As another year begins, I find myself thinking a lot about how uncomfortable the past year has been for some many of us. About how the pandemic forced many of us to abandon long-cherished routines and rituals. How we all had to adapt to unfamiliar ways of working. How getting thrown in the deep end allowed some leaders, teams and organisations to swim faster and better than ever before.
From survival to innovation, the ways in which we responded to the challenges of the past year demonstrates the value of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Whether or not we like it, the rapidly evolving world will continue forcing us into uncharted territory at an increasing pace. Those who can learn to accept this reality and prepare for it will be far better equipped to keep up with changing times. Not to mention that getting out of your comfort zone can be incredibly exciting and rewarding – both as an individual and as a leader.
So, this week, my message focuses on why you should continue breaking out of your comfort zone in the new year. How can you harness unease to boost personal growth?
Why leave your comfort cocoon?
Simply put, a comfort zone is a state of mind and behaviour that adheres to familiar routines and patterns. With minimal stress and risk, this space gives you a feeling of mental security. It’s important to realise that there is nothing wrong with loving your comfort zone! After all, it is a reliable source of happiness and contentment, with the added benefit of low anxiety. You feel at home here – and that is totally natural.
However, like all good things, you can have a little too much comfort. Spending too long in a familiar and stable environment can reduce productivity, stunt growth and dull innovation. As you start operating on autopilot, you stick with methods that produce acceptable results and lose the drive to experiment. You may even feign “busyness” to avoid trying new things.
This has serious ramifications for leaders, impacting their appetite for risk and readiness to handle future changes. In this way, your comfort zone can become a glass ceiling that prevents your leadership growth.
Being uncomfortable is the key to improvement
Research shows that some amount of unease actually boosts productivity and creativity. In their Lifehacker piece, Alan Henry and Rebecca Fishbein elaborate:
In order to maximize performance, we need a state of relative anxiety – a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called “Optimal Anxiety,” and it’s just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply.
While extreme stress can paralyse you and harm your mental health, taking risks in a controlled manner allows you to achieve productive stress. In her article for American Business Magazine, Merilee Kern elaborates:
Stress can prompt the mind to adapt and better rise to a challenge so as to overcome achievement-hindering obstacles. Serially successful leaders know this to be true, as they regularly thrust themselves outside their comfort zones to increase their situational performance, enhance their leadership ability and boost self-confidence.
New experiences also offer a gateway to new knowledge, ideas and inspiration. This enables you to view old problems in fresh light, devise innovative solutions and spot promising opportunities. Whether you are immersing in an unfamiliar culture or learning a new language, the mental benefits of broadening your horizons can be felt almost instantly.
Intentionally placing yourself in unfamiliar contexts also prepares you for life changes that are out of your control. Being courageous, taking risks and coping with stress are all like muscles – the more you use them, the stronger they get. While you may never feel totally at ease outside your comfort zone, you will certainly become better at facing the unknown. This way, when the next big change arrives, you are unlikely to be overwhelmed by it.
How to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable
Are you ready to venture out of your comfort zone? Here are seven suggestions to help you embrace, manage and leverage unease for growth.
1. Keep moving to get past the fear.
Just outside of your comfort zone lies a realm of fear. Here, you will likely experience a lack of self-confidence, imposter syndrome, and all kinds of doubts. As Joanna Howes notes in her LinkedIn paper:
Our brains are wired for survival, so as soon as it senses fear the voice in your head will be telling you to seek certainty and comfort. Sound familiar?
Moving past this stage is key to reaching the zone of learning and growth. Remind yourself that fear is a good sign: it means you’re moving in the right direction. When anxiousness arises, accept it and keep moving forward. This will send a signal to your conscious mind that you can handle the challenge – and eventually, your subconscious mind will also get the message!
2. Begin with low-impact actions.
If you are extremely rooted in your comfort zone, starting with a big, risky move could be counterproductive. Failure might send you running back to a state of safety, and leave you even less willing to try something new next time.
A good way to get out of your bubble of familiarity (without taking a huge professional risk) is to change the way you do something on a daily basis – like your morning routine, commute or workout. The idea is to shake things up and seize small opportunities for change. Visit a restaurant without reading the reviews. Take a new route to an old destination. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Another couple of other interesting suggestions from Tim Madden at Entrepreneur:
If you typically leave the role of hosting dinner parties to your spouse or let someone else organize the reunions for your college friends, try taking the initiative yourself for one. How easily can your leadership skills adapt?
Reflect on the insights that come with these small and medium shifts, whether positive or negative. Once you become adept at managing the associated discomfort, you can move on to bigger challenges.
3. Explore a diversity of experiences.
Choose activities and skills that stretch your personal boundaries. For some people, this could be adrenaline-pumping sports. For others, it could be quiet reflection and meditation. In general, it’s a good idea to broaden your horizons in different directions – work, exercise, food, technology, culture, travel, and so on. Breaking out of one’s comfort zone is a lifelong endeavour, so try new things at regular intervals.
4. Dive into self-awareness.
Introspection and inner work remain firmly in the “discomfort zone” for most leaders. If you are part of this group, it’s time to take this crucial step to elevate your leadership. As executive coach John Mattone points out:
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your values, character, beliefs, and emotions… [It] is one of the core principles of intelligent leadership…. To unleash your unique brand of intelligent leadership, you need to understand your innermost core. And to achieve that, you may have to defeat resistance and wean yourself off your dependence on your comfort zone.
5. Try a 30-day challenge.
Climb a steep learning curve with a 30-day comfort zone challenge. By inviting a new dose of discomfort into your life every single day for a month, you will master the art of pushing past self-imposed limits. Mau Pan, founder of Nuoptimal, includes the following as good challenges:
- Doing something that scares you.
- Doing something that you’ve never done before.
- Doing something that you’ve been putting off for a while.
From trying Muay Thai and taking cold showers, to making friends with a stranger and signing up for Toastmasters, Pan tried a series of intimidating experiences. The goal of such an exercise is to retrain the brain so it becomes more resilient to change-related discomfort.
6. Trust the process.
Striking out towards a new horizon demands a leap of faith. It can be awkward, stressful and uncomfortable – which is why it’s important to trust in the wisdom of others. As Howes advises:
We have to be ready to trust the process and learn from those who have gone before us to achieve the success we want to reach and access our full potential.
7. Return to your comfort zone.
Keep in mind that the aim isn’t to leave your comfort zone for good. After having new adventures and mastering new skills, you can return to your comfort zone for much-needed downtime and stability. As the authors of the Lifehacker article explain:
The last thing you want is for the new and interesting to quickly become commonplace and boring. This phenomenon, called hedonistic adaptation, is the natural tendency to be impressed by new things only to have the incredible become ordinary after a short time. It’s why we can have access to the greatest repository of human knowledge ever created (the internet) at our fingertips (on our smartphones) and still get so bored that all we think of is how quickly we can get newer, faster access.
A forward-looking mindset is all about embracing and implementing change. By definition, these capabilities lie outside the boundaries of the familiar. Practice stepping out of your comfort zone, so you can leverage feelings of discomfort for personal as well as professional growth.
Why not make unease your great ally in 2022?