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Comfort Zones & Getting Stuck in a Rut

From time to time, every one of us – even gurus – get into a comfort zone, or find that we really want to change but can’t (stuck in a rut). It’s good to recognise this, and it’s good to recognise that it takes effort, skill and determination to get back onto a growth curve where we are stretching ourselves again.

Sometimes it’s the easy option just to give up and stick with our existing ways of doing things, even if it’s not working for us – and can be downright uncomfortable! Think of contestants on The Biggest Loser (if you’ve ever watched it) who were actually killing themselves with food, and  have to go through a massive and prolonged change of fitness, attitudes and skills to come out healthy, energetic, happy and with great confidence in themselves.

Perhaps in smaller ways, each of us needs to learn and to keep learning what it takes to break out of unhelpful comfort zones and to break of situations where we feel trapped.

First, we need to find the motivation. This could be a trigger like a trauma or loss, or it could be that we get angry enough about something to finally stop tolerating it and do something about it. It could be that we get some encouragement, or that we hear some feedback that makes us realise something that we have preferred to ignore.

Then we need to find new ideas – how to do things differently, how to be different, what else is out there – and to digest those ideas so that we really understand what they mean. Sometimes just reading a book (or an article like this) stimulates new thinking, but until you turn the ideas into something really meaningful for you at a personal level, then you will probably forget them by tomorrow. So explain them to someone else, or even better, find a way of applying them for real in your life...

... Which leads us nicely to the next step, active experimentation. We need to get over our fear of stuffing things up if we try something new – okay, maybe it won’t work perfectly first time but so what? From the experience we can refine, develop and tweak it into something even better. So - just try things!

And sometimes, you’ll find that it worked. Great! Problem solved! Sorry, that’s another comfort zone in disguise. The truth is that when you’re next under pressure you will go back to your old ways of dealing with things, your old habits. You need to be prepared to apply the new strategy again, and again, and again (maybe 21 reps!) until it becomes second nature and an automatic reflex.

While on this kind of journey, pay attention to feedback, both critical and positive. It’s all a source of new ideas! When you are hiding in your comfort zone, the last thing you want to hear is praise (because it suggests a risk of being given new responsibilities), while criticism just reinforces your low self image and your lack of desire to try anything new.

And your self confidence will continue to quietly nosedive, as all the while your skills and belief in your ability to take on new things continues to diminish.

All of this is summarised on this diagram:

Today’s Challenge:

Identify one of your ‘comfort zones’– a routine, a place, a task, a role that you hide behind. You know it so well that you don’t even have to think about it, and maybe you use it to justify not doing something else. 

We all have them: ‘No, I can’t meet you this evening’ might really be code for ‘There’s a TV program I want to watch’. Or ‘I couldn’t possibly take this on’ might be because you are quite comfortable being limited to your existing role as the office gopher, or as a parent. 

Or it might be comfort eating instead of asking what it is that you really need and trying something different to solve it. Similarly, many of us were taught as kids to always clean the plate and we are still in the habit of doing this, instead of stopping when we are satisfied – the old habit is a comfort zone, and even if it isn’t actually helpful we continue to pay it homage. 

Even fit, healthy sporting types can stick to an exercise routine that is not really doing them as much good as it could – variety would be tougher, more beneficial, but hey: I know I can do this old one comfortably so why bother?

Now consciously break the habit or routine. Examples:

  • Record the TV program, or even miss it once in a while for heaven’s sake.
  • Say ‘yes’ to the next person who asks you to try something new or different.
  • The next time you limit yourself to only being (a mum, a secretary, a janitor, a non-sporty type, or whatever) catch yourself and – at least this once – find a way to avoid using that as an excuse for missing an opportunity. By the way, parents – your example will be a great role model for your kids so that they don’t follow a limiting pattern.
  • When you find yourself at the fridge door, ask yourself what you really need (maybe it’s a glass of water, or a conversation, instead of food) and do something about that instead.
  • Make a point of NOT clearing your plate every time you eat for at least the next week.
  • Change your exercise routine. Try a personal trainer, or ask your existing one to give you unpredictable challenges. Sign up for a different kind of exercise class – if you normally do cardio, sign up for a yoga class. If you exercise alone, join a class or find a buddy.
  • Next weekend, do something that you have never tried before.
  • Go to a networking event – few people are comfortable there, everyone is having to talk to complete strangers!
  • Sign up for a course in something new – anything from a seminar or an evening class - why not even a degree?
  • What would be the relatively uncomfortable/edgy thing to do instead of your usual routine, place, task or role? 

If you are trying to break out of a rut ...

Small steps: Prove to yourself that you are capable by doing any or all of the above ideas for breaking out of comfort zones! Developing the skill of breaking habits builds your self confidence, your self belief, your energy, and your sense of excitement. Every time you bust out of your comfort zone you prove to yourself that you are worthy.

Big steps: maybe it’s time to go for what you really deserve. Start pushing for that promotion even if you’re not sure you are ready (that’s just an excuse). Identify your strengths and put together evidence (feedback, stories) of each one. Or look actively and seriously for that new employer, or relationship.

Change the nature of the rut: Sometimes you only think that the place you are in is limiting. Maybe there are more opportunities there than you think. Make the relationship more exciting, start making the workplace a fun place to be, or suggest putting together a project group involving different parts of the company. Anything!

Now keep doing this – every week, every month of your life you should consciously change a routine, or stretch yourself in some new way. That’s a habit that once formed, you don’t want to break!

Enjoy the variety!

Hope this helps,

03 January, 2010