Professional Development

Habit: the key to expand your comfort zone

Human beings are creatures of habit. We crave consistency. We like to feel in control and that is aided by sticking to what we know. The more we can rely on what we know, the less stressed out we are. Little by little, this world view ultimately shapes the space in which we live our lives. The trouble is that once you’ve created your own little comfort zone, it becomes increasingly harder to expand.

A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

Attributed to Ravish Malhotra, Indian Air Force Test Pilot

Notice that I said expand your comfort zone, not get out of your comfort zone. If you focus on getting out of your comfort zone, you very well may accomplish that every now and then. But as we’ve already established, human beings are creatures of habit. If you want to permanently expand your comfort zone, you’ll need to make it a habit. And habits can take time to build.

Maybe you went skydiving a few years back, or out to eat alone for the first time last month. But then what? Did it change anything about your life in the long run? My goal is not to diminish those accomplishments. Jumping out of a perfectly good plane takes a lot of courage. And going to a restaurant solo can feel awkward and intimidating, even for us introverts.

There are a million people on this planet who would refuse to do either one of those things. So, give yourself a pat on the back, but then take a moment to ask yourself if you have anything to show for it now. 

What’s so wrong with staying in your comfort zone?

Comfort zones tend to be pretty small. Eat at the same restaurants, watch the same shows, continue working the same job…rinse and repeat. If those restaurants, shows, and jobs are giving you what you want in life, then there’s nothing wrong with that being your comfort zone. If not, you have to quit expecting anything to change in your life by doing the same thing over and over again. That’s the definition of crazy, right? 

Take a moment to think about the last time you did something you were really proud of? What was it? I’ll bet it was something that felt intimidating. Something brand new to you. Something with a high risk of failure. More likely than not, it was something that expanded your comfort zone – which is why you felt so proud that you accomplished it. 

Feeling proud isn’t the only benefit

You’ll broaden your horizons

We all see the world differently. It’s a part of the human condition which dictates that our perspective on the world around us is built from our own experiences. The more experiences you have, the more you can understand yourself and those around you. There’s so much to know about this world, and most of use are only looking through a hole the size of a pinprick. 

We all know someone from high school who never left their hometown, eats the same turkey sandwich for lunch every day, and goes to the same beach each year for summer vacation. Again, nothing wrong with that. The point here is that life will pass you by quickly. And if you don’t work on expanding your comfort zone, it will stay as small as it’s always been. It takes work, and effort – it won’t happen all on it’s own.

expand your comfort zone
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

You’ll find knowledge in unlikely places

Here’s an example for you:

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I had an early mid-life crisis. I wasn’t ready to live the 9-5 office job life for the next 40 years, so I signed up for a year with AmeriCorps. Comfort zone expansion, here we come! I was so ready to get in the nitty gritty of helping people and making the world a better place. How cliche of me. But guess what happened? One of my first projects I was assigned to do tax preparation for low income families… 

Now I know taxes are important. And those people really did need help. But that was certainly not the fulfillment I was seeking. I wanted the kind of gratification that came from building houses, restoring neighborhoods, and blazing trails. Long story short, that project became the most impactful ten weeks in my time with Americorps. It opened my eyes to what it really meant to ‘help’ someone. After working in the nonprofit sector for almost 8 years now, those families are still some of the most vulnerable I have ever worked with. I’m proud of myself for working through all of those damn tax certification exams. No offense to anyone who works in tax prep, it’s just not my cup of tea.

You’ll discover your limits

Success is never guaranteed. Sometimes your efforts to expand your comfort zone will entail you dipping your toe in the water. Other times, you might dive in head first. Either way, there is always a risk of failure. But part of the journey is realizing that failure is valuable. You’ll learn what you like, what you dislike, what you suck at, and hopefully some things you are surprisingly good at. The point is, you’ll never know these things about yourself until you try. 

The more things you try, the less scary they seem

Part of this is because you realize that everyone else who has tried to expand their own comfort zone has felt the same way. The other part is because you’ll have gotten (mostly) over your fear of failure. 

You’ll increase your creativity 

The more you expand your comfort zone, the more you experience. The more you experience, the more neural connections that are made in your brain, even among seemingly disparate topics. That is creativity. The ability to see things differently and draw previously undiscovered connections. And sure, creativity is wonderful in itself, but it’s also the 3rd most important skill sought after by employers.  Win, win.

Making it a habit 

This is why it’s so important to expand your comfort zone, and maintain the habit. Not just step outside of it every once in a while. Habits don’t just occur naturally. You have to plan for them, and practice them. And that, my friends, is the hard part.  Here are some best practices that can help you shrink down that habit making timeline:

Build it into your routine

Have you ever improved your fitness by simply exercising when you felt like it? I doubt it.

Give yourself a timeline

My friend once told me that it takes her hours to declutter her house every week. But if you tell her you’ll be over in fifteen minutes, you bet she’ll get it cleaned up before you get there. If you don’t set a timeline, you’ll either procrastinate, or give yourself unlimited time and it’ll never get done. 

Tell other people

We’ve all got that one friend who’s really good at calling us out. If no one comes to mind, tell your favorite little niece or nephew that you’ll give them $20 each time you don’t make your mark. If you can count on anyone to keep you on track, it’s a little kid trying to make a buck. 

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  • Nikki Yogi

    Great article! It sounds like me about “giving yourself a timeline”! I’ve been setting timers on my phone lately. And honestly, it’s been blowing my mind. I set a 5 minute timer and click play on my podcast and start doing something tedious. And by the time it goes off…only 5 minutes later… I’ve completely forgotten I’ve set a timer. But it’s perfect. It makes me finish up unloading and reloading the dishwasher and move on to the next task and set another timeline. I don’t use it all day long. But when I’m like, I want to crush these 5 tasks on my to do list, it’s awesome.

    Anyway, James really related to this expanding your comfort zone article! Great job!

    • Audra Kershner

      Thank you, Nikki! That’s awesome to hear that that strategy is working for you. I’ve been checking out a few productivity/timer apps recently and haven’t found any that I love yet – but sometimes all you need is a simple phone timer! Glad to know you and James are crushing it in this quarantine!