Why 'Leave Your Comfort Zone' Is Really Bad Advice (And What To Do Instead)

10 Jul 2024

Do you remember the little doodle I made to explain why motivation doesn’t work?

Today, we’re gonna zoom in on the comfort zone part.

Many coaches, motivational speakers, and online gurus dish out the phrase, “Everything you want is on the other side of your comfort zone.” It sounds smart. Like, “Thanks, Captain Obvious” smart. They get away with saying something that sounds like authoritative advice while offering nothing of actual value.

It’s bad advice because it’s communicated in a way that doesn’t land for most people and, therefore, doesn’t work.

I propose to reform it to: “Everything you want is within your comfort zone, provided you’re willing to stretch it.”

Let me explain.

What Is the Comfort Zone?

The comfort zone refers to our psychological safety net, kept in place by self-concept. We often say things like, “I’m the type of person who…” or “I would never do X.” We have a concept of self - the collection of ideas we hold about who we are and what we do or don’t do. It’s like a mental blueprint that dictates our behaviors, preferences, and perceived boundaries.

So a comfort zone is an extension of self-concept, helping us feel safe and in control. The world is too crazy and unpredictable for us to be ‘fluid’ and leave our comfort zone often.

Imagine trying to learn a new skill while simultaneously questioning your entire identity—impossible, right? Self-concept gives us the stability we need to safely explore new experiences and grow. As we age though, our idea of self becomes more cemented, and therefore, we’re less open to experiencing new things or leaving our comfort zone.

When we’re told to “leave your comfort zone,” it feels overwhelming and scary because it clashes with the identity we’ve built. The change seems too drastic and intimidating, reinforcing the boundaries of our comfort zone.

This is what typical advice looks like:

On an intellectual level, it might not seem that way, but on a deeper level—the nervous system, emotional, psychological, personality, and subconscious levels—leaving your comfort zone equates to stepping into the unknown, also known as the zone of panic.

Everything within our biological and psychological systems loves stability. The nervous system and the ego are designed to protect you; that’s where your self-concept resides.

So, if you’ve always thought of yourself as not being a ‘sporty type’ but got inspired by a YouTube influencer ‘motivating’ you to move through the fear and decided to attend a CrossFit class tomorrow, you’re stepping into a danger zone. You shock the system and panic.

Going against your system(s) is like trying to stretch a rubber band wrapped around a tree. You can only go so far before it snaps you right back to where you started. Motivation dwindles and you end up back at square one, feeling worse about yourself for not sustaining the change. This cycle reinforces negative beliefs about your abilities, leaving a feeling of failure.

Instead, we should focus on expanding our comfort zones gradually, stretching them to encompass new experiences without abandoning the security they provide.

The updated version of the comfort zone advice looks like this:

In the updated version, you’re 3 steps away from the panic zone which feels much safer and comforting.

How Does This Look Practically?

The mind is great because it’s capable of projecting future scenarios and visualizing ideal outcomes. We know what the end result should look like. But, it often imagines a perfect, 10 out of 10 result, rather than a realistic goal based on your current position.

This is further exacerbated by social media, where we are constantly bombarded with images of others seemingly living perfect, 10 out of 10 lives. We see the best relationships, the most beautiful homes, the richest lifestyles, and so on. This constant exposure can distort our perception of success and happiness, making us set our goals based on these idealized, yet very much unrealistic portrayals.

Anyway, this is what the mind tends to do:

When we constantly compare our current position to that perfect 10, it can be demotivating. If you’re at a 2 on a scale from 1 to 10, the gap between 2 and 10 feels daunting, often leading to frustration and quitting because reaching a 10 seems impossible.

Instead of fixating on the end result, we should focus on incremental progress (I know, nothing new). Evaluate where you are right now, and aim for the next step up the scale.

If you’re at a 2, concentrate on getting to a 3. Break down your journey into smaller, achievable steps. Define what a 4 looks like, then a 5, and so on.

Measure your progress against the previous step, not the end result.

This Way, You’ll Feel:

  • Motivated: Achieving small milestones provides frequent boosts of motivation.

  • Accomplished: Each step forward is a victory, making the journey feel more manageable.

  • Persistent: By focusing on the next step rather than the distant goal, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to persist through challenges.

Example: Improving Self-Esteem Through Public Speaking

Scenario: You have low self-esteem and struggle with public speaking (a personal example 😊). The idea of giving a speech in front of a large audience (a 10 out of 10 on your fear scale) feels overwhelming and impossible.

  • Current state (comfort zone): You can comfortably talk to a small group of friends.

  • Next step: Volunteer to share a brief opinion or story during a small group discussion at work or in a class.

  • Step after that: Once you feel more comfortable speaking in small groups, join a local Toastmasters club or a similar public speaking group where you can practice speaking in front of a slightly larger and more supportive audience. (I didn’t join Toastmasters but applied to become a Junior Team Lead at my Marketing course where I’m on Zoom answering other students’ questions, sometimes, on topics I know little about, so I open up myself to public ‘humiliation’).

  • Further expansion: After gaining confidence in this setting, challenge yourself to give a short presentation or talk in front of a medium-sized audience, such as at a community event or a larger meeting at work. (I run daily meetings at my job, and half the time, I’m sitting there all sweaty with my face red 😁).

  • Further steps: As you continue to build confidence, aim to give longer presentations or talks to even larger audiences, eventually working up to delivering a speech at a significant event or conference.

The gradual scale could be applied to any area of your life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to run a marathon or make new friends, setting achievable milestones, writing down what each means to you, and then following them will help you pivot from your comfort zone.

How to Leave Your Comfort Zone Instantly

The previous approach focuses on gradually extending your comfort zone over time. Now, let’s explore an immediate way to shift your self-concept and engage in activities you ‘don’t typically do.’

One issue with our self-concept is that we often assume others see us the same way we see ourselves. We think they have the same information about us as we do, but of course, they don’t. A good way to practice stepping out of your comfort zone is to do something you would never usually do in public.

Task Variants

These tasks encourage openness, sincerity, and spontaneity without pretense or manipulation. The goal is for the other person to feel that your actions are genuine and not solely for the task’s sake.

Playful Tasks:

  1. Interact with strangers: Ask someone on the street for directions, the time, or to ride on their bike.

  2. Engage in spontaneous acts: Help someone cross the street, assist with loading groceries, etc.

  3. Experience luxury: Test drive an expensive car, try on high-end clothing, or have a coffee at a luxurious restaurant.

  4. Plan an unexpected appointment: Make an appointment at a hair salon to get a shaved head, then cancel it later.

You know what I did? I took an iron for a walk.

I wrapped it in a towel, put it in a bag, and dragged it around the block holding its cord. The looks and comments I received were priceless. People were laughing, asking me what I was doing and why.

One older gentleman even said he thought his eyes were deceiving him: at first, he thought I was walking a dog, but then he realized the noise was all wrong (turns out, dragging a plastic bag across concrete is pretty loud 😁). It made everyone’s day and the whole experience was a lot of fun.

It took me 45 minutes just to work up the courage to do it, but once I was out, I felt so joyous and free! I was doing a ridiculous thing, and it was funny. But also, freeing because truly and honestly, nobody gives a F about you.

But for the serious folks, I’ve some therapeutic tasks as well:

  1. Reconnect: Talk to a friend, family member, or ex-partner with whom you’ve lost contact.

  2. Express emotions: Thank, apologize, or forgive someone by talking to them directly.

  3. Ask for help: Request assistance with something you find challenging, such as driving or another task.

By engaging in these seemingly silly activities, you can instantly step out of your comfort zone and challenge your self-concept. These tasks help you realize that people don’t know your usual behaviors, giving you the freedom to try new things and expand your boundaries without fear of judgment.

Key Points

  • Comfort zone: Your psychological safety net, maintained by your self-concept.

  • The advice to "leave your comfort zone" is no bueno. It can be overwhelming and ineffective. Instead, focus on gradually expanding your comfort zone.

  • Set small, achievable goals to gradually stretch your comfort zone.

  • Practical steps: Identify your current state, aim for the next small step, and measure progress incrementally.

  • Actionable ways to expand your comfort zone - playful tasks.

By focusing on these small, manageable tasks, you can expand your comfort zone without overwhelming yourself.

If you decide to try it out, have fun!

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash