There's actually a lot of science that explains why it's so hard to break out of your comfort zone, and why it's good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and a few adjustments, you can break away from your routine and do great things.
Simply, your comfort zone is a behvioral space where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress.
The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance In order to maximize performance, however, 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.
The idea of optimal anxiety isn't anything new. Anyone who's ever pushed themselves to get to the next level or accomplish something knows that when you really challenge yourself, you can turn up amazing results. More than a few studies support the point. However, pushing too hard can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is a bad idea. It's our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state. You can understand why it's so hard to kick your brain out of your comfort zone.
Even so, your comfort zone is neither a good or bad thing. It's a natural state that most people trend towards. Leaving it means increased risk and anxiety, which can have positive and negative results (which we'll get to in a moment), but don't demonize your comfort zone as something holding you back. We all need that head-space where we're least anxious and stressed so we can process the benefits we get when we leave it.
Optimal anxiety is that place where your mental productivity and performance reach their peak. Still, "increased performance" and "enhanced productivity" just sound like "do more stuff." What do you really get when you're willing to step outside of your comfort zone?
The benefits you get after stepping outside of your comfort zone can linger. There's the overall self-improvement you get through the skills you're learning, the new foods you're trying, the new country you're visiting, and the new job you're interviewing for. There's also the soft mental benefits you get from broadening your horizons.
Outside your comfort zone can be a good place to be, as long as you don't tip the scales too far. It's important to remember there's a difference between the kind of controlled anxiety we're talking about and the very real anxiety that many people struggle with every day. Everyone's comfort zone is different, and what may expand your horizons may paralyze someone else. Remember, optimal anxiety can bring out your best, but too much is a bad thing.
Here are some ways to break out (and by proxy, expand) your comfort zone without going too far:
There are lots of other ways to stretch your personal boundaries. You could learn a new language or skill. Learning a new language has multiple benefits, many of which extend to learning any new skill. Connect with people that inspire you, or volunteer with an organization that does great work. Travel, whether you go around the block or across the globe. If you've lived your whole life seeing the world from your front door, you're missing out. Visiting new and different places is perhaps one of the best ways to really broaden your perspectives, and it doesn't have to be expensive or difficult to do. The experiences you have may be mind-blowing or regrettable, but that doesn't matter. The point is that you're doing it, and you're pushing yourself past the mental blocks that tell you to do nothing.
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