This is the fifth in a series of articles around key concepts that have impacted me personally and professionally over the course of my career. I cam across the phrase of comfort zone early in my career when working at Plas-Y-Brenin, The National Centre for Mountain Activities in Snowdonia North Wales. All instructors were asked to stretch course participants out of their comfort zones but not too far. A few years later when starting to work on a major transformation project that used outdoor activities and a ropes course the concept was fully explained.
With its origins in 1908 when Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson stated in their research: “Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained.”. When our state is beyond comfort but not in panic it is called “optimal performance”. The challenge is that we do not spend much time here because being in our comfort zone is the natural, neutral state.
The Comfort Zone is just that – comfortable – and includes everyday activities such as doing the same things and mixing with the same people. When most of your activities are in this zone life is, of course, ‘comfortable’ but you do not learn very much nor develop yourself – it’s simply more of the same and it can lead to the zone shrinking.
The Stretch or Learning Zone
Your Stretch Zone is the area of novelty, exploration and adventure. Here are the things that are a little or a lot out of the ordinary – the things you haven’t done for a long time or have never done before.
This zone is not really a comfortable place – but it is a stimulating one. It is where we stretch and challenge ourselves mentally, emotionally or physically. In social life it could be going to a different restaurant or pub. At work it could be handing a project in a new way or seeking a better position.
The Panic Zone
The Panic Zone is the area of things-to-be-avoided either because they are unacceptable to you or because they are currently a ‘stretch’ too far!
For example, being dishonest or abusive towards others could be in this zone because such activities are not in accord with your personal values. Participating in extreme sports might be here because you consider them too daunting but ‘also’ because you find the concept of deliberately flirting with danger unacceptable.
However you can also have activities in the Panic Zone which you wish were not there. Someone who experiences a phobic response when near a spider might prefer to have more choices in such situations. Again, to a teenager asking someone for a date could be a Panic Zone issue in which they would like to feel differently. And for many people public speaking falls into the Panic Zone with limiting effects on their career.
My panic can be your stretch
What is a stretch for one person can be a Comfort or Panic Zone issue for someone else. My Panic Zone issue in sports might be merely a mild stretch for you. My Comfort Zone issue in another area might be a stretch or panic issue for you.
There are no absolutes – just individual choices or assessments at this moment which may or may not hold true in the future.
Like all good models this one is not just very simple it recognises how un-useful it is to rigidly classify oneself or others. It takes into account how we are continually changing – how we are dynamic systems so what is ‘in’ a zone today might be in a different one tomorrow or in a month’s time.
If I commit myself to a period of enthusiastic change I will extend my Comfort Zone. Yet if lots of unwelcome change is imposed on me by ‘circumstances’ I am likely to resist it, become risk averse and shrink my Comfort Zone. Now activities that a year ago I found enjoyable and stimulating are perceived as too threatening. And, once I begin shrinking my Comfort Zone, there is a real risk of the process becoming a way of life.
This latter point may explain how difficult it is to get back into the exercise habit after a lazy period. Exercise becomes perceived as being uncomfortable and painful – we know that returning to it will be, quite literally, an uncomfortable stretch.
What if we don’t stretch?
In a nutshell, if we are not stretching we are shrinking. Let’s look at some examples:
Physical fitness: If we do not endure the unfamiliarity and the slight discomfort of progressively demanding exercise, or if we stick to the same exercise standard and routine, what happens? The body gets used to the routine, adapts to it, and we actually begin to lose fitness. What if we stop exercising? After about 6 weeks without cardio-vascular exercise we have lost 80% of our fitness! It’s a dynamic process – use it or lose it – stretch or shrink.
Work: are you finding ways of making your job stimulating and rewarding? Are you progressing your career by challenging yourself to learn and develop? Or are you filling in time till you retire? People who retire die earlier than people who carry on working because the latter are more stimulated by doing and stretching than by lapsing into Comfort.
Depressing stuff or a warning? You decide. Are you always growing, stretching? Or are you shrinking? Because you cannot stand still. It’s a dynamic process.
Applying the model
Your personal health and well-being requires maintenance and you can use the comfort zone model as a useful simple-yet-powerful gauge of how you are doing and as a means of encouraging yourself to begin stretching in all senses of the word. You can have a set of zones for different areas in your life – health, fitness, family and social life, working life, career, etc.
Utilise the dynamic nature of the model by taking excursions from Comfort ‘into’ Stretch and back again. As you do this you will find that what was in Stretch becomes comfortable. Now you can move to another stretch activity, and so on.
Like all blog articles on tools, concepts or models, I would like you to consider how you can apply this into your daily life. Here are some questions for you to consider and reflect on during the next few days:
- How much of your time is spent in the comfort zone?
- In what areas do you wish to grow outside of your comfort zone?
- What stops you going out?
- How can you help yourself stretch? Who else can help you?
As always, if you have got more tips or tricks, questions or comments about this concept, please feel free to leave a note below.
Thanks for reading this and keep growing and productive, Andi Roberts
[Image Source: National Geographic via BoingBoing.net]