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Comfort Zones

When did you last stretch yourself to the absolute edge of your comfort zone and of your personal abilities? We all need a challenge. I choose to challenge myself mentally and physically every year, some might say I go to a little on the extreme side but usually it is just to stretch the norm and the status quo. Without stretching ourselves we can all shrink and then we start to underachieve. Or is that just me?

The dictionary definition of a comfort zone is a “situation where one feels safe or at ease”. Nothing particularly profound there. However, as you start to unpack what makes up a comfort zone for each of us that is where the magic can be found.

A comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. … Bardwick defines the term as “a behavioural state where a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position.”

Many describe there as being three primary zones:

“Comfort zone” – things we know, anxiety free, safe, easy, comfortable, stable and secure

“Growth zone/stretch zone/learning zone” – risk, good challenge, new things, exciting, adrenalin, alive and expectant

“Panic zone/danger zone” – fear of the unknown or failure, overwhelm, stressed, anxiety and stress, frustrated, annoyed and tension

When you’re playing sports, when you’re in business, when you’re at school, you often do the things that you’re good at that allows you to stay with the friends that you’re used to and we stretch ourselves in a way that is comfortable, but not too risky in case you fall flat on your face and look stupid. And that’s the problem with the comfort zones, we get to the point where we don’t want to look stupid and that little voice in our heads says, ‘You’re no good at this, you’ll fail, you failed before.’ So we try and avoid that little voice by doing the stuff that is easier, just a little bit challenging but isn’t really going to hurt.

Many of us get to the point in work where we don’t actually push ourselves outside the standard day to day work, we choose not to do the stuff that helps us to learn something new, that stretches us with only a little bit of risk involved. There should be some risk. You have heard of the expression, “If you’ve never failed then you’ve never tried”? That could be right or wrong. Yet the whole point of trying things out and stretching yourself means you are likely to make errors -we can get things wrong; it’s allowed!

The panic zone – where you’ve suddenly got to go and present in front of a board of directors, to have new interview, to get a new job. The job you’ve had for the last 10 years or the last 10 months was okay but it just didn’t float your boat, it didn’t push your buttons and so you didn’t stretch yourself. Maybe you took a little bit of risk and put a CV out there and now you have the interview lined up. That’s when we go into the panic zone, the point where we are truly stretching ourselves.

Recently I’ve written in detail about my challenges of running up and down mountains in Scotland. I was so far outside of my comfort zone and the risks involved. Loads of risk – I’m not a runner, certainly not a fell runner. Actually it was borderline panic zone because I was so outside of my natural strength. I can swim, not the fastest, but I can swim, for a long period of time. This whole thing of going up and down mountains is just not me. It took us 10 hours on the mountains, up and down, up and down. Snowdon is over 1000 metres in height. Every Munro in Scotland is over 1000 metres high, and so were each of the seven that we climbed, ran up and down, scrambled up and over.

The problem that all of the participants in the race knew was that it wasn’t just about getting up to the top of the Munro, you knew that you had to come down and then do it all again. It was such a stretch directly into my panic zone and it is fascinating now when I’m reflecting on it and what a great achievement it is. When you really do stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone you feel such jubilation in your body and your mind that you did something different.

We certainly remember the times when we stretch ourselves more than when we just go through the motions. Consider the number of times when a workday becomes Groundhog Day and is just like every other day, blending into another. Everything seems to be dragging and we are just living for the weekends. But that’s because you haven’t put big, hairy, scary goals in there. Things that are going to make you work towards and you’ve got to train for mentally, physically and spiritually.

My challenge for you is to experiment, don’t do something too easy, experiment, take risks and when you get brave with the risks, then you’re going to stretch through the different zones. Qualified risk is what I’ve always targeted – swimming the channel, climbing the mountains or taking part in an endurance event is all about the preparation. And when you do the preparation, then suddenly you’re in the right place physically and mentally. It’s not always convenient to do preparation but by doing it, it means we go into a situation relaxed, comfortable and ready for most eventualities. You need only dip in and out of the panic zone, rather than stay in it. Think of revising for school or university exams – they all stretched you beyond your comfort zone and quite often if you hadn’t done the right level of revision you went into the exam potentially in the panic zone. Not healthy – preparation is key.

Start stretching yourself regularly, get the knowledge to help you get through it and stretch those comfort zones. If you haven’t yet done anything this year that stretched you outside of your comfort zone, what could you achieve in the rest of the year that will actually put a big smile on your face? Because when you’ve done something a bit different, a little bit brave or maybe a little bit scary you will have physical and mental photographs that you look back on that are just beautiful and they will stay in you and with you for the rest of your life. Good luck.

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