The chances are you’ve heard, read or used the expression “Comfort Zones” even if it isn’t part of your day-to-day work.
I find however that a lot of people often talk about them as yet another buzzword, a platitude to trot out, even up to and to the point of telling people to dive into crippling fear, but they don’t often think about how they can best be used. Like anything else, they require context and nuance!
This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my work, but… much of this is all about balance.
So, let’s explore some models showing what we think they are, how they might apply, and why you might not be using your understanding of them to your best advantage for yourself… or others.
(My model below is a work-in-progress, and is subject to future change!)
What is a Comfort Zone?
The typical definition of a Comfort Zone is a behavioural state, within which an individual operates in an anxiety-neutral condition.
When we are comfortable and experiencing no anxiety or challenging stimulus, humans tend to become extremely sedentary, both physically and mentally. Although we excel at change, if we see no reason to do so, we won’t. We value comfort and convenience above almost all else, in fact, and we are very good at lateral thinking and finding shortcuts to simplify and ease processes, which means we are reluctant to make changes to these systems once in place.
Routine, Pattern, Familiarity, Relaxation, static Repetition are all hallmarks of a Comfort Zone.
That said, and taking into account the rest of the article is dealing with representations of movement out of this Zone, Comfort Zones are absolutely a good thing. They provide safety, recovery, mental surety, and balance, and are much needed and natural parts of us. We should be balancing our time between comfort and growth; comfort is a physical and mental resting place.
It is not at all true that we must always be moving outside our comfort zones. We like comfort for a very good reason!
The misinterpretation of “Comfort Zones”
There is an oft-repeated school of thought that implies that this is a Comfort Zone, and one I see represented a lot on LinkedIn and other social media:
This is not really accurate, nor is the assumption that you will automatically grow and learn simply by moving outside the comfort zone. All this does is open up the opportunity and the motivation do do so, but work and risk are still required, and there is nuance depending on context.
People tend to speak about “moving outside your Comfort Zone” as a binary action; it isn’t.
Most of the motivational posts I see work on this basis, and that’s fine; a first step is a first step. But you have to take more steps after the first one to continue a journey. It’s fantastic to be inspired to take that step for change, but how many people are then discouraged by taking a risk and not seeing themselves grow or learn quickly or obviously? Human nature then makes it less likely we will do this again in the future.
We also are conditioned to want quick results, but like getting fit, these things require time and consistency. In my role I constantly see people expecting quick results and change simply from doing something they normally wouldn’t, and being disappointed if their life doesn’t radically shift.
As with most things humans get involved with, we love to over-simplify a concept that requires a little thought. Comfort Zones are complex, because the humans that form them are complex, and they are dispositional – you can guess their boundaries and what might happen, but they can change depending on circumstance, and you can’t predict what will happen.
Comfort Zones are subjective in nature; they are intensely personal to us all. What is comfort for one is discomfort for another – outside a basic defining scope, of course (sofa vs torture rack tends to be a no-brainer!). Many of us have our own mental image of our own Comfort Zones.
Whilst there is hypothetically no “wrong” way to represent them, it is important that the way they are represented is clear and in line with scientific, psychological, and sociological understanding, so that people can more accurately map it to their own context.
For example, I occasionally see models like this:
It’s a great motivator and outline for a number of steps, but in terms of how we work under normal circumstances, or in the normal order of things, it isn’t really accurate, which can lead to some confusion or differing expectations.
For example, I wouldn’t call the Fear Zone here Fear, but Demotivation, or perhaps Reluctance. Fear – true fear – is almost always greatly inhibitive to learning and growth. If you are panicking or in a heightened state of anxiety, you can’t learn, because your body has essentially shut everything down but fight-or-flight. Those are things you can’t really push “deeper” through; you have to control them, because the deeper you get the less control or higher thought processes you can maintain. Anxiety and panic typically get worse the more you push, not better!
There is always an element of pushing through initial risk, fear, uncertainty, complacency, and anxiety to catalyse change, but I see this as less a zone and more a border between zones. They are the gatekeepers we must overcome to move into a zone where we can change and optimally perform, be challenged.
Many of these models also give an apparently clear progression, direction, and almost waterfall-style expectation of how you can progress, and that isn’t how we work, especially when you realise these Zones are tied into emotion as well as cognition. If you look at basic psychology you will get an idea of how we work – we’ve known for centuries and more that thrusting someone untempered into a danger zone has a much higher attrition rate than safely teaching them over time. It’s make or break – and that may be beneficial in extreme circumstances, but it isn’t the best way for us all to learn and progress!
In terms of motivation and pushing these models are fine, but I prefer a more realistic model that reflects how humans actually make decisions and work based on our current knowledge.
So what’s a more accurate representation?
A typical modern model of a comfort zone will usually look something like this:
This is very basic, of course, but I find it’s accurate for most situations. There is no specific direction or set of things that may happen; it shows the progression that typically happens when you make changes to learn and grow, expanding outwards. For me here, learning and growth are so intertwined as to be synonymous.
The middle zone is labelled optimal performance instead of growth or learning, because it doesn’t only apply to those concepts. It suggests that a relatively small amount of stress motivates or catalyses us to do something with greater focus, which gives the opportunity to optimally grow and learn, but it’s not such a great leap that it shuts us down in utter panic.
As an example, you don’t learn and grow in swimming terms by throwing yourself alone into the deep end of a pool when you learn to swim; this typically only delivers terminal feedback where you drown, and if not you haven’t really learned much of use. Instead, you learn to swim in increments in shallower areas or with swimming aids, and preferably with an instructor, creating stress and risk but also psychological safety, and as you get better you push your boundaries. It’s important to clarify what constitutes “pushing” and “fear” here!
Of all things, humans fear uncertainty the most. It’s the most consistently stressful state for us to be in. But there’s a modicum of stress and uncertainty that gives us adrenaline and heightened perception, makes us ready and breaks complacency. It allows us to perform tasks we know, or learn tasks we don’t, at an optimum level of focus and control.
That’s quite different to such high stress and anxiety levels that our brains shut down and we’re operating purely on adrenaline and cortisol.
I’ve spent some time looking at how learners operate and learn over the years, as well as doing so myself continually, and I’ve also spent a lot of time looking at how humans make decisions and how our minds work and form patterns; it’s integral to a lot of what I do with agility, culture, learning, leadership training and more. These toes in science, psychology, and sociology have helped me develop a more detailed model that integrates with what we know, not just how we learn.
With that in mind, there are three major things to bear in mind when you consider Comfort Zones:
Something we don’t think about much because it’s intrinsic to our ability to do many things is Identity.
All of us have multiple different identities, to which we link different modes of thinking and understanding. These are in turn linked to mental patterns and how and why we form them, as well as tribes we form – or are formed around us from meta-complex tribes (you can think of these as tribes-within-tribes at differing levels of complex systems, like a 3D Venn Diagram. Don’t think about it too hard for now!).
All of this makes identities quite a variable and often conflicting arena for us to navigate.
We switch between these identities, which are unique in combination to each person, quite seamlessly and without thinking about it; it’s almost as if our brains rewire on the fly to operate differently depending on circumstance. I’ve always been fascinated by how some of the greatest thinkers I know, who are methodical and quiet, can do another activity (watch a game of rugby, for example) and become intensely loud, tribal, and involved, as if they are a different person, and think nothing of the process. I love watching someone termed excitable and with attention deficits find their favourite hobby (such as painting!) and spending hours quietly working on it.
None of us are two dimensional in aspect; we have myriad faces, and this is important to remember when we consider Comfort Zones and how we deal with them.
Systems of Support
The most widespread, automatic support structures we have are tribal. Humans create tribes without thinking, both in the real world (families, communities, countries, et al) and in the abstract (music, hobbies, philosophies and more). I’ll go into tribes and their negatives more another time, but here they serve multiple positive purposes, including humanising, binding and helping people invest and be collaborative to mutual benefit, even if that’s just moral or psychological support rather than physical survival. When you integrate into a tribe, you assume an identity for that tribe.
Not all identities are tribal. We may not share them with others – they may be intensely personal and thus segregated. But many identities are tribal, because we are social creatures who share knowledge and are comfortable with a sense of belonging.
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The Zone is not Alone
Given that we have multiple identities – and the tribes they may link to – it then makes sense to look at models which acknowledge that we have multiple Comfort Zones, and each has different boundaries and limits.
Think about it for a moment: do you know anyone who is quiet, shy, retiring, who is not shy and retiring at something quite specific? Or perhaps you go to do something you are very comfortable with, but the situation and environment makes it suddenly uncomfortable?
A wonderful thing about identities and tribes is that they buffer us against uncertainty, because you have a degree of support and understanding. When many people come together doing this, it means you all support and buffer each other as well. You might take a risk on a night out with friends you never would if you were alone; the same goes if you are at work, making a decision that affects a company result where you are protected to an extent by the bureaucratic structure and policies, as well as colleagues, in a way you aren’t in your personal life – in which we are far more reluctant to chance lasting consequences.
All of these tribes and identities link into – but exist outside of – your Personal Comfort Zone, which is really your inner sanctum.
This is the one you can least afford to breach, and your willingness to risk and expose yourself here will by nature be far less. It’s your last defence before the naked you, as it were, and we usually find the idea of changing who we are at our core anathema, because then we would potentially not be who we are any more. So we take less risks, change more reluctantly, and our Danger Zone is much larger, with the Optimal Growth Zone smaller than perhaps some others; it’s much easier to overstep into panic or anxiety and uncertainty.
Conversely, strong tribes that we identify with have different Comfort Zones. One more thing to consider is how we tend to collate smaller identities under larger ones – and how they sometimes affiliate to more than one tribe.
So, to expand upon the above example of Personal vs Work with a general example:
Notice that there is a definite line of danger between your personal and professional comfort zones – although skills and actions may pass across, there are things we will do in one we absolutely wouldn’t do in the other!
Our professional Zones may have a larger Comfort Zone because we do a lot of mundane, safe things day in day out, and the optimal Performance Zone may likewise be larger because giving it a go isn’t often as risky as in our personal lives (for example, whilst not desirable, losing a job is generally less long-term destructive than losing a personal Zone – consider what happens when someone’s confidence is destroyed, and the knock on effects it has personally, professionally and more).
The Danger Zone for our personal Zone is therefore likely to be proportionately larger than our professional one, because at work (depending on role and company!) we generally accept or hide that we make the odd mistake; the impact of a mistake in our personal lives can be much more shameful or impactful to us.
To dive into Cynefin–think for a moment – consider the boundaries between the Zones in a model as constraints, and consider how they may be more rigid, elastic or permeable etc depending on which model you’re in; where there might be catastrophic failure; and how you can equate “psychological safety” to “Safe-to-Fail Probes” in Complexity and shallow Chaos.
The interesting thing here is that the different identity-linked models also feed into each other; you may take small amounts of confidence or lack of confidence from one to the other, depending on your mental framing and state, so for example proficiency over time at work or a sport can feed easily into personal life, and vice versa.
Finding New Comfort
I’m still thinking about the correct visual representation of a basic model, but imagine the Personal Comfort Zone in the centre, and other identity(/tribally)-linked Comfort Zones all around it, each Zone connecting to every other model’s Zone, and every Zone a different relative size, as if they were neurons in a network, and you start to realise how many – and how interconnected! – they can be.
Hopefully this exploration into how much (and many!) more Comfort Zones are than our usual daily perception is useful, and has given some food for thought. Far from being a simple concept, Comfort Zones have many levels and contexts, and are actually very fluid and ever-changing – and at times, we all need to return to our Comfort Zones.
Consider how it might all apply to yourself. The next time you think about “moving outside your Comfort Zone”, remember not to assume growth is automatic – we have to work at it! Think about which Comfort Zone model it might be, how far is too far, how to maintain the psychological safety for optimum learning or operation, and how, if it isn’t your personal model, it might be used to grow that, too.
You might be surprised how many you find you have.