If you make comfort your primary goal, you might miss out on the challenges that give life meaning. That’s why quotes like: “Great things never came from comfort zones!” are flooding the internet space. But what does this really mean?
Most people fall into the following trap: They focus on doing comfortable things without realizing how uncomfortable their lives become.
To portray this. Consider purchasing a boat.
At first, this looks like a glamorous possession. An artifact that few can afford.
When you hear that someone owns a boat. Besides secretly envying him. You start to imagine a strange blend of imagery: clear sky, dolphins swimming nearby, probably even doing the “I’m flying” scene like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic.
The point is, you imagine fun, easy, and comfortable.
But these things hardly resemble reality.
When you own a boat. You have to…
- Think about where to park your boat.
- Learn how to operate the boat.
- Clean the boat from all the stuff the sea throws at the boat.
- Pay a shitload of money to maintain the boat.
The list is huge.
Getting a boat is easy. You don’t even need cash in advance. Banks will happily give you a loan.
Having a boat is hard stuff.
That’s why we mostly focus on getting things. Buying things we don’t really need. Not necessarily boats – as noted, they are hard to maintain, and even if you have one you’ll probably sell it after sharing pictures on social media if you’re not willing to step outside your comfort zone. But things that make our lives seem easier and glamorous.
- A new pair of sunglasses to keep up with the trends.
- A new streaming platform to watch the newest shows.
- A new meal from the nearest quick food shop.
And while doing all of these comfortable things.
You eventually end up in an uncomfortable place…
The paradox of our modern world is that pursuing mainstream leads to downstream.
You see what others have. And you focus on acquiring these things but without the effort.
- You purchase new clothes with a credit card.
- You derive satisfaction by watching how others achieve things but never achieve anything on your own.
- You temporarily lose weight by buying weight loss pills instead of working out.
If you are 100% focused on making your life easy and always-enjoyable – food, drinks, and mostly leisure activities. You’ll end up having a difficult life – health problems and never having the opportunity to escape your boring and underpaid job.
And while people are wondering who said great things never come from comfort zones. The important thing is not who said it, but what it means.
In this post, we’ll tackle exactly this.
We’ll understand the comfort zone theory by approaching it like travelers who are preparing to set on a journey to an unexplored area – cautious, scared even, but excited.
What Is Comfort Zone Theory?
Before we set foot outside our comfort zone. Let’s discuss what we are up against.
In other words, what is actually the comfort zone theory?
The comfort zone is a place where an individual uses a limited set of familiar behaviors to deliver familiar results. He is strictly focused on routines that are risk-free which stalls his progress in life.
When you hear people say: “He is stuck in his comfort zone!” Imagine a person who is sitting on the same job for years. Same nasty habits. Same desire for immediate gratification.
Plainly, a comfort zone is a safe place where we can successfully predict what will happen.
It’s like you draw a circle on a piece of paper, and you list all the activities and places that make you feel good.
Thankfully, these days the list is not that long. We can easily describe how our comfort zones look by simply saying: Netflix and chill.
Chilling will never give you a headache, and the streaming platform Netflix is full of movies to watch. That’s why some people prefer these activities to… for example: going out, exercising, learning new things.
But can watching Netflix and chilling be the routine for the rest of your life?
Why Great Things Never Came From Comfort Zones?
In 2007, a couple of scientists gathered to explore an interesting question: What type of people have the highest levels of happiness, and how do they perform in life?
After collecting data from both students and adults. They discovered the following: “people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation.”1
To rephrase, people who label themselves as “very happy” perform poorly in school and usually don’t become the president of the country.
Conversely, people who are moderately happy are the ones we watch on Netflix and the ones who own Netflix.
The takeaway from the above-mentioned study is a decision you have to make in relation to how you allocate your time.
More precisely: Do you want to do great things, or do you want to solely consume great things done by others?
Obviously defining “great things” will vary depending on the individual. But the study clearly explains that a little bit of unhappiness comes with certain benefits.
Leaving your comfortable sofa and going for a run surely won’t put a smile on your face.
Discontinuing your Netflix subscription full of movies carefully designed to make you laugh and reading a book on an unfamiliar topic will probably feel boring as hell.
Saying no to another party so you can continue working on your application for first-aid treatment will probably feel lonely at the moment.
But what you’ll find out eventually. If, of course, you decide to stick with these scary routines. Is that life feels much more meaningful.
Is It Good To Do Things Out Of Your Comfort Zone?
Avoiding unhappiness can lead us to forgo a meaningful life.
Think about it for a moment…
Yes, the “Netflix and chill” lifestyle is surely way easier and much more fun – at least on paper. But do you really want to be remembered as the person who watched all the Netflix shows at the end of his life?
Going out of your comfort zone not only results in increased confidence, income, muscles, etc. But makes you more resilient. Prepared for unexpected things.
You won’t stress when there are layoffs in the company you work for. Or when you suddenly found yourself in an unfamiliar situation.
You’ll possess the needed skills to find your way out of the unfamiliar situation and make the most out of it.
What is Outside Your Comfort Zone?
To explain what is outside of your comfort zone. It’s best to use the already available research used in relation to the Learning Zone Model.
First discovered by Lev Vygotsky. The Learning Zone Model demonstrates that to expand your intellectual horizons. You must be challenged.2
There are three different levels:
- The Comfort zone: The place where everything feels good and you are certain of the things you’re doing.
- The Panic zone: A place so far outside your current capabilities that you not only feel uncomfortable but stressed and agnostic.
- The Stretch zone: The zone between the two zones above. In this area, also known as the Learning zone, you are doing things that are just a bit harder than what you’ve done before.
According to psychologists and educational professionals. Learning can occur only in the Stretch zone.
Push just slightly. And you’ll gain momentum.
Push yourself too hard. And you’ll start to panic and go back to your old ways of doing things.
How to Leave Your Comfort Zone and Make Great Things Happen
In the bestseller, The Sweet Spot. The author, Paul Bloom, makes an interesting case. He claims that pain and suffering are essential to happiness.
Well, not exactly beating yourself with a club. Rather, choosing the right kind of suffering that sets the stage for enhanced pleasure.
And as you can guess by the title, getting outside your comfort zone should happen in this sweet spot between your comfort zone and the panic zone.
Or if we consider your comfort zone your home. Your journey begins at the base of the mountain.
Or in other words, where the incline is initially flat with a gently sloped ground.
If a helicopter takes you and drops you in one of the crests. You’ll freak out.
But if you slowly make your way to the summit. You’ll slowly but surely advance.
Ok, this is easier said than done, obviously.
What else can we do to prepare besides fancy metaphors?
While physical strength is good-to-have to get outside your comfort zone.
Based on my experience, one needs psychological strength more than anything else.
What I want to say is that physically strong men are not necessarily more adventurous. Quite the opposite. Such folks sleep in the gyms to hide their emotional weaknesses – but that’s a whole other story.
To endure what initially seems unendurable. It’s much better to train your brain.
What do I mean by that?
Adopt certain mental models. Thinking strategies that will help you respond better to the ever-changing environment. Become emotionally resilient, adaptive thinker, and also find a mentor that can help you progress.
To do that, it’s much better to understand what can disturb your progress rather than anything else.
A common thing authors writing about how to get out of your comfort zone mention is that you should be open-minded. You should adopt a positive attitude towards life. That you should “just do it”.
Well, all of these sound nice. But they hardly work.
You are fully aware that you have to work out to stay fit. Nonetheless, you don’t do it. Why? Because you fall into the trap of our cognitive biases.
The short description of a cognitive bias is that it’s a thinking error. The brain needs to handle incoming information fast. So, in order to respond to all the incoming cues, it needs to simply what’s happening. While the brain is doing this simplification to protect us. It is often flawed.
You hear a strange noise in the woods and you imagine wolves or bears.
You see a huge line in front of a store and you immediately go there to see what’s happening.
Someone tells you about a new way to make money and you are immediately intrigued.
And while there are over 188 cognitive biases recorded. You don’t need to study all of them.
Here’s a list that can equip you with the mental tools you need to get outside your comfort zone and beyond:
- Risk compensation: Risk compensation theory explains that we adjust our behavior based on the perceived risk. Meaning that we become more careful when we feel uncomfortable and less careful when we are in our comfort zone. In other words, our comfort zone can disturb our decision-making while uncomfortable situations can freeze us. The solution here is to monitor your decisions. If you are acting carelessly, you should probably move to a more uncomfortable place to awaken your senses.
- Effort justification: We evaluate the outcome of a situation based on the amount of effort it took us to achieve it. In other words, we’ll consider something more valuable if it was harder to obtain. That’s why we chase luxury goods. But instead of ending up in a shopping loop, we can use this to our advantage. We can purchase expensive gym gear not to show off. But to force ourselves to train. In our heads, it will look like this: “I spent $500 on training gear. I need to justify my expenses by actually using it.”
- Appeal to tradition: This one probably doesn’t need a lot of introduction. Basically, you justify your actions by saying: “this is right because we’ve always done it this way.” When you operate under the appeal to tradition chord, you make the assumption that what worked before will always work. But this is never the case. Just because you have a job today. Doesn’t mean that you’ll have a job tomorrow. The solution here is to keep an eye on the opposite of an appeal to tradition – the appeal to novelty.
- Appeal to novelty: Appeal to novelty is bad because it focuses us on the new trends. Our desire to be perceived as modern people makes us spend money on trendy stuff. We are secretly drawn toward the things others want.4 This can be a bad thing because it can derail you from your goals in life. But it can also be used for something good. For example, when you see how the world is changing, you can adjust your strategy. You can see that there is no future in your current position as a bank teller. Thus, take the appropriate steps to make a change.
- Hyperbolic discounting: Hyperbolic discounting means that if we are presented with similar rewards. We’ll choose the one that arrives sooner rather than later. Basically, if you are given the option between $20 tomorrow and $23 after 5 days. You’ll want the $20 bucks. But the theory is much more than $20 tomorrow rather than $23 after 5 days. It basically explains why we constantly sit behind our TV instead of doing something meaningful. The answer? Because it’s easier. The benefit of watching TV is immediate. So, to use this cognitive bias to your advantage. You need to see that you are making daily progress. To feel that you are making progress. For this, you can use a habit tracking journal. By documenting your progress daily. You will make your efforts visible.
And before we reach the ending. I want to mention again finding a mentor and/or a support group that will aid you in your quest.
The degree to which we develop is much greater when we are under expert guidance, as compared to alone.
If you’re struggling to find someone to coach you, to mentor you. Simply search for the best books on the topic you want to advance.
They say that, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Well, why not surround yourself with the people you admire by simply reading their books?
That’s why I see reading as mentorship.
It’s fascinating that we can learn from the greatest people who ever lived by immersing in the knowledge and wisdom they left behind. It’s foolish not to read.
You can check out my book summaries collection for a start.
Some Closing Thoughts
What are things that get you out of your comfort zone?
What type of task you know you should do, but keep putting off for some reason?
It can be not taking the time to master a new field to change careers. It can be postponing reading books because it takes a lot of time. It can be focusing on outcome-based habits instead of identity-based habits. Or it can be exercising.
Once you know what you are scared of. What you avoid. Find a small enough activity that can help you make small daily progress.
If you want to learn how to code. Don’t aim to create a whole website. Set a goal to write a couple of lines of codes per day.
If you want to read a book. Don’t focus so much on reading the whole book. Focus on reading a couple of pages per day.
And if you want to lose weight. Don’t set this as a goal. Focus on systems, not goals. Create a daily schedule to exercise only for a couple of minutes per day – 10 minutes at first, for example.
These small changes will help you get across the dreaded Plateau of Latent Potential and keep you calm when you are facing an unfamiliar situation.
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- Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2007). The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(4), 346–360.
- The Learning Zone Model is based on the zone of proximal development. This zone refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.
- Probably the best way to start your ascent to the top of the mountain is by applying temptation bundling. You bundle something enjoyable with something that requires effort.
- I highly recommend checking the book René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver on this precise topic.