As much as I enjoy the holidays, I'm always happy to get back to routine. With the buildup to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year, it’s like six weeks of preparation and “unusual” days of visiting and celebrations. I love the time I get to spend with my daughter who has gone back to college now, and with my son who is nearing the end of his high school days. I know it won’t be long until he has left to follow his dreams, too.
With a fresh year ahead, it’s the perfect time to take action on your own dreams. To do that, you need to step outside of your comfort zone; this is something you’ll have to do again and again.
I think most people imagine their comfort zone as a safe circle around them, where everything is predictable and cozy that doesn’t change. Surprise! Your comfort zone isn’t set in stone. It’s an artificial mental boundary that allows you to function in your daily life without anxiety or fear. It’s a place where you feel in control.
The most successful people have their own comfort zones, too; however, they know that they need to step into the unfamiliar to achieve their goals. This doesn’t mean you have to abandon your comfort zone forever. It’s okay to go back when you are feeling fatigued and need to reset. Here’s the secret about comfort zones: when you push yourself outside of them, you turn the previously unfamiliar into something familiar and comfortable. You can make it bigger!
If you want to start expanding your comfort zone, the first step is to… take a step forward! You can’t get out of your comfort zone without taking action, even if it is a teeny tiny baby step. Each step adds up.
Imagine you are visiting a busy city that you’ve never been to before. At first, the environment may feel chaotic and make you feel nervous. You will probably plan carefully where to go, to eat, and what sites to see. Your senses will likely be on high alert, looking for signs of danger, which isn’t a bad idea in a city you don’t know. As you get to know the city a little more, though, you start to expand your territory. You rely less on maps and experiment more. You eventually find your breakfast spot where the staff recognizes you, and you feel comfortable. Your comfort zone has expanded!
The same story can be applied to starting a new job, moving neighborhoods, or taking a new class. You will probably spend time observing before you jump right in, and it’s normal to feel unsteady when you’re in unfamiliar territory. That’s how our brain is wired! When faced with uncertainty, your fight or flight response is ignited. Do you stand your ground and fight through, or fly away?
When you are pursuing your dreams there will be many instances where you’ll have your fight or flight response tested, and to reach your ultimate destination you'll have to fight more often than you run away.
Sometimes, running back to your comfort zone may be the smart option. The obstacle you’re facing may be unscalable or unavoidable, and you’ll need to regroup or learn more to overcome it.
I’ll use my son’s bike racing as an example. This year he ended his bike race season early because of back pain he was experiencing while racing. He didn’t want to stop competing, but it didn't make sense for him to keep flying across the country and missing school when the pain prevented him from performing at his best.
He made the decision to stop, and he missed the national championships. He started seeing a physical therapist who gave him core work to do. He has stopped the heavy training and racing so he can focus on school and getting his body in race-ready shape. Soon he’ll get back to early-season training.
He couldn’t keep advancing in his racing the way things were going, so he had to retreat back for a bit. When you “run away”, it should be to make changes so you can come back and pick up where you left off. Use your new resources to help you on your journey to success.
Ultimately, you need to have a fighting spirit if you want to make your comfort zone bigger and achieve your dreams. You'll need to be brave enough to slay and conquer the dragons standing in your path. Whether it's a fear of public speaking or a boss that's so hard to communicate with, you’ll need to stand your ground. And, every little bit of ground you gain from your victories will become part of your expanding comfort zone.
Growth comes from challenging yourself. So when you conquer your fears or learn something new, you learn that your fears were just your subconscious mind stopping you. And by the same token, when you take risks you learn something new whether you succeed or fail. When you succeed, you determine the correct formula to success that you can repeat. When you fail, you learn what you should avoid doing the next time.
If you feel like your life has stagnated because you've been in your comfort zone for too long, then challenge yourself to explore and experiment in some area of your life. For every win and every skill you master, whether it's forming new friendships, getting a new job, or taking up a new hobby, your comfort zone grows and expands with you.
These risks and challenges you give yourself also become experiences you can look back on for inspiration when you’re feeling nervous about something new. An experience I had from about seven years ago reminds me that I can be brave. At the time, I was feeling somewhat stagnant in life. So when my daughter and her friend wanted me to be Mother Ginger in their ballet company’s Nutcracker production, I said yes.
There were weeks of rehearsals, and there were five performances with an audience of nearly 2000 people each time. I was in charge of six young “ginger snap” dancers and had to go on stage with the bright lights, an orchestra, and wear a huge dress and a wig. I learned how to put on all the makeup for the performance, and it was something I’d never done before.
Each performance as I waited to go on stage, my heart would start pounding, I’d sweat a bit, and I had to use a lot of deep breathing to calm myself down. I'd take one last deep breath at my cue, then walk on stage and do what I’d practiced. It was only a few minutes, and I was relieved to walk back off stage again.
Despite my nerves, I’m glad I took the opportunity. It was fun, and anytime I'm feeling fearful I have that experience in my back pocket to draw from.
You don't need to put on a big skirt and perform in front of 2000 people to break out of your comfort zone (unless you want to). Little challenges count, too. After you’re done reading this, grab a piece of paper and write down the different areas of your life. It could be work, friendships, family, hobbies, finances, or whatever is important to you. Then give yourself a score from one to ten in each. Lower scores mean you aren’t challenging yourself and feel stuck, whereas a ten would mean you’re really working on it. Choose an area where you could do something that expands your comfort zone just a little bit, and decide on an action that you could take to push yourself just a bit.
My example right now is my Garmin watch. It keeps track of my steps each day and every time I meet my goal, the goal increases the next day. It doesn’t take a big courageous act to take a few extra steps each day, but it feels good to meet the goal. Some days I don’t want to go to bed until I finish my steps, so I’ll take the dogs for a long walk in the evening.
These micro-steps help grow your comfort zone and don’t need to be complicated. Come up with something simple you can do today to push yourself a little bit.
Not sure about where you want to go with your dreams, or aren’t sure of the next steps to take to reach them? Sign up for the last live versions of my Design Your Decade Workshop, or grab the DIY version. Stop drifting and start creating the Extraordinary Life you want.
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