The comfort zone. It contributes to making us feel mentally safe in our everyday life. Developing a routine such as arriving to work always at the same time using a fixed mode of transportation or cooking a good meal we have a lot of experience with contribute to reaching a higher productivity in these tasks. However, on the other hand stepping out of this powerful state of comfort has proven to be even more beneficial for the individual. But how can this be when we are constantly told to follow a routine in order to achieve maximum performance? Keep reading to find out.
What is the comfort zone?
The word “comfort zone” is widely accepted in the English language and appears frequently in everyday life.
It generally describes a “behavioural state within a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk”.
What this suggests is a steady performance if the person does not experience a change in anxiety. If however fluctuations in anxiety and skills are seen, a change in performance, either upwards or downwards, will be observed as a result.
To grow as a person, it is essential to break out of this state of comfort every once in a while by exposing yourself to a change in anxiety. Nevertheless, it is a difficult process stepping out of our comfort zone as at the beginning of this process, the person doing so will experience more anxiety than before.
Why do we feel at ease inside the comfort zone?
A lot of reasons exist why humans are wired to stay within the comfort zone.
Each of us has our own “comfort zone” where we feel at ease. It implies familiarity, safety and security keeping our anxiety and worry at a minimal level. Challenging yourself by stepping outside this zone of comfort would mean increased levels of anxiety and stress triggering a hormonal cascade. Human beings are naturally wired to avoid these changes in anxiety and stress.
Why is it so hard to leave our comfort zone?
- Stress and Anxiety: Whenever we break out of our comfort zone, a stress response followed by anxiety is triggered. The natural response is to remove the stressor as quickly as possible. The only way to achieve this is mainly returning back to the comfort zone which makes keeping yourself out of your comfort zone extremely challenging.
- Uncertainty: This will be a natural consequence if someone leaves his or her comfort zone. For the majority, the feeling of uncertainty leads to insecurity and can be perceived as a threat activating a stress response. The more uncertain you are, the higher will be your levels of stress mentally and physiologically.
- New situations require extra energy: Inside your comfort zone, the person has established a routine allowing him or her to perform the tasks automatically (without a lot of thinking). These processes are run by the basal ganglia (a brain area responsible for executing habit-based behaviour), tasks such as shaving, brushing our teeth or bathing. If we stay within the comfort zone, the associated tasks are run by this area of the brain operating very energy efficient.
Novel tasks, on the other hand, require the input of the prefrontal cortex (a brain area responsible for logical reasoning) which consumes a lot more energy than the basal ganglia. If the energy is depleted (which happens quickly in the prefrontal cortex), we feel discomfort as the prefrontal cortex is tightly linked to the amygdala (the emotional centre of our brain). According to these points, remaining inside the comfort zone seems highly favourable. It provides a state of mental security leading to regular happiness, low anxiety and reduced stress. However, we are often told to leave this state of comfort. This is achieved by expanding your comfort zone and is highly recommended. In order for this to happen though, we temporarily need to abandon this state of comfort, a task which is not so easily accomplished.
The comfort zone, the optimal performance zone and the danger zone
Before we can talk about leaving the comfort zone, we have to understand the core concepts, mainly the existence of three different zones:
- The comfort zone
- The optimal performance zone
- The danger zone.
We first look at an early experiment conducted with mice in 1907 by Yerkes and Dodson.
The study revealed “anxiety to improve performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.”
This suggests an increase in performance when anxiety levels are higher than normal. However, if the person is too anxious, performance will drop again. This relationship can be applied to the three different zones. We find ourselves in the comfort zone when anxiety levels are minimal. Depending on what extent we leave our comfort zone, anxiety levels can increase sharply or only marginally. In the case of a marginal increase of anxiety levels, the person experiencing it will be in the optimal performance zone. This is a state where increased skills are seen and where the elevated anxiety levels can be kept under control.
A real-life example would be an important job interview. If the person is not required to attend the interview, he or she is in the comfort zone and anxiety levels are minimal. However, as soon as the day of the interview has come, anxiety levels rise. When conversing with the manager, the potential employee is not only able to control his/her anxiety levels, but most of the times even possess increased communicative skill. He is now operating in the optimal performance zone.
But what happens in the event where anxiety levels do not increase only by a little, but significantly? The person would leave his or her comfort zone too but would end up in the danger zone in which performance is worse than in the comfort zone. The level of anxiety would simply be too high. Following the example, imagine the same job interview with a person suffering from autism (a disorder in which the affected person finds any social interactions extremely challenging). For this person, anxiety levels will be much higher when he or she is invited to the interview which leads him to perform worse (he skipped the optimal performance zone completely). For this individual, a task which would not have caused the anxiety to rocket would have been more appropriate in order to shift swiftly from the comfort zone to the optimal performance zone.
But why is it beneficial to leave the comfort zone?
A few benefits have become already visible, mainly the increase in performance and the acquisition of new skills when being pushed away from the comfort zone. However, the list of advantages does not stop there.
- Increase in productivity: Comfort is a productivity killer. If we do not have the sense of uneasiness to complete a given work before a deadline, we tend to postpone and do the minimum work required. This phenomenon is often seen in students procrastinating. If the deadline for an assignment is far, the work they put in tends to be low. However, as soon as the deadline is approaching, they start to increase their productivity drastically as they are now in the optimal performance zone.
- Radical changes become easier to handle: Some people always wish to stay within their state of comfort, however leaving the comfort zone sometimes just happens out of the blue and there is nothing you can do about it (change of job, move to a different home, change in a relationship, an illness). A person that has already left the comfort zone once or twice will be more able to handle also those life changes and transitions. It is important to be at peace with the unknown to combat the negative effects that change can bring. Leaving the comfort zone on a regular basis can help with exactly this.
- Expansion of your boundaries in the future: Leaving the comfort zone creates a feeling of anxiety which has to be coped with. The more times you leave your state of comfort, the better you are able to cope with this increase of anxiety. This allows you to become accustomed to this state of optimal anxiety where you perform at your best. Ultimately you are willing to push yourself more when repeatedly exposed to the unknown.
Tips to break out of your comfort zone
- Become aware what lies inside and outside of your comfort zone!
What are the things that you want to accomplish but triggers a feeling of anxiety in you? Identifying these is of utmost importance in order to know how to expand your comfort zone. Draw a circle and write everything down you associate with discomfort outside of the circle. Inside the circle, you write down everything that triggers comfort. This process will allow yourself to identify not only your discomforts but also your comforts.
- Consider failing as something positive!
It sounds difficult, but try to see failure as your teacher. What did this negative experience teach you? You can use this knowledge to increase your chance of success for the future.
- Surround yourself with people taking risks!
If you are willing to improve your skills to leave the comfort zone, stick to people that do exactly that. The influence of them will certainly have an effect on your behaviour.
- Honesty with yourself!
We have all been there. A task that we are afraid of is waiting and we say “I don’t have time for this right now!” Most of the times though, you are lying to yourself. Instead be honest and say “I’m afraid to do this!”. Confronting your fears will increase your chances of moving forward more easily.
- Take it slow!
Start by taking small steps when moving out of your comfort zone. Try making a plan of goals you want to achieve. Try to not be overambitious in a short period of time or you risk becoming demotivated. It is essential for you, to return to your comfort zone from time to time as explained in the next paragraph.
Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.
Why should we return to our comfort zone from time to time?
Though it is important to break out of your comfort zone, it is equally important to also return to this state of comfort from time to time. It is indeed beneficial to leave the comfort zone, but staying outside for too long and you might end up getting your stress and anxiety levels too high. Ultimately, you have to return to the comfort zone to prevent your anxiety levels from taking over and you end up in the danger zone. Once in this zone, your performance drops sharply and leaving the comfort zone for good becomes even more challenging than before. For this reason, allowing yourself some breaks from time to time is essential.
Patrick has completed a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing an online course in journalism. His aim is to inform the general public about science-related topics. He looks to achieve this by keeping his work simple, yet precise and informative for everyone.