s no argument against this, but if you get to 90 years old and yet you’ve been doing the same comfortable exercise routine for the last 20-30 years, that’s still a great result isn’t it?
So, in conclusion here there’s a lot to be gained from staying in that comfort zone. It’s essentially a balance, maintaining performance the things that we are best (with a view to getting better at these) whilst guarding against apathy, complacency and disengagement. The pursuit of mastery requires commitment, focus and dedication, three concepts which for some are already stretching them towards the barrier of that comfortable bubble. It relies on us first understanding ourselves, what we do best and where we are happiest.
In the balance of deciding should you stay comfortable, or choose that road less travelled consider the following:
Will moving out of your comfort zone add value to your life and genuinely make you happier?
Are you doing it for results YOU really care about?
Are you ready to give the new activity your best shot and master it?
If you answer “YES!” to these three conditions change. Push forward and go beyond the limits of your current situation. Fully commit to that course and magically this will become your new comfort zone...that’s the funny thing with comfort zones...they can be whatever and where ever we choose them to be!