“People who never make mistakes never make anything else either.” — Adrian Savage, Anglo-American business writer.
“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.” — Dan Stevens, British actor.
Comfort may be nice when snuggling into bed, but in the workplace it leads to laziness, complacency, and stagnation. To get ahead (much less retain your current place in the line-up), you need to get on the ball and regularly step outside your Comfort Zone. If you don’t make what some of my colleagues call “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals” and enthusiastically reach for the brass ring as it comes around, you’ll soon develop an aversion to risk—a crutch that limits both productivity and success.
In the Zone
Some observers visualize our working lives as a kind of bull’s-eye containing three areas: the central Comfort Zone circle, surrounded by a relatively thin Learning Zone ring and a much wider Panic Zone. You can learn nothing new while in the Comfort Zone; but then again, if you overstep once you emerge, you might become too anxious to learn anything useful. This defines the Panic Zone.
Fortunately, you can widen both your Comfort and Learning zones if you move forward carefully and expand your horizons along the way. Here’s how:
1. Pinpoint your zone limits. Even when you think you’ve moved into your Learning Zone, you may be wrong. Regularly practicing a talent or ability won’t necessarily pump your productivity. If you want to become a great poet but stick only with writing iambic pentameter about raindrops and roses, you won’t make it far no matter how much verse you churn out. When something becomes too easy, you’ve bogged down in the Comfort Zone. Challenge yourself. Write some dactylic hexameter about bumblebees and bats for once, just to see what happens.
On the other hand, just because you’ve taken a big stride into new territory doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll wind up in the Learning Zone. You may have gone too far. If something seems far too hard or makes you feel unnerved, you’ve stumbled into the Panic Zone. Don’t be too proud to scale back a bit. The idea is to find a place where you feel engaged and challenged, yet can enjoy the experience and maintain the capacity to grow and develop.
2. Try something new. This step, more than any other, helps you define your zone limits. Let’s say you still use an ancient spreadsheet program just because you’ve mastered it. Upgrade to something newer, and you’ll almost certainly find yourself more productive and efficient once you’ve passed the learning curve. If you feel overwhelmed by the change, give it a little time and see if your panic recedes. If not, you’ve obviously slipped into your Panic Zone and should back out if possible.
3. Embrace change. A recent blog in Forbes magazine suggests that instead of running from change, you should run toward it. Given the Panic Zone, I’m not so sure that always represents the best option…but a brisk walk and a nice hug when you get there can’t hurt.
4. Seek continuous improvement. Always push yourself to improve. Even when something seems good enough…well, it isn’t. Test something that might work better. If it does, roll it out big. If not, try again with something else. Never settle for good enough, at least when you have the opportunity and time to try for better.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Many of us who once used monochrome DOS-based computers still wonder why it took us so long to upgrade when “Windows Boxes” became available. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever gone back, because as uncomfortable as learning Windows was at first, it immediately proved far more productive than DOS.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve stalled out or feel complacent at work, you may end up doing no more than enough to get by—which by definition limits your productivity. Stepping out of your Comfort Zone motivates you to succeed and forces you to pick a direction. So break through the comfort barrier and start excelling again.
If everyone remained in their Comfort Zones for life, human beings would still live in caves, eating things that didn’t fight back. But because some people refused to settle for what they had, we human beings have occupied every continent and conquered every environment on this planet—and a few of us have even walked on another world. Breaking out of your Comfort Zone helps you conquer your own little world.