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This is when stepping outside your comfort zone is a bad idea

Stretching yourself too far can have unpleasant consequences.

This is when stepping outside your comfort zone is a bad idea
[Photo: William Malott/Unsplash]

It’s some of the most common self-improvement advice out there–if you want to grow, you have to learn to get out of your comfort zone. And we at Fast Company are guilty of promoting that trope (I even wrote an article about how to trick your brain to do it.)

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For most of my life, I lived religiously by that adage. Overall, seeking out discomfort and stretching myself constantly forced me to do difficult things that ended up being good for my personal and professional life–whether it was changing careers, moving countries, or running marathons. But at times, I found that having that mind-set left me prone to anxiety and exhaustion, and I ended up saying yes to far more than I had the capacity to do. When I did decline an opportunity, I felt intensely guilty. I had this misguided idea that I should always say yes to things that scare me, even when it was something I didn’t really care about.

I soon realized that continuing to live my life that way was a recipe for burnout, and that there are times when staying in your comfort zone is the smart thing to do.

The three zones of comfort

Today’s self-improvement culture glorifies stepping out of one’s comfort zones in a myriad of ways. Entrepreneurs progress by failing forward, employees grow by creating their own opportunities or taking on additional responsibilities, and individuals become smarter and wiser by talking to people who are not like them. It’s easy to see the upside of these actions, but they all carry some risks. Let’s take the example of an employee who says yes to managing a project on something they know nothing about. If they do it knowing that no amount of hard work will make up for their lack of experience or knowledge, they are hurting their company and others in their team. Is stepping out of their comfort zone really the smart decision in this case?

Andy Molinsky is a professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University’s International Business school and the author of Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build ConfidenceHe tells Fast Company that most of the encouragement on stepping out of one’s comfort zone comes from individual experiences. “I think it comes from a genuine authentic place from people who have felt that they stepped outside their comfort zone and were able to do things they didn’t think they could do. The fallacy is that it’s a single person’s story, it’s not a sophisticated understanding of the conditions of when it might make sense for people to stay in their comfort zone. The mistake is extrapolating from [their] own experience.”

Molinsky says that there are three “zones” when it comes to comfort. The first is your comfort zone, where you’re in a familiar situation and are experiencing very little anxiety. A “stretch” zone is when you’re experiencing some level of anxiety, but at a point where you can turn it into motivation and productivity fuel. “When the threshold overtakes your capacity to handle it,” Molinsky says, “that would be your panic zone.” 

The importance of preparation

Molinsky stresses that the “optimal” level of discomfort is in your stretch zone. In order to get there, “you want to be thoughtful in terms of choosing a stretch zone.” That requires setting yourself up to ensure that you have the time and energy that you need.”

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Let’s go back to the example of the employee who said yes to taking on the project he knew nothing about. He hasn’t set the right conditions to succeed, nor has he increased his odds for success. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Molinsky explained two of the questions one should ask before moving out of one’s comfort zone: whether you have prepared enough, and whether it’s the right time. He wrote, “You might want to do the behavior or learn the skill in question, but the time just might not be right. You might want to get better at pitching and promoting yourself at networking events, for example, but given your other responsibilities at work, you can’t devote time and effort to that particular task . . . If you don’t have the time to fully prepare and follow through, it’s not worth moving forward.”

Understanding your tolerance to discomfort

It’s important to understand that “comfort zone” is a subjective concept. There are various factors that determine it, including one’s personality and tolerance to stress. An introvert, for example, might find the idea of going to a networking event much more daunting than an extrovert. Someone who is naturally athletic might be much more comfortable with the idea of running an ultra-marathon than someone who is not. 

Humans also respond to arousal differently, so it’s also possible that what one considers to be their “stretch” zone might be another’s panic zone. According to psychology professor and Fast Company contributor Art Markman, the key is to understand how you work. “Since you can’t really change where your own sweet spot falls, you simply need to get to know yourself: Are you able to get a lot done without much prompting, or do you need lots of help to energize yourself before getting down to work?”

Of course, this insight relies on a great deal of self-awareness, and if you’re unsure, the only way to find out is to experiment. Molinsky recommends experimenting in a way where you have “set up the conditions for success and learning.” Say you want to stretch yourself by presenting a proposal in front of C-level leaders in your company. Setting yourself up for success would mean allowing ample time to prepare, anticipating their questions ahead of time, and making sure that the proposal you’re presenting is on an issue of which you have knowledge and expertise. You’re still stretching yourself by doing this, but you’re not doing it in a way that’s completely in over your head.

Stretching yourself without going too far

Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can definitely result in growth, but stretching too far beyond that can also have unpleasant consequences. For me, that was living in a state of constant stress. Starting businesses without enough experience or knowledge in the industry can lead to not only financial failure, but also impact the lives of others. Stepping into a CEO role without any management experience can result in mismanagement and toxic company culture.

Molinsky believes that setting yourself up to benefit from acting outside your comfort zone involves “putting your own spin on it so you don’t have to suppress who you are.” An introvert who wants to expand their network, for example, shouldn’t force themselves to go to noisy networking events and instead opt for scheduling one-on-one meetings. “There is no surefire way, but what you can do is increase the odds for success. If you are able to succeed, then you are able to take the leap and perhaps even have some success with it, you’re able to benefit from [stretching outside of your comfort zone]. That’s where you start to really develop a sense of self-efficacy, and you can benefit from learning–whereas if you avoid a situation or you choose something so far outside of your comfort zone and create panic, you’re going to create conditions for failure.”

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Ultimately, Molinsky says that you need to learn to identify when your reluctance to act outside of your comfort zone is due to fear, and when it’s not. “Imagine that you could have a magic eraser to erase anxiety. Is this something you feel like you’d like to do?” If the answer is yes, then by all means go ahead and stretch yourself. But if it turns out that it’s not something you want to do, then perhaps it’s not the time and place to do that uncomfortable thing.

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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