How (and Why) to Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

You may have a problem with your but.

No, not your posterior. With the word but — the little conjunction that instills doubt and holds people back from reaching their potential. As in:

  • I’d like to get ahead in my career, but I don’t have time to study.
  • I’d like to go back to school, but I have a family to take care of.
  • I’d like to learn more about a subject, but I worry I won’t be successful.
    It’s time to kick your buts to the curb. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can pay rich dividends, helping you feel more accomplished, creative and self-confident. Here are some tips for getting out of the rut.

    Know Why You’re Doing It

    Let’s face it, we tend to like routines. Predictability provides stability, and stability helps us reduce risk and stress. Breaking out of routines requires a determined effort. But research shows that sticking with routines can diminish our potential. Even a little bit of a push outside of our comfort zones can lead to “optimal anxiety,” a state where we can achieve goals more effectively and see tangible results.

    The idea of optimal anxiety isn’t new. Psychologists first described the theory more than a century ago and it has been backed up by studies since then. A little anxiety can help you focus, develop and achieve your goals. (But be careful about how much anxiety you invite in — too much can stymie your productivity.)

    Before leaping far outside your comfort zone, take small steps to change up your routine. Take a different path to work, rearrange your schedule or switch around the apps on your phone. These little life tweaks should disengage your autopilot and prepare you for bigger changes.

    List Your Goals

    Setting goals serves two purposes. First, it helps you create a concrete plan for present and future action. Second, it can help you visualize the end results you want to achieve. Knowing where you want to go, and the steps required to get there, can lead to meaningful outcomes.

    Action for Happiness, an organization focusing on well-being, lists seven steps for setting goals:

    1. Decide what you want to achieve.
    2. Write it down.
    3. Share your goals with others to create external accountability.
    4. Break your goal down into achievable steps. It’s helpful if you create steps that are measurable — “study for 90 minutes four times a week” is more effective than “study more.”
    5. Plan and take the first step.
    6. With every step you accomplish, keep the momentum going as you undertake the next step.
    7. Celebrate your achievements, especially when you reach your ultimate goal.

    Stop the Self-Sabotage

    You may be allowing past experiences to hamper your future aspirations. Andrea Bonior, author of Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, wrote in Psychology Today that it is counterproductive to brood about “if only …” statements because they don’t lead to action or help solve problems. Instead, they reinforce past patterns of behavior.

    Bonior advises rephrasing the “if only …” statements into positive, forward-looking expressions. Use the past as a reference point, and look for ways to take action.

    Avoid Black-and-White Thinking

    You might be prone to thinking in terms of absolutes, such as: If I don’t earn an A, then I’ll get an F. This all-or-nothing approach is called black-and-white thinking, and it’s a cognitive distortion that might prevent you from exploring new opportunities and breaking out of your comfort zone. The world doesn’t work in opposites. You might not be able to do everything you want at once, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking steps to achieve your goals and dreams.

    Remember: It’s Not Forever

    A trip outside your comfort zone is not a one-way ticket. If needed, you can retreat to a place where you feel safe and satisfied. When you’re back in your comfort zone, it’s always a good idea to reflect on what you’ve done and contemplate next steps.

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