Getting uncomfortable

I’m a big believer that our least favourite emotions are often the ones trying to tell us the most important things. And for a while now I’ve been starting to feel a bit restless. I think this emotion is trying to tell me to start taking a few more risks. That maybe its time to step out of my “comfort zone”.

Before you worry that I might be going all 1980s motivational psychology on you and start banging on with cheesy corporate “reach for success” taglines, the ‘comfort zone’ is an actual psychological concept that might be of some use.

We all have our own comfort zone, which is more than an actual place. It is a psychological and emotional and behavioural construct that can define the routine of our daily lives. When we are in our comfort zone we are in a behavioural space where our activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk. It usually provides a state of mental security. We usually benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety and reduced stress. 

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology from 1908. Yerkes and Dodson found that stimulation could improve the performance of mice, but only to a certain extent. Performance was improved up to the level of “optimal anxiety” – beyond that level, there was too much stress, and performance dropped. What’s now called the ‘Yerkes-Dodson Law’ or the ‘Inverted U’ refers to the curve of performance peaking at the point of optimal anxiety, and lowering with both too little and too much anxiety.

Optimal anxiety is just outside our comfort zone. And it’s not really anything new. While staying in our comfort zone usually results in consistent, steady performances, stepping out of our comfort zones into a new and challenging task can create the conditions for optimal performance. When I think about it, there’s not really that much I’ve done that I’m super proud of that I did whilst in autopilot mode.

The thing is though, it’s totes hard to leave our comfort zones. We humans are creatures of comfort. We’re wired to seek it out. Our comfort zone is our natural, neutral state – a place where stress and anxiety are minimal, where we know what’s coming next and can plan accordingly. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s more a natural state that most of us trend towards. Our comfort zone doesn’t necessarily hold us back. We all need the safe and comfortable space where we’re least anxious and stressed so that we can process the benefits we get when we might leave it.

At the moment I’m feeling well and truly entrenched in my comfort zone bubble. To the point, I found it absurd my housemate needed to ask me what I was doing the other morning. I was washing my sheets. It was Saturday. That's what I do. On Saturdays. Obvs.

Despite this, I’m not feeling all that comfortable. Sure I’m very safe from feeling too vulnerable or afraid but I’m starting to feel a bit claustrophobic. And a little bored, tired, dissatisfied and restless. I’m doing a lot of daydreaming at present. Like, a lot.

These are all pretty clear signs that it might be time to push some of the boundaries I have set up around myself. And the possible outcomes are endless, with smart people noting that getting outside of your comfort zone can help you hit your stride sooner, get more done, and find smarter ways to work:

  • Resilience training. Moving outside of our comfort zone can help us deal with new and unexpected changes. Brene Brown susggests that one of the worst things we can do is pretend fear and uncertainty don’t exist. By taking risks in a controlled fashion and challenging ourselves to things we wouldn’t normally do, we can experience some of that uncertainty in a controlled, manageable environment. In essence, learning to live outside of our comfort zone when we chose to can prep us for life changes that force us out of it.
  • Perform at peak over and over. Comfort kills productivity because without any sense of unease or anxiety at all, we tend to do the minimum required to get by. We lose the drive and ambition to do more and learn new things. Once we start stepping outside of our comfort zone, it gets easier over time too. Once we begin to become accustomed to the state of optimal anxiety, we’ll be more willing to push farther before performance drops off.
  • Taking risks helps us to grow. It’s fairly common knowledge that seeking new experiences, learning new skills, and opening the door to new ideas inspire us in a way that little else does. Trying new things can make us reflect on old ideas and where they clash with our new knowledge and inspire us to learn more and challenge confirmation bias, our tendency to only seek out information we already agree with. Even in the short term, a positively uncomfortable experience can help us brainstorm, see old problems in a new light, and tackle the challenges we face with new energy.
  • Generate creativity. When we share creative work, we open ourselves up to vulnerability and possible rejection. But stepping out of our comfort zone through creativitry makes it easier and more likely that we’ll do it again. Research from 2012 found that studying abroad resulted in boosts in students’ creat5ivitiy. Students who spent a semester in Spain or Senegal scored higher on two different tests of creativity than students who did not study abroad.
  • Age better. Turns out embracing new challenges helps us to grow old. A 2013 study found that learning new and demanding life skills, while also maintaining a strong social network, can help us stay mentally sharp as we get older. However, only the groups that were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved.

I love my comfort cocoon. It’s been keeping me warm and cozy and it’s kept me well protected and safe. But I’ve got it now. It’ll still be here to fall back on. In this year of courage, it might be time now to say yes to a few more new experiences, challenges and risks.

I don’t know what outside the comfort zone will look like. It might be trying a new activity. Or undertaking a new creative project. Or opening up my thinking. Adding newness and experience to my life.

Or maybe it’s just changing up my daily routine. Washing my sheets on a Sunday perhaps.

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