Comfort Zone

Is it time to challenge your career comfort zone?

Change can be exciting, but it can also be uncomfortable. Anyone who’s been in an office during a merger or a reorganization knows this first-hand!

Let’s face it: When there is routine, there is usually comfort and a feeling of safety. We know what to expect, and when we can predict how our days will unfold there is typically less stress. There is a rhythm to the work week as long as we hold steady.

Some of us adapt to change more easily than others – and some changes are easier to accept than others but many of us rarely seek those changes.

When was the last time you sought to push yourself outside your comfort zone at work?

It’s human nature to protect ourselves from harm, and taking risks requires courage. Trying something new can be terrifying, but there isn’t usually much gain without risk.

Why it’s important to get out of your career comfort zone

Staying in your comfort zone can be like treading water: It feels very safe and it’s not too demanding, but you’re not moving forward.

In times we do push ourselves to leave that comfort zone, some interesting things can happen. For instance:

Better performance – A bit of alarm can actually boost our performance. At the turn of the last century, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson studied the effect of anxiety (versus a state of comfort) had on performance. They noticed slightly higher stress levels – what they called “optimal anxiety” – would improve productivity. Now, I get it – finding that “Goldilocks” sweet-spot is tough. Too much angst is counter-productive and too little only maintains the status quo.

Innovation – Staying in the comfort zone is sticking to a routine – what’s been tested and tried. When you push yourself into changes, the resulting shot of adrenaline can propel you to find new ideas or solutions. You’re more likely to exceed the status quo when you brave feeling uncomfortable to be innovative.

Increased drive – When you push yourself outside your comfort zone you’re going to be acutely aware of meeting a new deadline or achieving a new goal (instead of coasting along doing the same old thing). Finding your way through uncertainty takes focus and drive.

Resilience – We learn from our experiences, so each time you get outside your comfort zone makes the next time easier. Facing that state of “optimal anxiety” takes practice and we grow in confidence with each opportunity. In working with executives and senior leaders all over North America, I’ve come to think that resiliency is one of the top competencies required.

Self-improvement – What we find scary or alarming shifts because our comfort zone expands with each experience. Each challenge offers us a chance to grow our skills and build on our experiences, expanding our potential and maybe even helping us achieve goals beyond our wildest dreams.

When to push yourself outside your career comfort zone

It can be tricky to figure out when you’ve hit your stride at work or whether you’re stagnating on the job. There are a few things that may tip you off that it’s time to get outside your comfort zone.

Here’s what to watch for:

Boredom – Work that feels humdrum and predictable is probably not your best work.

Fear – Sometimes we limit our actions in an attempt to avoid making mistakes.

Procrastination – Avoiding necessary work is often the result of uncertainty, ennui, or feeling scared.

Even when we experience these negative feelings, the idea of trying something new can be daunting and frightening. Staying with the familiar (even if we’re not happy!) can be very comfortable. It’s hard to break old habits.

If you really want to grow and develop in your career, or if you’d just like to feel more excited by your work, it’s time to push yourself outside your comfort zone. We can find the courage to move through fear to achieve something we desire (like new opportunities! Sometimes being uncomfortable puts us on the path to success.

When it’s a good time to stay comfortable

You don’t have to always push yourself outside of that comfort zone. The opposite can be true.

All of us do best when we have time to recharge, and we’re not going to do that when we’re facing anxiety on a regular basis. It’s human nature to find a comfortable state where our anxiety and stress are minimal.

Remember that constant or excessive anxiety is counter-productive; it will drag you down and impede performance.  Think back over the last year and ask yourself if the feelings of stress and alarm have been inordinately high, or if you’ve only been feeling pushed, tested, and occasionally anxious about the unknown.  If anxiety has been continual, now might be a good time to continue building your comfort zone.

We also need time to reflect on what we experience so that we can grow in knowledge and confidence. Linger in the comfort zone as you process experiences, so you’ll figure out your strengths and weaknesses before diving into the next round of growth and change.

How to navigate outside of your comfort zone

Staying in our comfort zone is a choice, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. We stay in our comfort zone when we don’t change anything.

If you want to push yourself outside your comfort zone:

Size doesn’t matter – Changes can be small, and often little changes are easier for us to make.  Every little change can give you a new perspective. It could be eating out instead of bringing your lunch, taking a different route to work, starting a new exercise program, or taking a class to learn a new skill.

Give yourself a new perspective – Seeing the world through a new lens can be very informative. Talking with others, reading, and travel can all expand your horizons.

Dream – When you allow yourself to dream of possibilities, your potential is limitless. Your career is your responsibility and it really helps to have a sense of purpose. Not sure where to start? Try creating a personal vision statement for your career.

Take the time you need – Sometimes you need to go with your gut and make a quick decision, while other times you need to weigh options and clarify things.

Problem-solve – List all the problems and challenges you face and figure out what the barriers are. Listing them can make them feel much more manageable.

Journal – Take time each day (whether it be at the end of the workday, first thing in the morning, or in bed at night) to think and write about what felt challenging in your day and what felt routine.  Write, too, about how you responded to things and to people – did it feel easy or habitual and were you brimming with confidence in most things you do?  Once a week read back over your entries and see what your gut tells you.

Consider a career move – If you’re comfortable where you are, it could be time for a new job that will be challenging and motivating. Choosing your next career move means figuring out where to run to (not to run away from something!).

Coach’s Questions:

What’s your gut telling you? Is it time to push out of your comfort zone or time to stay comfortable?

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