"To succeed in life we must stay within our strength zone but move out of our comfort zone." - John Maxwell
If you want to grow and develop in anything in your life, there is a fact you need to come to grips with: Expanding your comfort zone and accomplishing new things requires discomfort. It wasn’t comfortable for you to start walking as a baby; you fell down a lot. Starting a new grade in school wasn’t comfortable; you didn’t know everybody. Going on a job interview isn’t comfortable; you’re being judged. Presenting in front of a huge customer isn’t comfortable; your livelihood is riding on it.
Then why do we do these things? What forces us out of our comfort zone?
You learned to walk because you wanted to get places, you pushed through the discomfort of a new class because you didn’t want to get left behind, you went through the interview because you wanted the job, and you made that presentation because you wanted to be successful.
As much as you logically understand this, it is emotionally counterintuitive to your subconscious. People typically seek out comfort and routine, and hold on to it whenever they find it. That’s fine, but you are also at your best when you are growing and developing, so that comfort needs to be balanced with the discomfort that comes with that growth.
There are lots of ways to encourage yourself to get out of your comfort zone; focusing on the benefit you’ll receive, plotting a logical path to reach the result, focusing on the pain of your current situation, etc. But each one of those has a common obstacle, and that is your habit of seeking comfort. Overcoming that habit is essential to expanding your comfort zone and thriving in your personal and professional life. And it is something that you can more easily overcome if you simply practice putting yourself in situations that give you discomfort.
It’s time to step forward and get some of that practice through these simple techniques that will mix up your routine, establish new habits, and get you ready for growth in your career and personal life:
Read a book – For many people this doesn’t sound uncomfortable at all, in fact it’s one of their comforting activities, but here’s the trick; Read a book from a genre you wouldn’t usually pick up. If you read fiction, make it non-fiction. If you read business books, try something on sports. If you read all of those, try science fiction or the latest vampire series in the young adult section. Reading is one of the quickest ways to deeply expose yourself to different ideas, cultures and lifestyles, but you need to mix it up to get all the benefit out of it.
Ask somebody for help with something – One of the most uncomfortable things for anybody to do is admit they don’t know something or can’t handle all the tasks they’ve been assigned. Luckily for you, it’s pretty much impossible to know everything in your organization, so you have more than enough opportunities to address this. The next time you don’t know the answer to something, ask for help. The next time you’re over-committed, ask for help. You could ask a peer, a subordinate, or even your boss. You’ll not only get practice with discomfort, you’ll also be more knowledgeable and productive.
Learn something – Whether it is physical or non-physical, it’s always uncomfortable to struggle at something new, but the benefits are usually obvious. The classic physical example is dancing or a martial art, but it can also be trying a new piece of equipment at the gym or hiking a trail you’ve never been on. For the non-physical, the classic is learning a new language, but you can also make this hyper-practical by learning a new program at work. I used to hate using Excel, until I was forced to really learn how to use it. Now it is my “go-to” program for most everything (each one of my books started out as an outline in Excel before moving over to word processing software). The key is to learn something new and exercise your acknowledgement of the progress and accomplishment that can be gained.
Create small goals that work towards a big goal – Want to do something big and outlandish? Don’t obsess about the big goal, break it into smaller goals that may be uncomfortable to reach, but show the path forward. If you want to run a marathon, plot a path through your discomfort by focusing on running a 5k (3 miles) first, then focus on a 10k, then a half-marathon, and so forth. Many times, there’s no need to tackle all your discomfort at once, you can do so bit by bit.
Cook something new – Whether you cook currently or especially if you don’t, exercising some creativity where you aren’t sure of the outcome is a great way to get more uncomfortable and relatively harmless (depending on the pickiness of anyone joining you). You have to eat anyway, so try something new and get out of your regular preferences.
Get lost intentionally – Take a break from your GPS and instead get the cross streets to your destination, or a general idea of the area, and go. Maybe you ask for directions at a gas station. Maybe you drive around until you find it. Maybe you set a time limit on your searching, then break out your phone. Not knowing how to get to the destination you are going is exactly how we feel with a lot of the goals that we have.
Change your routine – Have something different for breakfast, eat lunch with a different person every day, park in a different place at work, sit on the other side of the couch, switch around your meeting schedule. Routine is comfort, the more you can fight against routine, the easier it will be for you to embrace the discomfort of growth.
Try a food you don’t like – Our tastes change. If you took 10 foods that you didn’t like in the past and tried them now, I’d be willing to bet that you actually like one or two of them. This risk or “leap of faith” is not unlike that first step through discomfort. Getting out of your comfort zone is a BIG DEAL, and similar to that old grade school joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” the answer to making it easier on yourself is “one bite at a time.”
Don’t just give to charity, serve for charity – Giving instead of receiving is good for so many aspects of your life. In the case of charity, the greatest benefit is serving instead of just giving financially (which IS still important). The reason is that the environment is different than your work. Often you are called upon to exercise talents that you don’t get a chance to in your day-to-day, or you are asked to stretch out into something new. Either way, you are making a difference to yourself and others.
Listen to different music and try to find a song you like – It isn’t just about switching genres, it’s about sincerely trying to find a song you like. Music influences itself across genres, so if you listen to a new station for a couple of hours, you’ll likely find at least one song that resonates with you. Maybe you take the next week and listen to a different station every day on the commute into work and the commute home. Again, breaking up the routine by discovering something new creates a positive correlation with discomfort.
Smile – Smiling to everyone you pass in the hall, see at a meeting, run into in the breakroom is something that opens you up to conversation and interaction with others. You may choose to steer clear of these interactions by avoiding eye contact and smiling. It keeps you in control, which is far more comfortable than being out of control. Since you don’t know which passerby will take you up on it, it creates a sense of suspense throughout the day.
Go offline for a day – OK, now we’re talking about “next level” stuff! In this day and age, if you really want to get uncomfortable, leave the internet alone. Maybe you go to a movie instead, just watch TV, or even read a book. Taking an internet break is VERY uncomfortable for most of us, but can reap a whole host of benefits beyond just stretching your comfort zone.
Take a different route to work each day – Fight the routine whenever you can. There are a myriad of different ways to get to work, why not explore some. Get off at the exit before the one you usually take, get off at the exit afterwards, take a different freeway, take the surface streets all the way in. Switch things up, just leave a little extra time to find your way.
Change your look – It can be drastic like shaving/growing a beard, coloring your hair, or it can simply be dressing up or down a little more. Adding color to your wardrobe, wearing your hair differently. We are all caught up in appearances and regardless of how enamored we are with a change to our looks, it isn’t the most comfortable thing to walk into the office and face everyone’s opinions.
Break a bad habit – Perhaps the most useful way to practice getting out of your comfort zone is to break a bad habit. Whether it is smoking, swearing, slouching, or whatever. Use this as an opportunity to break a routine you want to break, not just because you want to practice getting out of your comfort zone, but because it’s good for you as well.
Visit a place you’ve never been – Travel is an amazing way to get out of your comfort zone, but it doesn’t take going to Tahiti to activate that sense of exploration (though by all means, you’re welcome to try Tahiti). It could be visiting a park you’ve never been to before, a mall on the other side of town, a shop you’ve always been curious about, anything at all. New places equal new experiences and that is the essence of growth.
Watch a foreign film – If you can’t visit France, you can at least sample some of their entertainment. Same goes for Japan, Australia or India. Pick one in a genre you like with good reviews. Feel free to leave the subtitles on. It will be amazing the differences you see, as well as what looks familiar. Discovery and discomfort don’t need to be painful, you can stretch your comfort zone in entertaining ways as well.
Act first – Being the first person to say hello, the first person to raise their hand, the first person to initiate contact in any way is an enormous show of confidence. It’s also a leap of faith. That you’re right, that you won’t be rejected, that you both share the same opinion. It’s also often uncomfortable, and it’s not like more time makes it better (just think back to the last uncomfortable silence you were a part of in a meeting). Being the first to act exercises the often-painful act of deciding. Before you can climb a mountain, you need to take that first step up the trail.
Build something – It could be Ikea furniture, it could be a gardening project, it could be a Lego set with your child. Anything where there is an opportunity for you to make a mistake is an exercise is getting out of your comfort zone, especially where that mistake will be tangibly displayed to you.
Learn about someone who has been where you want to go – You’d be surprised at some of the difficulties and challenges that people go through that you are unaware of. If you want to put your excuses to rest, just look at someone who has achieved what you want in life. You’ll likely see whole other levels of discomfort than you are facing right now, you’ll see greater weaknesses, you’ll see unformed strengths, and you’ll see people who moved past all those. You aren’t alone in needing to step outside your comfort zone, and to prove it you just have to look around.
Getting comfortable with discomfort can be one of the most important factors in your career success. Luckily for you, it is a skill like any other, and if you practice, you can develop this vital trait and make all of your efforts to grow easier.