The Science of Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone

You’ve seen inspirational quotes that encourage you to get out and do something strange—something you wouldn’t normally do—but getting out of your routine just takes so much work.

There’s actually a lot of science that explains why it’s so hard to break out of your comfort zone, and why it’s good for you when you do it. With a little understanding and a few adjustments, you can break away from your routine and do great things.

It’s important to push the boundaries of your comfort zone, and when you do, it’s kind of a big deal. But what is the “comfort zone” exactly? Why is it that we tend to get comfortable with the familiar and our routines, but when we’re introduced to new and interesting things, the glimmer fades so quickly? Finally, what benefit do we derive from breaking out of our comfort zone, and how do we do it? Answering those questions is a tall order, but it’s not too hard to do. Let’s get started.

You’ll be more productive.

Comfort kills productivity because without the sense of unease that comes from having deadlines and expectations, we tend to phone it in and do the minimum required to get by. We lose the drive and ambition to do more and learn new things. We also fall into the “work trap,” where we feign “busy” as a way to stay in our comfort zones and avoid doing new things. Pushing your personal boundaries can help you hit your stride sooner, get more done, and find smarter ways to work.

You’ll have an easier time dealing with new and unexpected changes.

In this article at The New York Times, Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, explains that one of the worst things we can do is pretend fear and uncertainty don’t exist. By taking risks in a controlled fashion and challenging yourself to things you normally wouldn’t do, you can experience some of that uncertainty in a controlled, manageable environment. Learning to live outside your comfort zone when you choose to can prep you for life changes that force you out of it.

You’ll find it easier to push your boundaries in the future.

Once you start stepping out of your comfort zone, it gets easier over time. This same NYT article explains that as you step out of your comfort zone, you’ll become accustomed to that state of optimal anxiety. “Productive discomfort,” as they call it, becomes more normal to you, and you’re willing to push farther before your performance falls off. This idea is well illustrated in this infographic at Future Science Leaders. At the bottom, you’ll see that as you challenge yourself, your comfort zone adjusts so what was difficult and anxiety-inducing becomes easier as you repeat it.

You’ll find it easier to brainstorm and harness your creativity.

This is a soft benefit, but it’s fairly common knowledge (and it’s easily reproducible) that seeking new experiences, learning new skills, and opening the door to new ideas inspire us and educate us in a way that little else does. Trying new things can make us reflect on our old ideas and where they clash with our new knowledge, and inspire us to learn more and challenge comfirmation bias, our tendency to only seek out information we already agree with. Even in the short term, a positively uncomfortable experience can help us brainstorm, see old problems in a new light, and tackle the challenges we face with new energy.

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Do everyday things differently.

Take a different route to work. Try a new restaurant without checking Yelp first. Go vegetarian for a week, or a month. Try a new operating systemRecalibrate your reality. Whether the change you make is large or small, make a change in the way you do things on a day-to-day basis. Look for the perspective that comes from any change, even if it’s negative. Don’t be put off if things don’t work out the way you planned.

Take your time making decisions.

Sometimes slowing down is all it takesto make you uncomfortable—especially if speed and quick thinking are prized in your work or personal life. Slow down, observe what’s going on, take your time to interpret what you see, and then intervene. Sometimes just defending your right to make an educated decision can push you out of your comfort zone. Think, don’t just react.

Trust yourself and make snap decisions.

We’re contradicting ourselves, but there’s a good reason. Just as there are people who thrive on snap decisions, others are more comfortable weighing all of the possible options several times, over and over again. Sometimes making a snap call is in order, just to get things moving. Doing so can help you kickstart your personal projects and teach you to trust your judgement. It’ll also show you there’s fallout to quick decisions as well as slow ones.

Do it in small steps.

It takes a lot of courage to break out of your comfort zone. You get the same benefits whether you go in with both feet as you do if you start slow, so don’t be afraid to start slow. If you’re socially anxious, don’t assume you have to muster the courage to ask your crush on a date right away, just say hello to them and see where you can go from there. Identify your fears, and then face them step by step.

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