There’s a wonderful sign on one of the lengthy dirt roads in South Africa which reads: “Choose your rut carefully as you will be in it for the next one hundred kilometres”! “Ruts” are not particular to gravel roads, however, but seem to be part of the regular human experience as people get stuck in comfort zones, havens of comfort that provide security and peace. I say “stuck” because we become used to them and we are usually not even aware that we are in them. Unfortunately, although we feel a relative sense of peace and comfort with the routine and predictability of the situation we are in, this ends up with the result of not being in an area of growth for us and could lead to stagnation, frustration and no stimulation. In the work context, this could lead to decreased productivity in that we could feel trapped, with subsequent energy level losses. Poor performance and a lack of innovation and creative thought processes are often signs of those who have unconsciously fallen into the comfort zone trap.
The human being has a tendency to mitigate against risk – it takes courage to “put oneself out there”, to try new things and to explore one’s potential. There is an innate fear of being exposed, to be “shown up” as incompetent or “average”. As such, we don’t attempt new things, we shut down our creativity and don’t explore our potential to the full. If you recognise this in yourself, perhaps the following actions might be helpful for you:
- Explore and understand your comfort zones – identify them and understand why you are “holding back” in this area of your life. Self-awareness is key here – you need to come to terms with who you are and what makes you tick, your fears and likes and dislikes.
- Commit to confronting and rectifying one of your comfort zones – give it a name and work out an action plan that is challenging enough for you to overcome inertia and get started on the issue.
- Be present – give the rectification of your comfort zone your full attention. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, “Flow”, describes how people get more satisfaction and meaning when they are fully engaged in a task – when they are in “flow”. Be present.
- Make some changes to your routine – sensible changes that will challenge old habits that are not working for you. The changes need not be permanent, but they should temporarily provide you with stretch opportunities to give you the possibility of new experiences and the ability to face new challenges with relative confidence.
- Grant yourself the gift of time – try to find an activity you enjoy and make time for it. These so-called indulgences remove stress from your life and celebrate who you are.
- Say “no” to some things – we need to let go of activities that are not adding real value to our lives and create some “white space” in our calendars.
- Get assistance – at times, despite our best efforts, we find ourselves unable to make progress, immobilised and frustrated by our seeming inability to rectify a situation that is holding us back. Getting a coach or a mentor during these moments may prove to be invaluable and may provide the necessary kick-start to get us moving in the right direction.
- Evaluate your progress and reward yourself – looking back at any progress you might be making and spoiling yourself when you reach significant milestones provides encouragement and further motivation to continue the good work.
Breaking old habits that are no longer serving you well and getting out of comfort zones that are holding back any possible progress can be exhilarating. In this area of stretch, we can master new skills, form new relationships and learn new things. Applying energy to this new growth area gives one a sense of achievement and renewed hope for a positive future. Conquering our comfort zones is living a life of self-renewal.