Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Neale Donald Walsh

Your comfort zone is the behavioural space where your patterns and routines minimize your stress and risk with a situation. It provides you with mental security and provides you with the obvious benefits of basic happiness, reduced anxiety, and lower stress. It is also one of the most important challenges to your success and enjoyment of life – if you stay in your comfort zone you may be less stressed, but you will also be learning less, experiencing less, learning less, and growing less.

The idea of “stepping out of your comfort zone” isn’t just a great sound bite or quote – it actually stems from the research of Robert M Yerkes and John D Dodson in 1908 where they found that to maximize performance they needed to create a state of “relative anxiety” that they called “Optimal Anxiety”. This doesn’t mean putting someone into a completely uncomfortable position, but it does mean extending yourself beyond the space where you are most comfortable.

Based on the research (and many other follow up studies) by pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone you can expect to:

  • Be more productive. Pushing your boundaries can help you get more done and find smarter ways to work.
  • Deal with unexpected changes. Regularly taking controlled risks in a manageable environment prepares you for those times when life forces changes on you that you can’t control.
  • Expand your possibilities. Each time you push beyond your comfort zone you expand your comfort zone. As you become more comfortable around the edges of your old comfort zone you’ll discover new possibilities and be able to push yourself further than you ever thought possible before.
  • Expand your knowledge and creativity. Pushing yourself into the unknown forces you to learn new skills and opens your mind to new ideas which can inspire creativity. The more new knowledge you gain the broader the perspective you bring to new challenges that you face.

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To break out of your comfort zone  you will need to practice and challenge yourself. Some great ways to push yourself are:

  • Change your everyday patterns. Do the things you do every day differently. Wake up 30 minutes earlier. Drive to work using a different route. Change your diet. Eat somewhere new at lunch. Every minor change you make forces you to see and experience new things even if they are small. If you start to change those every day patterns you will feel more comfortable making bigger and bigger changes that challenge your comfort zone.
  • Slow down and take your time. Take an extra few extra moments before making decisions – even if they seem trivial. Take time to look more broadly at the situation, look at the people involved, the context of the decision, and the environment around you. Take the time to interpret what you see and you might find that the decision you thought you would make has changed.
  • Make an uncomfortable decision quickly. Yes that is the exact opposite advice of the last suggestion, but in this case the idea is that you want to make a snap decision about something that you would normally spend time thinking about. If you would normally do extra research before trying a new restaurant just walk in and give the next one you pass a try. If you are struggling to choose a colour for your living room flip a coin and get it started. The idea here is to show yourself that sometimes those things you spend time on aren’t worth the effort.
  • Take small steps every day. Find ways to put yourself in a slightly uncomfortable situation every day and you will find that your comfort zone will start to expand. Speak up in a meeting that you wouldn’t normally. Volunteer for a committee or group that you would normally be intimidated by. Ask an executive who intimidates you for coffee to learn about how they achieved their success. Take one small step every day (and for bonus marks journal them) and you’ll be amazed at how far you can expand your comfort zone in a very short time.

Once you start to step outside the bounds of your normal comfort zone you will start to see how incredible the opportunities are. Often you will find that outside your comfort zone are the things that make life more worthwhile and interesting!

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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