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  • Writer's pictureBill Petrie

Leaving the Comfort Zone

Updated: Jan 19

Why finding "optimal anxiety" is critically important for growth

The term “comfort zone” has become something of a pejorative as people are continually encouraged to break free of its implied restraints. Yet, as humans, the relationship with – and desire for – comfort is deeply woven into our DNA. Our nature is to seek out the known because it represents safety, which is why people will often sit in the same spot after returning from a lunch break at an all-day meeting.

Everyone has their own comfort zone – the mental space where safe boundaries give a sense of emotional security with work and daily decisions that must be made. In straightforward terms, a comfort zone is a space where activities and behaviors fit a routine that keeps tension at minimal levels. The benefits of the comfort zone are obvious: happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.

To maximize performance, however, humans need a state of anxiety – a space where stress levels are slightly higher than usual. This space is called optimal anxiety and is just outside the comfort zone. The theory is simple: if there isn’t enough anxiety, people are too comfortable to be productive; too much anxiety causes people to be too stressed to be effective. In either case, performance sharply declines.

It’s universally understood that when people push and challenge themselves, the results can be extraordinary. Conversely, trying too hard can have a negative impact, reinforcing that stretching limits is too risky. When we realize it’s our natural tendency to return to the anxiety-neutral space of the comfort zone, it’s easy to understand why it’s so difficult to move beyond it. Optimal anxiety is that sweet spot where mental productivity and performance peak.

By stepping outside the comfort zone but inside optimal anxiety, three things are realized:

  1. Higher productivity. Comfort kills productivity because, without the sense of unease that comes from having a deadline or metrics, human nature dictates that we will do the minimum to get by. This also allows us to retreat in the safety of “busy,” which reduces the drive and ambition required to embrace learning and produce more. Pushing past the comfort zone provides the drive to get more done and find more imaginative ways in which to work.

  2. Easier Time with Change. One of the worst things anyone can do is pretend fear and uncertainty don’t exist. However, by taking small, calculated risks in a measured fashion to do things that typically wouldn’t be done, much of that uncertainty can be experienced in a controlled environment. Learning to experience life outside our comfort zone when it is controlled prepares us for the inevitable life changes that will force us out of it.

  3. Harness Creativity. It’s common knowledge that seeking new experiences, learning new skills, and being open to new ideas allows us to view the world differently. It provides perspective to reflect on old beliefs and see where they create discord with our new learnings, inspiring us to break our tendency to only embrace information we already agree with. Positively uncomfortable experiences help us see old problems in a new light and find different ways to solve them by freeing the mind to think differently.

Visiting the space outside the comfort zone is an excellent place as long as it’s not pushed too far. Everyone’s comfort zone is different, and what expands the horizons of one person may paralyze someone else. Additionally, a comfort zone is neither good nor bad; it’s a natural state that most people crave and embrace. Leaving it means increased risk and anxiety, which can yield both positive and negative results.

Demonizing the comfort zone as something holding a person back is wrong. We all need a safe space with low anxiety and stress as it allows us to process the benefits we receive when we leave it. The key is to step out of the comfort zone to embrace new experiences and to find the state of optimal anxiety that drives individual peak performance.

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