What's not to love about your comfort zone? Even the phrase itself sounds nice. I imagine a cosy nook where I can be alone and content, far away from the whole crazy, uncomfortable world. Unfortunately, you also miss out on a lot of cool experiences in that nook, which is why this year, I vowed to force myself out of it.
You experience life differently outside of your comfort zone, and yes, that totally sounds like some motivational meme on a cheesy Instagram account, but there's more to it than that.
Breaking out of your comfort zone is hugely beneficial to your personal growth and productivity. We're not making that up -- there's legit science behind it. Psychologists often refer to this concept as optimal anxiety, citing the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which suggests that a certain amount of anxiety can actually improve your performance (up to a point).
In other words, a small amount of stress can actually be good for you, as long as you still feel in control. That's what breaking out of your comfort zone is all about: pushing your own boundaries and discovering your capabilities. Beyond being more productive, there are a few specific benefits to leaving your comfort zone:
- You learn more: By exposing yourself to new information and experiences, you challenge your confirmation bias, the tendency to only seek out information you already know or agree with. Who wants to think they're right all the time? That's boring.
- You're more resilient: When you get used to being a hermit, it's harder and harder to do uncomfortable things. Over time, even the simplest thing makes you uncomfortable. After working from home for a while, I found it hard to leave the house just to go to the grocery store. I was spoiled.
- It can help time slow down: Not literally, but getting too comfortable in your routine does make time feel like it's flying by, and breaking out of your comfort zone is one way to counteract that.
After reading about all of the advantages of discomfort, I realised I'd gotten too comfortable in my ways. So at the beginning of the year, I resolved to seek out discomfort more often. For me, it was important to do this in small steps, lest I burn out on it, and the good news is: even the smallest break in comfort is a big deal. Big or small, here are a few uncomfortable situations I embraced this year in order to break out of my comfort zone.
I Asked For More Money
There are few things in life I dread more than asking for a raise. It's right up there with doing your taxes or going on a blind date.
A survey from PayScale asked people why they don't ask for raises. Here's what they found:
- 28% were uncomfortable with negotiating
- 19% didn't want to seem pushy
- 8% were worried about losing their job
If you're afraid of asking, chances are, you can relate to at least one of those reasons. I can pretty much relate to all of them, but for me, a fear of losing my job has always held me back most. It's uncomfortable to ask for more money, but obviously, asking is important. As the saying goes, you don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.
With that in mind, I forced myself to do something uncomfortable and ask a few clients for a rate increase. One client said no, so of course, I was immediately worried about losing the gig. Of course, it didn't happen that way. I just asked, got rejected, and kept working as normal.
Other clients said yes, though, and that increased my earnings for the year, making me feel more confident. Hell, even being rejected made me feel more confident. For a long time, I was a chronic underearner: I'd work for free, I underestimated my worth, I convinced myself that asking for a raise was greedy. It's easy to get comfortable with that defeatist attitude, but breaking out of it, even if you get rejected, can be a huge boon to your self confidence.
I Forced Myself Out of My Routine
Once you get stuck in a routine, it's tough to break your day to day habits. You tell yourself you'll eat better, exercise more, or take better care of your finances, but it's easier said than done. One way to set yourself up for success is to set up systems for yourself when motivation is high.
I found myself in that situation earlier this year. As anyone who works from home will tell you, it's far too easy to get comfortable. You only spend time with the people (or pets) you like and you rarely leave the house. I told myself I'd start taking regular breaks from my work, but I didn't. I told myself I'd get out of the house more often and work from coffee shops, but I didn't. I was too set in my ways.
To counteract this, I vowed to set up a system that would force me to break away from my comfortable routine. I started volunteering at the local library every Wednesday. (A nice thing to do, but I have to admit, I mostly did it for my own selfish reasons.)
The people I worked with were great, but I didn't particularly enjoy volunteering, and I even dreaded it sometimes. I had to monitor the headcount for a children's program, and when the room was at capacity, patrons were often rude. Sometimes their rudeness was funny: one patron said she was taking her "business" elsewhere. Other times it was downright disheartening: one patron straight up said, "you're a horrible person."
In short, it was very uncomfortable. But there were a couple of benefits to breaking up my routine.
For one, I was considerably more productive. Volunteering served as a "forcing function." Instead of having all day to work on an article, I had a set amount of time before I had to go to the library, so I worked faster and more efficiently. Second, I felt happier. My day seemed longer, and in some ways, fuller, because the library was a different environment and energy from my normal routine. Finally, thanks to those rude patrons, I had to learn to stand and speak up for myself -- a skill I lost from spending my days in solitude.
So not only was I more productive and energised, but I regained a skill I didn't even realise I'd lost!
I Told A Friend A Blatantly Honest Truth
Some people have an easy time being brutally honest with everyone. I am not one of those people. And chances are, there are some truths you have a hard time with, too. Maybe a friend has bad breath. Maybe a friend won't shut up about his ex and it's annoying you. Maybe a friend thinks she's invited to your wedding, and you weren't planning on it. It's hard to be honest sometimes.
For example, a few months ago, a friend texted me asking to go see Pitch Perfect 2. I had no desire to see this movie, and that would be an easy truth for most people. But I have a weird, oppressive fear of letting people down, which means being honest about stuff like this makes me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I know how dumb that is. Not only is it unfair to the other person, but not being honest leads to all sorts of nastiness. It builds resentment. It keeps you from developing a stronger relationship.
My knee-jerk reaction was to just suck it up and go see it, because what's two hours and twelve dollars? But I was already dreading sitting through the movie and annoyed with her for making me watch it (even though she wasn't making me do anything!), so I decided to do the uncomfortable thing. I told her, "I'll pass, I'm not the biggest fan. Please don't be mad." Of course, like a normal person, she simply replied, "What? You mean you don't have the exact same taste in movies as I do? Jk, see you soon!"
I realised being offended over a movie preference is dumb, and it's ok to be honest. In fact, honesty can bring you closer, and that's what happened. We've become pretty good friends, and all it took was doing something slightly uncomfortable. On the other hand, there were also friends who didn't handle my honesty as well, and that was ok, too. It helped me understand that we may not be compatible in many ways. It can be uncomfortable, but honesty is a shortcut for growing your friendships.
I Faced My Imposter Syndrome
Conferences can be uncomfortable, especially if you're a shy or introverted person. You have to talk to people you don't know. You have to figure out what to do with your hands while talking to people you don't know. Even if you're not shy, it's also intimidating to be in a room with so many successful people. You feel like an imposter.
So this year, when my alma mater asked me to come back and give a Table Talk with a room full of successful, experienced women, I really, really wanted to say no. But it was such a nice thing to be asked, that of course I accepted and went to the conference. It was terrifying. I was scared in the days leading up to it, and at the actual event, I very much started to feel the effects of imposter syndrome. I felt like a complete idiot and a fraud, and I was scared they'd call me out on it. One woman was a TV anchor. Another was a CEO of a big company. I still feel like I had no business being there, but they were so kind and curious about how I built my career. I actually told them I felt like an imposter, and I was surprised to learn so many of them did, too.
It turned out to be inspiring and motivational, I met people who wanted to work with me, and I had a fun time hanging out with new people.
It would have been easy to just make up an excuse not to go, but attending served a practical purpose, and it helped me get more comfortable with networking.
Another funny thing happened when I broke out of my comfort zone this year: the more I did it, the easier it became. I found that if I skipped a week of discomfort, the next time I had to do it, it was much harder. So I tried to leave my nook before the comfort set in and I forgot what life was like outside of it.
At the same time, it's important to return to your comfort zone sometimes. Like hedonistic adaptation, discomfort and excitement could become your new normal, making everything else in your life seem boring. Returning to your comfort zone every so often makes you appreciate the subtlety and nuance of life. Plus, let's face it: being comfortable is nice. However, it's actually a lot nicer after you've challenged yourself and learned from your experiences. The comfort zone is so much more comfortable when you return to it after pushing yourself.