Get out of the zone


“Behavioural space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk.”

Familiar to us all, the concept of the comfort zone dates back to 1908, when psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson conducted experiments to explain that a state of relative comfort creates a steady level of performance. Conversely, they found that excess stress causes performance levels to plummet.

Despite the scientists’ favourable view of the comfort zone, modern society often underlines the dangers of not pushing our limits, and with some justification; by restricting our experiences to what we already know and are used to feeling, we risk missing out on any number of opportunities for development within our careers, our personal lives and in life itself.

Optimal anxiety

Striking the balance, Yerkes and Dodson said that for us to get the best out of ourselves, we need to push our stress levels slightly higher than we are used to so that we are in “optimal anxiety”, a place just beyond our comfort zones.

The boundaries of discomfort are different for everyone, we all need to push our capabilities if we want to improve; it shapes our characters, builds identity and enriches our lives. The first step is the hardest, so bear the following points in mind if you are determined to break your routine for the better.

  • Small steps in new environments

New environments make us feel vulnerable and draw out the strength we need to feel comfortable again. Try to put yourself situations that are strange, but which do not present significant threat, such as a new place to have lunch, going to a new exhibition or attending a workshop or class.

Becoming familiar in these new environments will bring positive, unanticipated rewards that boost confidence and give momentum that will enable you to take bigger and bolder steps forward.

  • Create challenges in areas you want to improve

Many of us have goals which we do not achieve simply because we do not know where to start.  Whether it’s learning to play the piano, starting a business or running a marathon, start by simply making inquiries that will enable you to reach the people or places that can help.

Proactively seeking answers may lead you to find new social groups, online forums or books that will increase your knowledge on a subject, and give you concrete guidance on how to progress.

The important thing is to keep asking questions, regardless of how little or how much you know about what you want to achieve. What we give our attention to in life is usually what thrives.

  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Pushing your boundaries becomes easier the more you do it. It’s a habit you need to get into but once established, the pattern will enable you to more easily tap into the state of optimal anxiety that Yerkes and Dodson spoke of.

Dr Elizabeth Lombard, a therapist and author of Better Than Perfect, says: “The more comfortable you get with trying new things, the less you’re going to avoid it and the more you’re going to say yes to new challenges.”

For Corrine Lin, being able to say yes is important because it opens up huge opportunities in your career and allows you to explore things that you might just find that you actually enjoy. However, all too often people are put off because they are afraid of failure.

And finally...

Ultimately, stepping beyond our comfort zone is the essence of achievement in life, but it is still a step into the unknown.

For a little inspiration, remember the words of poet and author, Erin Hanson:

“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”

LeadershipMartin Head