One of the most over used phrases in coaching today is “get out of your comfort zone”. The thing is, I believe almost no one knows exactly what a comfort zone is and that the idea of getting out of it is actually very dangerous for most people. It’s what kills countless wonderful goals dead in their tracks.
The concept of the comfort zone was first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1980s in his work on Flow. Flow is the state when your ability to do a task exactly matches the challenge of the task. His definition of the comfort zone is the area around flow where you are either expanding your abilities by stretching just beyond flow, or consolidating your learning by repeating what you have just learned until it becomes natural to you.
Outside the comfort zone are two danger areas – one, where you have gone too far beyond what you know and you are in danger of burning out or of stressing yourself to the point of breaking, either physically or mentally or both. This is called the Burn Out Zone. You can go here, but you can’t stay very long before the stress becomes too much and all learning stops. This is where people have heart attacks or strokes or nervous breakdowns! Why would anyone suggest you want to set your goals out here?
The other zone, which is arguably even more dangerous, is the Rust Out Zone. This is where you don’t take any risks, you don’t stretch beyond what you are absolutely certain of and all you do is repeat the same “safe” behaviour until you die of boredom! This is the zone of drop outs, alcoholics and drug addicts and depression and its often the place where people go after they’ve been hurt in the burn out zone!
So I think what people are really saying when they say get out of your comfort zone is “get out of the rust out zone”! The trouble is that’s not what people hear. So they set themselves tasks that are way out in the burn out zone and then beat themselves up when they don’t achieve them. Do this too often and they fall into the rust out zone where they feel safe but depressed. They feel like failures.
So your ideal state is actually right in the comfort zone! Its where your ability to learn is not compromised by stress or boredom. Surfing the wave between learning and consolidation you are at your most brilliant and most extraordinary!