When Professor Andy Molinsky first started researching comfort zones in 2015, he found the same thing everyone does on the Internet: inspirational quotes about life happening outside the comfort zone, pictures of goldfish taking a leap out of their bowl, to-do lists for getting out of the comfort zone. Essentially, pop psychology was telling people that with enough inspiration, anyone can take a leap to leave their comfort zone.
But what Molinsky didn't find was any kind of actual, complete strategy that explained the difference between people who succeeded at leaving their comfort zones, and people who didn't.
“Inspiration is critically important in psychology, what we call motivation,” he said in his keynote address at People Matters L&D Conference APAC. “But to do anything hard, you need not only motivation, but ability. You need a strategy – a playbook. You need a blueprint about what the challenges are and how you might develop a strategy for overcoming them.”
How do you get to the point where you can take that leap?
Molinsky, who is Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University's International Business School, said that to really understand the psychology around leaving one's comfort zone, three questions have to be answered:
1. Why is it so hard to act outside your comfort zone?
2. How do we avoid doing it?
3. And what does it take to do successfully?
He summarised the 'why' in the form of five psychological challenges: the authenticity challenge, or the idea that the action we are taking doesn't feel natural; the likeability challenge, or the fear that people will not like the version of ourselves that emerges; the competence challenge, or the worry that we will not be good at what we are trying to do; the resentment challenge, or the annoyance that we experience at having to take such a step in the first place; and the morality challenge, or the feeling that we are doing something wrong by stepping outside our comfort zone.
The difficulty of these challenges doesn't prod us into taking them on. To the contrary, Molinsky found that people are far more likely to subconsciously come up with intensive strategies to avoid these challenges in the first place – to not step outside the comfort zone at all, or to do so as little as possible.
Don't do it at all – the simplest strategy, to reject the idea completely.
Do it, but only partway – the compromise, to give ourselves that sense of satisfaction without putting in the full effort.
Replace it with a similar action – the most common strategy, to do something else that is similar to what we feel challenged at, but is more simple and less effective.
“In essence, number three is a way of avoiding something you're truly afraid of doing,” he said.
“You might procrastinate, or pass the buck (have someone else do it), or tell yourself it isn't really that important – when in fact it is important for achieving your goals.”
All these, it turns out, create a vicious cycle of avoidance where people get short-term relief from escaping the challenge, only to become even more afraid of its difficulty, and proceed to avoid it even more intensively for a second round of short-term relief.
Breaking the cycle: conviction, customisation and clarity
What does it take to successfully get past our internal stumbling blocks? Just as people come up with strategies to avoid their fears, they also strategise to get around those fears Molinsky identified three distinct tools that distinguish people who successfully leave their comfort zones, from those who are less successful.
Conviction: a deep sense of purpose, this is an “antidote to avoidance”. Although it does not erase the sense of discomfort, it does give people the motivation to persevere against the discomfort and their own instincts to stop. It's a highly subjective and personal thing, Molinsky said, and will vary from person to person; what shouldn't vary is the approach to it. “Locate and embrace that source of conviction,” he advised. “That's a key first step.”
Customisation: this is the source of the “rituals” that some people use to get themselves into the mindset they want, from carrying a physical prop representing the trait they want to display, to adopting body language or specific phrasing.
“There's no one size fits all version of stepping outside your comfort zone,” Molinsky said. “I use this metaphor: when you buy a piece of clothing, sometimes you have to have it altered by a small but meaningful amount so that it fits you."
"And that's what you can do with a task that's outside your comfort zone. You can customise it to make it just a little bit more comfortable for you, so that you will have the courage to try it.”
Clarity: this is the ability to see past our own distorted thinking and moderate extreme emotional reactions to something more balanced, such as taking the mindset “I can never do this” to “I struggle with some parts but I am better with others”.
In his research, Molinsky found that these three tools create the opposite of the vicious cycle of avoidance: when someone is able to move forward using these, their anxiety is actually reduced because they learn that the task is not as hard as they had thought, and they become more likely to try it again.
“That's what we call a virtuous positive spiral. And helping people move from the vicious negative spiral to the virtuous positive spiral is the goal of the work that I do,” he said.