Beyond your comfort zone

Mar 14 2017 14:44
Helena Wasserman

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These are uncomfortable times. Companies are struggling, the economy is in the doldrums, jobs are scarce and politics are scary. Curling into the foetal position seems appropriate. 

Trying to create a safe space amid the tumult is a normal human reaction. When outside risk increases, we inevitably attempt to make our own environment as secure as possible. We play it safe, stick to only doing work we feel confident about, approach everything in the same way that has guaranteed success in the past. We repeat behaviours and don’t stick our necks out, choosing routine and comfort instead of taking risks. We end up in a comfortable routine where we don’t face failure and we avoid stress. 

The problem is that a comfort zone can be a very dangerous place. Life is growth. When you don’t challenge yourself, you become stunted. If you don’t adapt to a changing business environment, you will be sleepwalking into an almighty crisis. If you stick only to the tried and tested, you will stifle your own creativity. If you don’t risk failure, you won’t innovate and put yourself and your company on a higher plane. If you stick to only routine work, a robot will eventually grab your job. 

Also, breathing the air inside your comfortable bubble for too long can be toxic. While you avoid the stress and anxiety of failure, you will start falling behind. Eventually you will feel boredom, envy and stagnation. 

In truth, life outside your comfort zone is stressful. It comes with anxiety and failure. But to perform at your peak you need a bit of stress to spur you on. Psychologists talk about “optimal anxiety”, which is based on the Yerkes-Dodson law. More than a century ago, two psychologists found that performance increases as stress levels rise – up to a point. When the pressure becomes overwhelming, you won’t be able to cope and your ability to achieve will suffer. But without some anxiety and fear, you won’t ever step up and reach your full potential. 

“One way to jolt yourself out of a lethargic state is to imagine yourself on your deathbed, looking back at your life,” says Jonathan Hoch, founder of and executive coach at Hoch Partners Executive Coaching in Johannesburg. With this perspective in mind, are you happy about how well you are living up to your potential? Are you living a meaningful life that won’t lead to regrets? Now imagine what would constitute a successful life. 

Unfortunately, chances are that your successful life will not be attained by watching daytime TV and sticking to routine behaviour. You will need to embrace some risk and stress, and escape your comfort zone.  

Start small

Even minor changes in your daily routine can open your mind to new ways of thinking. Change your breakfast. Change your hair. Install a different browser. Try jazz. Take a new route to work. Then move on to doing things differently at the office. Start with small changes in your approach that could result in failures that you can easily stomach. Move on to more difficult challenges, with higher stakes. 

Overcoming these obstacles will build your self-esteem and give you the confidence to get ahead. Heed Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous advice: do one thing every day that scares you. Dare yourself to do something difficult. The more you challenge yourself, the more resilient you will become and the further you will progress. 

Change your perspective

Attend a conference that has nothing to do with your current work. Befriend someone who has a different outlook on life, preferably an argumentative loudmouth with strong opinions. Look at different news sources. Learn another language or different computer program. Do a short online course about something that is not necessarily work-related. This will help you look at the world in a different way and open yourself up to new opportunities. 

Find your flow

“Leisure is not the marker of a good life,” says Hoch. A more useful indicator is whether you are involved in activities that you find richly satisfying. “The optimal balance between stress and relaxation is when you are fully engrossed in an activity,” says Hoch. When are you feeling this flow? Focus on challenging yourself in these areas that give you most satisfaction. 

Take a step back

A bubble isn’t necessarily a boring place. Many people who are completely caught up in a comfort zone have hectic lives. You may be extremely busy, rushing from one thing to the next. But if you take a closer look, for all the activity you may not be extending and evolving yourself at all. Ditch the things that do not amount to much, making time in your life to challenge yourself. 

Fail fast

The biggest barrier to getting out of a comfort zone is the fear of failure. Unfortunately, this fear is not unfounded. There is a chance that you will fail when you try something new or stick your neck out. Don’t wait until you have all the information at hand before you start, says Hoch. Information is never complete. Start when you have a viable working prototype of what you want to do. Then fail: Test and eliminate all the ways the prototype won’t work. Improve by continuous improvement and natural selection. If you do fail outright, cut your losses and move on to the next challenge. 

This article originally appeared in the 9 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here. 

career planning  |  career growth