Your Comfort Zone Regenerates Motivation & Mana
If you want to sustain motivation, keep a comfort zone
In the realms of personal and professional development, our comfort zones are frequently the target of derision and disdain. ‘Comfort’, in this context, holds kinship to apathy and inertia, which are hardly qualities one associates with high performance. And so, one must ‘get out of their comfort zone’ if they are to have any hope of gaining meaningful experience, growing, improving or developing new skills.
It makes perfect sense. To paraphrase Nassim Taleb: ‘difficulty awakens the genius’. Challenge your muscles at the gym, and they grow. Challenge your mind with difficult new learning, you grow. I could go on. And many do—reiterating a basic truth we all intuitively know, whilst referencing the F-word.* Any who, this concept has become gospel.°
* No not that one, rather: ‘fear’. A concept oft presented on a binary spectrum, with ‘love’ on the other end. It’s frustratingly simplistic—and sometimes quite profound.
° If you’d like to engorge on banality, you can do so by searching ‘comfort zone’ quotes. They (almost) all say the same thing.
And yet, with all good things, there’s a risk we can take things too far. To swing the pendulum so hard it becomes lodged in one extreme.
Beyond the Default
Earlier this year I was speaking at an event in which the client was quite enamoured by my work, and had themed the whole program thus. It’s always a delightful yet slightly horrifying thing, to have someone admire your work—particularly when taken to the extreme.
For context, one of the core themes I find myself speaking on—and one of the central premises to How to Lead a Quest —is the notion that we need to periodically question our assumptions and defaults. To ask ourselves if they are supporting or hampering meaningful progress.
Our defaults are the options we choose automatically in the absence of viable alternatives. They’re built from preferences and patterns accumulated through experience, and they save us a heap of time and cognitive angst. They’re the source of quick fixes and familiar solutions—which makes them handy, if used 80% of the time. But for many organisations, default thinking prevails, and is something that happens much more like 98% of the time (which is not handy).
Ergo, I encourage and provoke folk to venture beyond the default, providing frameworks to engage in richer thinking, to unlock viable alternative options to the default ones we might otherwise choose.* My intent is to restore a much healthier balance—that being 80% of the time leveraging our existing defaults (aka: operating within our comfort zone), and approximately 20% of our time pioneering beyond them.°
* So as to avoid the situation wherein an enterprise becomes ‘cursed with efficiency’, wherein people naturally seek shortcuts to good thinking—‘too busy’ for meaningful progress, and instead perpetuating a productive ‘delusion of progress’.
° Yes, I’m just throwing Praeto’s principle at this. It’s a comfortable default that works—especially for something so impossible to quantify.
Alas, this wondrous message (of venturing beyond the default) can be taken to the extreme, and adopted way too heartedly—hence causing the pendulum swing too far into the other direction. And this is what happened at the event I was involved in earlier this. ‘Don’t default—stay out of your comfort zone,’ the emcee cheerfully—yet earnestly—reminded the audience. ‘Always challenge yourself. If you’re not challenged, you’re not growing.’ And while this is nice—and was possibly needed, in their context*—the mangling of the message always leaves me chafing to point out the subtle yet significant nuances.
* Sometimes we must present messages dialled up and a much further along the spectrum, so as to pull the median into the right direction.
And so, here I am: writing this article, to revel in the nuance. Shall we?
Highway to the Danger Zone
So, I’ve written thoroughly on the topic of what happens when organisations find themselves cursed with efficiency—where default thinking runs rampant, creating a rich delusion of progress. What happens? In a nutshell: irrelevance. Such folk busily work themselves into a position where they are no longer relevant.
But what about the other extreme? What if we all constantly stayed outside our comfort zones? What would happen?
Well, for starters, we’d swiftly die.
Physiologically, we have needs. When these needs aren’t met, we experience discomfort. Earlier today, when writing this, I skipped lunch—only to later become hangry. Worse, this hangriness struck during what the dangerlam and I know as the danger zone—the window of time (4–530pm, to be precise) in which cafes close and restaurants are yet to open. The only options available in this time period (since we hadn’t been organised enough to do groceries) are ones any sane person would dare not consider. Unless they were hangry and desperate. And so—suffice to say—I’m not proud of what I just consumed (nor where). But I had needs.
If we take an unmet physiological need to its extreme—we die. Suffocation, starvation, exposure, and so on are what happens when someone strays too far from their comfort zone, for too long. Naturally.
But also, here’s the thing: we have psychological needs, too. This is why we seek the comfort of caring friends and family when we are having a rough time. And it’s why the modern leader seeks the comfort of familiar routines* when otherwise confronted with the discomfort of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, paradox and doubt. Of course, this is where leaders need to be. But to spend all their time there is a recipe for breakdown or burnout.
* Defaults, which—in turn—often provide an uplifting sense of progress.° (Whether it’s meaningful progress is another question.)
° This is also why many leaders resort to micromanagement. When confronted with the anxieties inherent to genuine leadership (and particularly when combined with the Peter Principle), it’s natural for some leaders to seek a ‘sense’ of progress and validation by dabbling in those familiar things that lie within their capability (but not their responsibility).
Sports scientists know how vital sleep and recovery is to the performance of any athlete. The same is needed for the modern leader.
Back to the Warm Embrace of Comfort
We need our comfort zone… about 60–80% of the time.° If you subscribe to conventional motivational wisdom, this may sound heretical. But our comfort zone serves us in many ways. Chief amongst which is: passive mana regeneration.
This is entirely impossible to quantify, and will fluctuate based upon your given context. But as an ultra-vague range, my guess is between three to four fifths of the time).
‘Mana’ is the word used to describe the energy needed to make magic* happen. (Of course.) If you’re a wizard and you want to cast spells, you need mana. The bigger and more complex the spell—the more mana you need to draw upon. If you’re mana is depleted, coffee may help a little. But what’s most beneficial is rest. As this isn’t always possible (particularly during work hours—there’s always things to do)—and because we often need a sense of progress, mastery, meaning or achievement in what we do—we find ourselves naturally seeking the more comfortable defaults.° Familiar patterns of work that are less cognitively taxing or inducing of anxiety.
* And by ‘magic’ I’m referring to the emergent fractal phenomena that is collectively of an order of complexity (and magnificence) much too high to summarise succinctly.
° Outside of work, we may seek the company of good friends, where there is no second guessing of meaning or intent—where you can simply be. Or we may just choose to listen to jazz, with a dram of whisky, soft warm lighting, a cat on your lap and a good book in hand.
This allows us to preserve and rebuild cognitive energy—our mana. Which, in turn, means we are able to tackle bigger and more complex / ambiguous / nefarious challenges as and when they appear. Or: strategically.°
* For example, the work that requires the most mana in my world is writing.°° I love it—but it’s cognitively consuming. And so I embrace this work when my mana is at its highest (which these days for me is first thing in the morning through to late morning).
° And, occasionally, facilitating leadership offsites.
Default Work ≠ Busyness
When we’re busy, we often rally to our defaults. Because we ‘don’t have time’ to tackle the unfamiliar. And so we rally to quick fixes and familiar patterns with a frenetic energy that’s as far from mindful as one can be.
But think about the flip-side: a pastry chef (like the folks at Lune croissanterie) who go through the steady and well-practiced rhythm of routine work. Chances are there’s a heap of repetition—a mighty familiar pattern to the defaults formed over years of experience. Everything is effortlessly efficient and precise. But—just because it’s default work, doesn’t mean it’s busy. Busyness is a whole different beast—and possibly the most insidious threat of our times.*
* A thing that corrodes curiosity, empathy and meaning.
Comfort ≠ Complacency
But comfort is the gateway to complacency—though one need not open the gate and cross the threshold. It is possible to be enjoy the fruits of comfort, without succumbing to complacency. This is the difference between a power nap and a lethargic torpor. And it’s the difference between efficiently completing important tasks (with competence and flair)—and turning into a ‘computer says no’ drone who churns through tasks unthinkingly (generating just as much work as is displaced).
Comfort ≠ Growth
While rallying to comfort may enable us to better tackle the uncomfortable—the key is to not stay comfortable. All growth occurs outside° the comfort zone—there’s no escaping this tired fact. But… comfort might increase our capacity for growth—if we get the balance right.
* Or at the edge, I guess. Though I suspect the boundary is a fuzzy and porous gradient.
In a roleplaying game, you gain experience based upon the challenges you engage in. The higher the challenge, the more experience you get. When you accrue a certain level of experience, you get an opportunity to ‘levelup’ (assuming you have a comfortable place to rest and reflect on what you’ve learned). A side effect of levelling up is (often) a greater capacity for mana (or similar). Which, in turn, means you can cast more complex spells without it being such a drain on your mana reserves.
Life is, I find, much the same. Things that once vexed you with their complexity will, in time, become minor challenges that barely deplete your mana. Eventually, these things will become absorbed within your comfort zone.
And… I find myself unable to conclude this musing adequately. Sometimes I write these things and, at the end, wonder if I’ve essentially just given a grand tour of something everyone is already very familiar with, but were too polite to say so. If I reflect on the main point of this musing, it could be summed up thus: venture beyond the default, seek challenges outside of your comfort zone—but don’t besmirch the wondrously restorative effects comfort can bring. Your defaults and the things that bring you comfort—in good balance with pioneering endeavours—beget meaningful progress.