How to leave your comfort zone (for the better)

Your life is waiting at the other side of your comfort zone.

Inspirational quotes encourage you to do something you wouldn’t normally do — you are missing out on life, they tell you.

However, crossing the line of your comfort zone is not easy — science shows that experimenting new things makes everyone anxious and worried.

The paradox of the FOMO approach is that, rather than neutralizing the fear, it creates more anxiety — those who are afraid of uncertainty get more stressed out.

What if you could stretch beyond your comfort zone on your own terms? Not because someone else pushes you to do so.

First, you must get rid of the dualistic approach — being comfortable is not the opposite of living dangerously.

Meet your comfort zone

“Discomfort may be a doorway; don’t run from it.” ― Joseph Deitch

According to Merriam-Webster, our comfort zone is the level at which one functions with ease and familiarity. The term was originally coined after the temperature range within which most people feel comfortable, and feel neither cold nor hot (68 to 72 °F or 20 to 22 °C).

The comfort zone is a psychological state where one feels safe or at ease and without stress or anxiety.

Judith Bardwick, the author of “Danger in the Comfort Zone,” defines the term as “a behavioral state where a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position.” It’s a perceived certainty where we believe we have access to all we need — we feel we have some control.

This neutral state is both natural and human — our brain is lazy and leans toward the easiest path. We can continue living on autopilot or embrace discomfort to reap bigger rewards. Simply put: do you want just to live or to thrive?

Research has demonstrated that a state of relative comfort creates a consistent and steady performance. However, relative anxiety — a state where our stress level is higher than normal — can maximize your performance. Conversely, too much anxiety drops your productivity off.

The challenge is finding what Robert Yerkes and John Dodson called “Optimal Anxiety” — the sweet-spot between arousal and performance.

The Hebbian version of the Yerkes–Dodson law

Being comfortably numb

“Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone at home?” — Pink Floyd

Sometimes life hurts.

To avoid suffering, we build a wall around ourselves.

Comfortably Numb is a Pink Floyd’s song from the album “The Wall.” Pink, the character from the namesake movie, is burnt out — he creates a bubble to protect himself from the outside. This wall seems to alleviate the pain, but doesn’t allow Pink to overcome the cause of his suffering.

Having a comfort zone is not a problem — building a wall around it makes us feel numb.

When we stop stretching beyond our own limits, we stop learning and growing. That’s the danger of staying in the comfort zone all the time — you end up bored and unchallenged.

Start by getting rid of the ‘comfortable is safe; uncomfortable is dangerous’ dualism. You don’t have to put your life at risk to leave your comfort zone.

There are actually three, not two, zones where you can live.

The opposite of the Comfort Zone is the Danger space — personal growth happens in between: the Learning Zone.

Stretching beyond your comfort zone is not about being courageous, but curious.

Only by crossing the line of certainty and familiarity, you can grow. That’s what our current education and parenting model got wrong — by wrapping up kids in bubble plastic, they seeded fear and anxiety. We need to recover the value of ‘no pain, no gain,” as I explained here.

If you’ve ever pushed yourself to get to the next level in sports, creativity or learning new skills, you know that feeling —pain is a signal of learning. We all struggle to do something for the first time. We all find it difficult to push ourselves harder and harder.

Pain is the voice of resistance — when you stop listening to it, you can focus on making progress.

Your brain, just like your body, needs training. Neurons that are weak, unused, or that don’t fit the job are pruned. Neurons that are exercised get stronger and develop more connections.

When you start reaching a point where your inner voice tells you “stop,” that’s when you need to keep going.

Every time I go biking, I set a goal. When I get halfway through the miles I decided to ride, my brain sends me a signal telling me to turn around. However, I challenge its laziness — I keep riding for a couple more miles. That’s how I keep pushing myself to bike more.

Leaving your comfort zone is not as dangerous as you might think — explore the Learning Zone, not the Danger Zone. Also, though it sounds counterintuitive, there are significant dangers that lurk in the Comfort Zone. If you get too comfortable, you can start to hold yourself back. Also, our comfort zones tend to shrink as we get older.

John F. Kennedy said: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”

How to stretch your mind and grow

“The further you get away from yourself, the more challenging it is. Not to be in your comfort zone is great fun.” ―  Benedict Cumberbatch

1. Find Balance
Living outside of your comfort zone all the time can be as harmful as staying put. Training your mind, like in sports, requires not just effort, but to regulate your pace.

Enjoying life is a balancing act between familiar and unfamiliar things. Some people will label you as comfortable if you don’t want to skydive. However, that’s your call. Those who approach life as “Gamblers” are driven by the thrill of the chase — by desperately avoiding comfort they end living in the Danger, not Learning, Zone.

2. Alternate Your Dynamics
To gain better results, mix the intensity and frequency of the challenges.

If you run, let’s say 10 miles at the same average speed every day, you are not making real progress. It’s not that continually exercising is wrong, but always running at a steady pace improves your endurance, not your speed.

Running intervals is the best way to increase your overall speed — run at speeds faster than you would race at for small periods of time.

3. Become Your Own Benchmark
What’s your baseline? How do you deal with risk and uncertainty? What most extremists miss is that everyone’s comfort zone is different — you can’t apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

Those who are familiar with my line of work and writing, know that I’m always challenging myself and those around me. However, my experience both as a former CEO and now coaching hundreds of teams has taught me a great lesson: you can’t help others applying your standard.

How much are you willing to stretch beyond their comfort zone? Don’t push yourself too hard.

4. Incremental Progression Changes Your Shape
Expanding your comfort zone requires multiple progressions to achieve long-lasting results.

Think of your comfort zone as a rubber band. If you stretch it all of a sudden, you might be deceived by its apparent larger shape. Once you let go of the rubber band, not only it will go back to its original form, but it can actually hit you.

The Ten Percent Advantage is an approach to create everyday progress: focusing on small 10% increments will move you forward. The most important part: it will help you build the momentum to turn leaving your comfort zone into a habit, not a one-off.

5. There’s No Trying; There’s Only Doing
Paraphrasing Yoda, trying doesn’t count; it’s doing what matters.

Do the same things differently. Do things that scare you. Do things that you love but stopped doing them. Do something for the first time. Do something everyone is telling you shouldn’t do.

The common theme is doing — that’s how you leave your comfort zone. And, when what was once uncomfortable, becomes the new normal; it’s time to do more.

Remember, when you leave your comfort zone, you won’t find danger, but the learning zone.

Stretch beyond your comfort zone

Download my ebook “Stretch Your Team — how to thrive in a changing world”: get your free copy.

This article first appeared on Medium.