Most of us, if given a choice, will opt for comfort over discomfort. Unfortunately, the cost of choosing comfort can be limited growth.
I should know. I spent many years lounging in my comfort zone.
For me, it was a regular routine of working in a “safe” job, repeating the same workouts at the gym, eating the same foods each day, seeing the same people on weekends, reading the same books, and watching the same television shows.
Nothing stretched me, nothing pushed me, and I knew exactly what to expect each day.
For a while, I enjoyed the predictability, security, and sense of control over my life. It required very little energy to sustain this comfort zone, and each day felt smooth, calm, and drama-free. I even felt a sneaky sense of superiority that my life was so “together.”
Eventually, though, my comfort zone turned into a monotonous rut.
The gilded cage I’d built myself no longer sparkled, and I felt like a hamster chained to a wheel of my own making. My enthusiasm for work waned, I stopped getting results at the gym, my food tasted bland, I grew weary of the same conversations with the same people, and I drifted through life like a zombie.
I had thought the predictability of my life would reduce my stress levels (and it did for a while), but it came at a cost: I wasn’t exposed to good stress, as in, the type that energizes, clarifies, and motivates.
Life Is Better Beyond the Comfort Zone
If my experience sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many of us settle into comfort zones at various points of our lives. After all, comfort zones can feel like nice places to be. As my experience demonstrates, though, comfort zones can be dangerous when they hold us back from growth, progress, and healthy change.
Did I break out of my comfort zone? I sure did. And my life is richer for it. But it took a good dose of reflection, a painful jolt of self-awareness, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
In the years since, I’ve helped hundreds of people leave their comfort zones and build healthier and more fulfilling lives. It wasn’t easy for them either, but the challenges they faced made them more resilient and capable.
Before I share how to leave your comfort zone, let’s start with an important question:
What Is a Comfort Zone?
From a psychological perspective, a comfort zone is a mental and emotional construct. It’s a natural state we fall into after a period of change, such as reaching a long-held goal, overcoming a significant obstacle, or passing a series of milestones.
For example, that period of change might involve reaching a weight-loss goal, running a marathon, graduating from school, getting married or divorced, having children, overcoming an illness, returning from overseas travel, or starting a new job.
It’s normal to crave the steadiness of routine after going through a period of change. Psychologically, we naturally settle into a predictable pattern of behaviors that provide a sense of safety, low stress, and ease. This regular routine becomes our comfort zone.
When to Stay in Your Comfort Zone
It’s easy to see the appeal of a comfort zone, particularly after a period of rapid or disruptive change. In our comfort zone:
- We exert very little energy to sustain our routine.
- We know what to expect and feel more in control of our daily outcomes.
- We’re not required to make many decisions.
- We can relax into the groove of our daily existence.
To this end, comfort zones are a great place to recharge and regroup after times of upheaval or significant growth.
When (and Why) to Leave Your Comfort Zone
But if we stay in our comfort zone for too long, we risk becoming stagnant. We may turn down opportunities, avoid new experiences, and miss out on learning new skills or coping strategies. We may feel unmotivated, stuck in a rut, and dissatisfied with our lack of results. We might pull ourselves back from fully engaging in life or become afraid of the discomfort, energy, and effort required to change.
At this point, when we’ve been in our comfort zone for too long, it has become a hindrance. Our comfort zone is now holding us back from living a more fulfilling and rewarding life.
As tempting as it might be to settle for the security and safety of a comfort zone, growth is only possible when we’re stretched outside of that zone. By leaving the safety of its confines, we add some good stress back into our lives.
This good stress can spark creativity, increase our drive, and help us feel excited about life again. It can prompt inspiration, learning, and momentum while providing a measure of resilience and adaptability. Further, by challenging ourselves to break the routine, we become better prepared for future changes and uncertainty.
Now that we know what a comfort zone is and how it can help or hinder — let’s look at two simple steps you can take right now to move outside your comfort zone.
Step 1: Stretch It, Don’t Break It
We’re often urged to “break out” of our comfort zone like it’s a prison or a place to avoid at all costs. While I applaud the sentiment behind this advice, going too big too soon can provoke feelings of excess stress, overwhelm, and anxiety (which can lead to failure).
Instead, think of “stretching” your comfort zone rather than “breaking” it.
By stretching ourselves, we provoke a good level of stress that is just enough to spark energy and engagement. Think of this stretch as a step rather than a big leap — it’s a small change that will provide the platform, impetus, and confidence for further changes.
To establish your “stretch” step, brainstorm some potential changes to your everyday routine (or, list the things you’ve been putting off).
- Call an old friend
- Visit your favorite aunt
- Book a dentist appointment
- Take your kids (or dog) to a new park
- Shop in a different grocery store
- Drive a new route to work
- Wear different clothes to the gym
- Listen to new music
- Talk to the barista at your local cafe
- Do a craft workshop
- Start an herb garden
- Sit in a different seat on the bus
- Get a new lunchbox
- Buy a new pen
- Wear a new deodorant
- Get a different hairstyle
- Eat in a new restaurant
- Go for a walk at lunchtime
- Read a new book
- Strike up a conversation with a fellow commuter
- Buy a new water bottle
- Sleep on the other side of the bed
- Watch a documentary about a topic you know nothing about
If you’re playing the Whole Life Challenge, you can also use your 7 Daily Habits to facilitate a stretch outside your comfort zone.
Perhaps you could:
- Try a new recipe from the WLC blog
- Ask your teammates for their best snack tips
- Follow along with a new mobility or yoga practice
- Do one of Andy’s living room workouts first thing in the morning
- Start a journal to accompany your daily reflections
- Try a new herbal tea to supplement your hydration habit
- Experiment with a new wind-down routine before bed
- Complete the weekly Well-Being Practices as specified (rather than sticking to your favorites)
Step 2: Make Your First Move
From your lists above, pick something — anything! — and complete it this week. Then, select another small change and complete it next week. Repeat this process of stretching yourself until you reach a level of change that feels challenging and exciting (but not overwhelming).
By continuing to make these small, consistent changes, you provoke a good level of stress. This helps spark interest and enthusiasm without overloading you.
Each consecutive step in this process stretches your comfort zone further and sets you up for additional change. Taking these steps can also give you the confidence to tackle areas of your life that may have previously felt too big to face.
How I Left My Comfort Zone (and Got My Life)
When I left my comfort zone, I started by cooking a new recipe and driving a new route to work. These weren’t earth-shattering changes by any means, but they provided enough momentum and energy to move my life forward and shake me free from the rut I was in.
With time and consistency, I made significant life changes. That process wasn’t comfortable. I faced many obstacles and learned hard lessons along the way. However, I took opportunities I’d otherwise have missed, I built confidence through action, and I surprised myself with my resilience and adaptability.
Life continues to offer me challenges that excite and drain me to various degrees, and after overcoming them I dip into my comfort zone to regroup. But I now know staying in that zone too long is not in my best interests.
So, if you’ve read this article and feel inspired to stretch your comfort zone, I’ll leave you with this quote: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd