Ah, the comfort zone. That special place where 99.9% of humans love to exist.
And why shouldn’t they?
Everybody wants to feel safe. And the comfort zone does exactly that. It’s a comfortable dwelling where routine behaviors and actions create a predictable, low stress and low risk environment. It provides both mental and physical security for its inhabitants.
For the most part, safe is good…except when it isn’t.
Safe isn’t good when it constricts your ability to grow. You can’t expect to get better and improve your life if you do the same things day after day. Sure, you might feel comfortable — safe — but is that what modern humans really want?
Our ancestors needed safety to survive. Safety from predators, the elements, and other tribes. You don’t. In fact, I’d argue that you almost need to step out of your comfort zone to survive, doubly so if you wish to make something of yourself in this world.
Back as far as 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson discovered that humans maximize their performance at elevated levels of anxiety. Named after them, the Yerkes-Dodson curve represents their findings.
At the top of the peak, with a certain amount of anxiety, is where optimal performance exists. That’s partly why your boss creates deadlines — he knows (or at least he should know) that you’re most productive when you’re taken out of your comfort zone.
More creative. New experiences can create the anxiety that puts you in a state of optimal flow. When you’re in new situations, you’re forced to look at problems from different angles. You devise creative solutions to evade the “danger” your body think you’re in to slip back into your comfort zone. If you never leave that zone, you never have to exercise that muscle.
Better at dealing with change. Change happens regardless of whether you welcome it or not. If you practice leaving your comfort zone in a controlled manner, you experience the accompanying anxiety in an environment of your own making — it’s easier to manage. You can feel somewhat comfortable making yourself uncomfortable. Eventually you learn to embrace change, and you’re prepared for it when life inevitably forces you out of your comfort zone.
Better at improving in the future. The best way to improve is to challenge yourself. Fortunately, the more you step out of your comfort zone, the better you get at it. The tasks that you face in the future don’t get easier but you become better equipped at dealing with them.
Now a word of caution: too much anxiety creates more bad than good. There’s a point where you become too stressed to be productive, lose focus, and looking back at the graph above, performance drops off heavily. The idea is to find the sweet spot — that lovely place where you’re outside of your comfort zone yet close enough to get back to safety in a pinch.
And you do want to get back to your comfort zone eventually. It’s home base — your reference point. You need the comfort zone to calm your nerves and anxiety. It’s what makes stepping out of it and experiencing discomfort more enjoyable. You appreciate the comfort zone when you leave it. Kind of like you appreciate happiness because sadness exists. Sadness is what makes happiness feel so fucking good.
A 30-day challenge to step out of your comfort zone
Enough of that science and reason. Let me introduce to you a 30-day plan so that you can practice stepping out of your comfort zone. By design, this plan eases you into discomfort, starting off with challenges that should be fairly simple and then progressing to harder ones. By the end of the 30 days, you might want to kill me for suggesting some of these ideas.
If on any day you can’t do one of the items on the list, try something similar. For a few cases, I’ve listed alternatives. Use those as examples and get creative!
Also, each one of these is a great standalone idea or challenge on their own. Follow the plan or mix-and-match, the choice is totally up to you.
Set your alarm for 10 minutes earlier than usual…and actually get up. Have a plan to do something extra, or just enjoy not rushing to get out the door.
If you typically eat breakfast, skip it today. Drink water instead until your first snack or meal. If you don’t normally eat breakfast, then make time to eat it. Get up 10 minutes earlier again if you need to :).
Switch up your coffee drink. Change how you order or how you make it. Go black. Try espresso. Try creamer only and no sugar. Or, drink tea instead of coffee.
Switch web browsers for a day. Force yourself to use Firefox instead of Chrome and vice versa. Use…gulp…Internet Explorer. Or Microsoft Edge. Harder than you might think for someone who uses the internet all the time.
Pack your lunch for today, preferably something healthy. Packing lunches saves money and forces you to plan ahead. If you usually pack your lunch, try switching it up and going out somewhere. Bonus points for eating out with friends.
Set your alarm for 10 minutes later than usual. Sinister, I know. Start your day with a little madness.
Take a different route to work. Kudos if you usually drive but can bike, run, or walk instead. Carpool with someone. Catch an Uber. Anything to spice things up. Lots of choices here.
Tell someone how much they mean to you…in person. Say “I love you, man” or “hey, I feel like I never tell you how much I appreciate you”. If you don’t have the courage to do this yet, start with a text. Work your way up to an in-person interaction.
Get-off-your-ass day. Do some form of exercise. Go for a walk. Run. Lift weights. If you typically exercise, try a different workout — one that you aren’t particularly good at or fond of.
Read today. Instead of watching TV or playing video games, or whatever you typically do, replace it with reading from a book (or your Kindle).
Write in a journal. Take a little time out of your nightly routine to write down your thoughts. There’s something special about giving your thoughts a physical place to live in the world. Write down whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular. Who knows, you might enjoy it.
Today’s the day to get rid of some of your clothes. Declutter your closet by throwing out or donating clothes you haven’t worn in a while.
It might be the thirteenth but there’s no bad luck to be had on this day. You have my permission to order a pizza. Venture off into something you typically wouldn’t order though. Order from a different store and/or try some new toppings. Anchovies, anyone?
Watch a show (at least one full episode, or documentary, or movie) that you wouldn’t normally watch. On Netflix, sometimes I’ll give a documentary with an opposing belief a try.
Getting a little harder now!
Actually do or try that thing you’ve been procrastinating on — for me, it’s been making kombucha. I’m not that great at it yet but I’ve tried a few times then stopped. I love doing it, I’m just afraid of making a batch that sucks and having to work my way through it. So take the first step. Do the thing you’ve always wanted. Start a blog. Make a YouTube video. Write a song. Get after it and don’t stop until you have something complete.
Leave your smartphone at home for the day (or to be safe, keep it in emergency mode only — no texting!)
Try being vegan for a day. Or if you are vegan, try eating something non-vegan. It doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering, just a little bit outside of your comfort zone.
Fast for an entire morning. See if you can make it to 12pm or 1pm. Bonus points for every hour past that.
Wear the exact same clothes you wore yesterday. I’ve been practicing Stoicism more and more lately. One of my favorite quotes from Seneca is “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” You might think wearing your clothes two days in a row is a dirty thing to do — people might make fun of you, they might point and laugh. After all, it’s something a poor person would do. But in reality, does anyone really care? Most often, people are too busy worrying about themselves to even notice what you’re wearing.
Talk to a stranger. Be the one to engage in conversation by smiling or approaching someone in a non-threatening, non-creepy manner.
Sign up for a hot yoga class. Yoga is an awesome workout on its own, but hot yoga really takes things up a notch. Nothing spells d-i-s-c-o-m-f-o-r-t like a man doing a hot yoga class for the first time, struggling yet powering through.
Sit with a stranger or someone new for lunch.
Reach out to 5 celebrities on Twitter. Try to get one to respond. Don’t be creepy — be nice. Who knows, they might even follow you back. Chrissy Teigen follows me after I tweeted at her several years ago, and it totally made my day.
Ask for a 10% discount at a coffee shop…just because. I stole this one from Noah Kagan, who also recommends sitting in the wrong airplane seat, or the wrong seat at an event like a concert. Believe me, these will test your ability to step out of your comfort zone.
Sleep on the floor tonight (one pillow allowed).
Play rejection therapy for a day. I suggest asking someone out. If you’re a guy, try asking out a girl. If you’re a girl, try asking out a guy. The goal is to get rejected, so even if he says “yes” you must keep going!
Spend the entire day offline. Turn the data off on your phone. No laptop. No TV. No nothin’.
Eat by yourself at a restaurant. Not just a quick breakfast or lunch — an entire dinner by yourself at a semi-crowded restaurant. Ever since I started going on business trips for work, this has gotten much easier for me, but it was definitely tough starting out.
Ditch the electricity for a day. The fridge is obviously OK, as well as the air conditioning or heat. But use candles and natural light for everything else. Practice being in the company of your friends and/or family. Or, the company of your own mind. This is another stoic practice I like to try at least once a year. Cato, a wise Stoic philosopher, would train himself in doing without. He would walk barefoot in the rain and with an uncovered head in the heat. His idea was that if he trained to live in poverty or in pain, then neither would hold any power over him should a time ever come when he’d be forced to live that way.
Coming back to your comfort zone
Hopefully you give a few of these a try. They are all things I’ve done at some point in my life, and I continue to look for new ways to challenge myself. There’s a wonderful life out there just beyond your comfort zone and it’s waiting for you to go out and grab it.
So what are you waiting for?
Training starts today.