A simple truth about comfort zone

In recent years I’ve done dozens of workshops on innovations, digital transformation, design thinking, lean startup, and other related topics. Working with both — companies of 1000+ employees and small teams of just 3–5 people. Looking back, I noticed one particular question that popped up almost every time: “How do I get out of my comfort zone?”

This topic appears to be quite clear. Just google it, and you’ll get hundreds of articles. The thing is that the vast majority of those articles are kind of one-sided, delivering one bold message: comfort zone is something you should avoid. It stops you from being successful; nothing happens inside your comfort zone, you just pointlessly dwell there.

I believe reality is a bit more complicated. Let’s take a closer look.

Comfort zone is bad

Probably everything you heard about a comfort zone doesn’t sound good. There is a common misconception that if you want to achieve something, be good at something, make your dreams come true, you need to get out of your comfort zone. And the magic will happen.

It won’t. Shit will. I guarantee. But the magic won’t. At least not right away. This is the first comfort zone fallacy.

An “anxiety-causing-picture”

Here is one of the most famous pictures describing the topic. By default, you are always somewhere with no magic around. An assumption many of us live with. Magic happens to the daredevils. I can’t get so far out of my comfort zone. It’s scary. It’s not for everyone.

I hate this picture. I think it contributes a lot to people’s anxiety and depression. Imagine, magic always happens somewhere else. The only way to achieve something is to live in constant discomfort outside of your comfort zone.

And then you read a story about a brave guy that got out of his/her comfort zone and became famous/rich/happy/you-name-it. What you see in the story is just the tip of an iceberg. Before this guy got to the happy ending, he was shitting brick many times… Like a fish on the top picture of this article 🙂

Getting outside your comfort zone without an understanding of how it operates will get you into trouble. The reason for this is simple. Comfort zone isn’t black-n-white, isn’t all-or-nothing. You can’t just jump out of it, and the magic will happen. You envy other people doing amazing things, things that are outside of your comfort zone. But for them, those things are just a regular day. They don’t feel any discomfort. Why?

Now, let’s take a look at another fallacy.

Comfort zone is good

Another fallacy is that the comfort zone is good. It isn’t that popular as the first one, but you can find a decent amount of articles describing why it is good for your focus and productivity. Or how to use it to recover from psychological or emotional trauma.

There are a lot of bright sides to a comfort zone. It is the one place where you feel calm and safe. It is like your harbor where you moor your ships after the long day of sailing. This is good and even necessary to stay emotionally and mentally sharp. But this safety comes with a catch.

your comfort zone shrinks

The Comfort zone is a tricky bastard. It shrinks with time. If you do nothing — your comfort zone becomes smaller every day until you are afraid to pick up a phone from an unknown number or say hi to a stranger on the street or choose another route while heading home. It’s a bit like an addiction, the more you get, the more you want.

A situation when a simple phone call from an unknown number becomes too much to deal with.

If you want to see a good life example of a shrinking comfort zone, look at older people. My both parents are 70+, I’m lucky they are alive and healthy, but I do see how their comfort zones are shrinking. And I’m not talking about physical limitations that come with age, but about simple life situations that become harder to manage.

Shrinking happens when you stay in your comfort zone all the time. This is rality. But it doesn’t mean that magic happens outside. Let me explain.

Other zones

As I said, the comfort zone isn’t black-n-white. The reality is that there are several different surrounding zones. Here is a picture.

Comfort zone and other zones

So, now you see the full picture. There are four zones. You should understand all of them to use the “getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone” concept wisely. Let’s take a look at each zone.

  1. Comfort zone — your safe harbor. The place where you hide and process everything that happens to you. But we know that it shrinks with time, right?
  2. Learning zone — our first step outside our harbor. The place where we learn from other people and situations without being threatened or stressed. It’s your job (assuming it’s not your first day), party with new friends, social interactions. The place where you learn something new and try to understand what kinds of “magic” there are.
  3. Opportunity zone — a place where things become serious. Here you create new big ideas, start new projects, set your goals, make life choices. This is the place where you do or commit yourself to do something new. Here you can see the first glimpses of “the magic.”
  4. Panic zone — this is the place for the unknown and your fears. Your personal dark matter that either solves all your problems or consumes you. This is where we think magic happens. But it doesn’t. Shit does 🙂

Those are the four zones we all face when talking about “getting outside one’s comfort zone.” And the functions are pretty obvious: 1) Rest & Analyse; 2) Learn & Choose; 3) Experiment & Create; 4) Overcome.

Getting maximum out of your comfort zone

In reality, comfort zone (and related zones) is just a tool. If used appropriately, you can get amazing benefits out of it. Imagine an ax. It’s a perfect tool to accompany you in the woods, but you probably won’t use it to trim your kid’s nails, right? The same applies to your comfort zone.

Expanding your zone

The first thing you need to do with your comfort zone as a tool is to enlarge it. It is like sharpening your ax. The process is pretty simple. All you need to do is to take regular trips from your comfort zone to your panic zone with mandatory stops in learning and opportunity zones. It might sound a bit scary, but let me explain.

“The Magic Loop” of comfort zone expansion.

I call this practice, “The Magic Loop.” The idea is to get to the panic zone step by step, be prepared. Learn something, then try something, and only after that dive into panic zone activity. While using the Magic Loop, you’ll notice that when you come to the Panic zone, you aren’t actually in panic, you are ready to face what is there.

After every visit to the panic zone, you must get back to your comfort zone in the same way — by going through the opportunity and learning zones. And when you are back, you can analyze your experience and plan your next journey. Here the real magic happens.

Remember, the real magic happens inside your comfort zone. But only when it is big enough and you use “The Magic Loop” to constantly expand it.

It is all about timing

You probably noticed 60–30–7–3% in the illustration. Those are there on purpose. This might help you to plan every journey outside your comfort zone accordingly. When challenging yourself, spend 60% in your comfort zone (analyzing, resting), 30% in your learning zone (understanding the challenge), 7% in your opportunity zone (experimenting), and 3% challenging yourself.

When looking from this perspective, anything is possible. If you are prepared 🙂

Using other people’s zones

Look around you, there are people with different comfort zones. Use them 🙂

And here is another obvious tactic that many of us forget. Look around you. You can probably find someone who is doing things that are in your panic zone or your opportunity zone. And for them, it is their comfort zone. Just talk to those people. Ask them questions, share your fears, let them inspire you, and help out to take the first steps.

Again, magic doesn’t happen outside of your comfort zone. It happens inside, but only when it is big enough.