It’s called a comfort zone because it’s comfortable, and like any cozy spot, it can be extremely difficult to leave.
Staying in our comfort zone can not only keep us from growing as people, it can also impact the work we do on a daily basis. When we’re not challenging ourselves, we have a tendency to phone in our work rather than doing the best job we can. And even though having deadlines or increased expectations looming overhead can be scary, it can actually cause you to step up your productivity.
Researchers call that area right outside our comfort zone a state of optimal anxiety. It’s not too overwhelming, but it’s not too easy, and it’s where we often do our best work.
Staying in our comfort zones can also cause us to miss out on important opportunities. I know I’ve sold myself short on multiple occasions because I was too scared to step outside my comfort zone. I’ve missed out on projects from clients, on recommendations from colleagues, on raises from bosses, all because I didn’t want to leave my comfortable bubble.
Why? Often it’s fear of failure. We don’t want to make fools of ourselves in front of our peers, or be criticized for doing a bad job. We’re afraid to go against the grain, or to fall flat on our faces.
Challenging yourself to do something hard, whether it’s volunteering to lead a meeting or striking out on a new career path, is one of the best ways to grow. But often it’s that first step that’s hardest of all.
Identify what you’re afraid of, and push yourself towards it
What are you afraid of? I don’t mean sharks or clowns or heights – I mean things like speaking up in a meeting, managing a project, or talking honestly with your spouse about money.
Knowing what terrifies you is a great way to identify a place where you can really grow. The easiest way to face that fear is to address it face on, with enough preparation to make you feel safe taking that step.
For me, a major fear is making phone calls to strangers. For years I’d do almost anything else before I’d willingly get on the phone, and I still get cold sweats before I have to do phone interviews. I’ve slowly figured out how to get past that by over-preparing for every phone call I make – even down to writing “Hi, my name is Jessie Kwak” on the top of the paper!
Reexamine your automatic refusals
The next time someone comes to you with a proposal you say no to, check yourself. What is it that makes you immediately say, “Oh, no, that’s not for me”?
I’m not talking about those times when you’re too busy, or you have another logical reason for saying no. I’m talking about those times when your negative response is triggered by something deeper and more fearful. Whatever’s triggering that response is a huge red flag worth investigating.
Reexamining your first reaction to something can be good in business and in personal life. For me, when a charming man asked me for a date after we met at a party, my first response was no for a lot of complicated reasons having to do with not wanting to step outside my comfort zone. Fortunately, a friend overheard my response and convinced me to reconsider. I’ve been married to that charming man for 6 years.
What are the things you’ve automatically said no to this week? Was it leading a meeting? Going to a networking event? Going on a hiking trip? Writing a novel? Asking for a raise? Take a look at the deeper reasons, and find ways to turn those nos into opportunities to stretch yourself.
Challenge yourself to try new things
Getting out of your comfort zone for big decisions becomes easier when you make it a habit to get out of it in small ways. When I was a kid, my mom used to buy a random ingredient at the grocery store (lychee nuts, cactus paddles, octopus, or pickled pigs ears to name a few), and then try to figure out what to do with it. Some turned out great (surprisingly to me, the octopus), and some were, well, gross (pigs ears). But by picking up a new ingredient, she challenged herself to be creative with dinner.
Your own experiment with your comfort zone could be as simple as picking up a new hobby, or taking a class that you’ve always been nervous to try – like singing, or aerial performance, or skydiving.
The mental experience of taking small steps outside your comfort zone will give you the courage to take larger ones. And challenging yourself has actually been proven to keep your neural networks strong and sharp as you age, a recent study shows.
So what have you got to lose?
What new challenge will you give yourself this week? Let us know in the comments!