Humans are wired to seek comfort, and as a result much of daily life is focused around familiar patterns and habits. When something threatens to break those habits, we feel uncomfortable and nervous. These negative feelings are easily avoided by continuing to live life the same way, rejecting change. If given the chance to enter uncharted territory, a situation where life's future is unpredictable, people often prefer not to change, clinging to a comfortable situation.
I still remember the summer before I left my home and family to attend college out of state. Although I'd spent summers away from home before, I didn't feel ready to live without the immediate support of my parents on what seemed to be a more permanent basis. I considered postponing my college education or attending a community college for a year to ease the transition.
Realizing that millions of kids my own age had the courage to attend college while living on campus hundreds or thousands of miles away from their family, I decided to follow through. I convinced myself I was at least as capable as millions of other kids.
Looking back, the experience was perfect for me and I'm glad I found the strength to move away when I did. I adapted to the new living situation rapidly and found it wasn't difficult to expand my Comfort Zone.
Breaking out for your career
There are four things that make us feel comfortable:
- Familiarity with location
- Familiarity with people
- Familiarity in thoughts
- Familiarity in actions
But if we cling to familiarity in these aspects of our lives, there's no opportunity for real growth — personally, professionally, or financially.
My college experience dealt with location and people, but the changes we make in our actions can have an ever greater effect, and are key to financial gain. Working in the corporate world, anyone could grow accustomed to daily, weekly, or monthly patterns of tasks and responsibilities. Being adept or even excelling in these responsibilities isn't enough for someone who wants to make an impression and increase the possibility of being rewarded.
Here are a few ways someone could break out of the Comfort Zone at work:
- If you don't typically speak in front of others, prepare a short presentation about one of your responsibilities and share it at a meeting with your team.
- Develop a unique process improvement that has the possibility of increasing productivity, income, or whatever is important to your workgroup.
- Eagerly attempt a challenging assignment that normally would be handled by your supervisor or a “higher level.”
Not everyone is wired for corporate life. In fact, corporations are full of people who aren't. They may be dreaming of some activity they would rather be doing only if money weren't a consideration.
Two former vice presidents from my company were tired of corporate life, so they gave up their six-figure salaries to open a bed and breakfast in the Hamptons. This is happening everywhere; people are making major changes to their lives to fulfill a calling, a dream, or a passion. These changes always require a rejection of some level of comfort in pursuit of a new environment offering a possibility of self improvement.
Breaking out for financial growth
Aside from a career path or entrepreneurial dream, it's easy to fall into a Comfort Zone with our finances. It's easy to pay someone else to do basic yard work, for example. And if outsourcing this work is embedded in your family culture, paying someone else is natural and comfortable. There may be good reasons to outsource but in many cases there aren't, and those reasons — no time, no skill — are often excuses. Even having never picked up a rake or planted a flower, a new self-responsible gardener could save a significant amount of money over time, amplified by compound interest.
Many people avoid investing because it seems difficult or risky from the outside. How do you know which stocks to pick? How do you handle a stock market crash? Whom can you trust? With these questions, many people stick to what they're comfortable with: investing in their company's 401(k) because someone else has made the decision for them, and saving anything else they have left after expenses at the end of the month in a bank account.
This is the result of financial comfort. While it feels good, and this person may have a sense of security that nothing bad can happen, the opportunity cost could be significant. By not taking action, the would-be investor is likely losing out on thousands, tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime. This could be solved by stepping outside the Comfort Zone and learning how to do something new: invest.
How to break out of your Comfort Zone
Whether you want to be rewarded at your job, be successful on your own, improve your financial situation, or just feel like you accomplished something, the key is to break out of your Comfort Zone. Even if what you are doing works for you, a little effort to try something new could result in a better outcome. If you keep doing only what's ordinary, your results will continue to be just as ordinary. The only solution is to start doing something extra-ordinary.
But just like any move against human nature, this doesn't come naturally. Here are some hints for making the transition easier and, well, more comfortable:
- Educate yourself. Find out how other people achieve what you want to achieve with a high level of success. Research your tasks as much as possible, reading case studies, books, and blogs. Find guides that provide step-by-step instructions for the task outside your Comfort Zone that you wish to accomplish. Keep coming back to your resources throughout the entire process.
- Team up. The internet is your friend, but nothing beats spending some time in personal conversation with someone whose path you'd like to emulate. If your goal is to stop buying dinner out and start cooking every day, reading recipes will only get you so far. Have an expert help you by giving you hands-on experience under the watchful eye of a personal guide. For whatever you want to achieve, find a class that lets you participate while working with classmates, most of whom could be in the same situation as you. There is safety — and comfort — in numbers.
- Create a plan. Writing down a challenge, whether just in a notebook kept in your night stand or on a blog public to the world, makes it real. I believe the more public, the better. (At Consumerism Commentary, I make my finances public, which means I'm accountable to the world, not just myself. This brings extra pressure, but motivation as well.) While writing, break your goal into at least three measurable accomplishments, and break those accomplishments into at least three tasks. This is your roadmap. For example, running a 5K is outside the Comfort Zone of many couch potatoes. In this case, a plan has been created for you. All you have to do is follow it.
- Take small steps. Like the first step of a couch potato on the way to her first 5K, the first step is always the most difficult. Any task that seems daunting can be broken down into smaller steps. Eventually, your series of small steps becomes your path to the goal. Some people can make the change they want in one leap once they decide to tackle the obstacle, but that's not the right choice for everyone. In general, small steps result in success because a slow process helps to reinforce and internalize the experience — building gradual comfort.
- Breed a new comfort. As make slow progress through a series of tasks or through repetition, you're actually e-x-p-a-n-d-i-n-g your Comfort Zone. That which you never would have considered doing is now something you might do without a second thought. You may find yourself looking for more and ready to make some new plans once comfort sets in. Despite my nervousness about college, it didn't take long to feel comfortable there. I was soon looking for more challenges, such as running student organizations.
By breaking out of your Comfort Zone, you're opening your mind to new experiences, so it's natural for your goals and desires to change along the way.
An investing newbie whose goal was to familiarize herself with the stock market may have such a great experience after the first Comfort Zone breach that she may be inspired to become a financial planner and to help others achieve their financial goals. The factory worker who quits his job to run his own business may achieve personal success which inspires him to meet new people including his future wife.
The rewards for escaping your Comfort Zone are limitless. The rewards for never expanding your experience are well-defined: more of the same.