Many of us think of the "comfort zone" as a relic of '80s motivational psychology and a tag line on cheesy corporate "reach for success" posters. But in fact, the comfort zone is a useful psychological concept that can help you embrace risk and make changes in your life that can lead to real personal growth.
The comfort zone, as defined by Lifehacker, is a "behavioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk" -- the operative words here being stress and risk. In our comfort zone, there is a sense of familiarity, security and certainty. When we step outside of our comfort zone, we're taking a risk, and opening ourselves up to the possibility of stress and anxiety; we're not quite sure what will happen and how we'll react.
We've come to see stress as a dirty word -- and for good reason -- but a little bit of healthy stress can actually act as a catalyst for growth and provide a powerful motivation to act.
Within our comfort zones, generally speaking, there's little stress. According to one theory, the term comfort zone originated in reference to the temperature zone (67 to 78 degrees) where we're most comfortable, and feel neither hot nor cold. Psychologically, our comfort zone is the place we're most at home.
While staying in your comfort zone can result in consistent, steady performance, stepping out of your comfort zone into a new and challenging task can create the conditions for optimal performance. Think about it: Did you ever do something you were really proud of when you were in autopilot mode?
"In an increasingly competitive, cautious and accelerated world, those who are willing to take risks, step out of their comfort zone and into the discomfort of uncertainty will be those who will reap the biggest rewards," Margie Warrell writes in Forbes.
Here's why we struggle to step outside our comfort zones -- and how we stand to benefit when we do.
We're wired to seek out comfort, which is why it's so hard to let it go.
Humans are creatures of comfort. 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.
There's nothing wrong with being in your comfort zone, unless you get too comfortable and start holding yourself back instead of challenging yourself to learn, grow and try new things.
"Being slightly uncomfortable, whether or not by choice, can push us to achieve goals we never thought we could. But it’s important to remember that we don’t need to challenge ourselves and be productive all the time," as Alina Tugend put it in the New York Times . "It’s good to step out of our comfort zone. But it’s also good to be able to go back in."
Challenging yourself can help you perform at your peak.
Stepping outside one's comfort zone is an important, and almost universal, factor in personal growth. How can we expect to evolve in our lives and careers if we only stick to habit and routine? Reaching new heights involves the risk of attempting something we might not succeed at.
A little anxiety can help us perform at our peak, psychologists have found -- in other words, when we challenge ourselves, we tend to rise to the occasion.
Taking risks is what helps us grow.
As children, we're natural risk-takers. But as we get older and learn to fear failure, we start holding ourselves back and attempting fewer new things.
This comes at a high cost to our tremendous potential for lifelong growth and transformation.
"We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure," the author John Gardner wrote in Self-Renewal. "It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that."
Trying new things can make you more creative.
Creativity is innately risky -- when we share creative work, we open ourselves up to vulnerability and possible rejection. At the same time, risking failure increases the possibility of great creative achievement.
"Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often," Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece about Einstein.
Stepping out of your comfort zone even once makes it easier and more likely that you'll do it again. Case in point: 2012 research found that studying abroad resulted in boosts in students' creativity. Students who spent a semester in Spain or Senegal scored higher on two different tests of creativity than students who did not study abroad.
In becoming a person who regularly takes calculated risks, challenges yourself, and tries new things, you'll cultivate openness to experience, one of what's known in psychology as the "Big Five" personality traits. Openness to experience -- which is characterized by qualities like intellectual curiosity, imagination, emotional and fantasy interests, and a drive to explore one's inner and outer lives -- has been shown to be the best predictor of creative achievement.
Embracing new challenges can help you age better.
Our comfort zones tend to shrink as we get older -- but if we can keep expanding them, we'll open ourselves up to greater fulfillment and improved well-being as we age.
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.
“The findings suggest that engagement alone is not enough,” the study's lead researcher Denise Park, a psychologist at the University of Texas, told the American Psychological Association. “The three learning groups were pushed very hard to keep learning more and mastering more tasks and skills. Only the groups that were confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenge improved.”
But don't push yourself too far.
A famous experiment conducted on mice in 1908 by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson found that stimulation could improve performance, 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" refers to the curve of performance peaking at the point of optimal anxiety, and lowering with both too little and too much anxiety.
"When demands become too great for us to handle, when the pressure overwhelms us, too much to do with too little time or support, we enter the zone of bad stress," author Daniel Goleman writes in Psychology Today. "Just beyond the optimal zone at the top or the performance arc, there is a tipping point where the brain secretes too many stress hormones, and they start to interfere with our ability to work well, to learn, to innovate, to listen, and to plan effectively."
Clearly, too much stress and anxiety can be paralyzing. Stress reduces productivity and stifles creativity -- not to mention contributing to a number of physical and mental health problems.