According to Alan Henry’s 2013 Life Hacker article, one’s comfort zone is a personal psychological space where your activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. It is not a bad thing, per se. In fact, you benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety, and reduced stress. In fact, it’s where we spend most of our time. As a concept, the comfort zone goes back over a century to 1908 when Robert Yerkes and John Dodson posited that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance.

For the same reasons, we also prefer to inhabit our Process Safety comfort zones. However, separate individual (e.g. activity trend towards least effort) and cultural (e.g. Groupthink) behavioural traits, significantly increase the risk of Process Accidents over time. From the confines of your Comfort Zone it would be almost impossible to:

  • Speak up in a Portacabin siting meeting ahead of a 2005 Refinery turnaround at Texas City (15 fatalities)
  • Intervene when a fellow operator violates procedures bypassing a closed safety valve at Formosa Plastics VCM Facility (5 fatalities)
  • Insist that the 2013 start up of the Genel Miran EPF takes place only when the Red HAZOP action items have been closed out.

However, neither, per se, is a comfort zone a good thing. In order to maximize performance, we need a state of relative anxiety—a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called "Growth," and it's just outside our comfort zone. However, too much anxiety and we're too stressed to be productive, and our performance drops off sharply (“Panic”). Also, because very it is physiologically and psychologically damaging, we have evolved such that it is extremely unpleasant to experience.

confort growth panic

You may be thinking – “that’s all very well but maximise performance sounds like do more stuff. And what about the risk of panic? What do I really get when I’m willing to step outside of my comfort zone?”

According to Alan Henry, you’ll:

  • be more productive.
  • have an easier time dealing with new and unexpected changes.
  • find it easier to push your boundaries in the future.
  • find it easier to brainstorm and harness your creativity.

To which I’d like to add one of my own:

  • you’ll generate feelings of satisfaction

This is the magic which lies tantalisingly just outside your comfort zone.

The physiological reward we get when we appease our genes is gratification. Being sheltered, eating and drinking, having sex are all gratifying because they make it more likely that we will propagate and raise offspring who can themselves propagate. In our increasingly affluent world, gratification is accessible to more people most of the time. And we don’t have to leave our comfort zones to get it.

This is not the same as satisfaction, which is a different sensation and achieved solely by standing up to your genes and taking action which, on the face of it, slightly decreases the chances of propagation. You can only do this by temporarily leaving your comfort zone.

If you make a conscious decision to stand firm when the flow of consensus appears to be carrying everyone else gently down stream (towards the waterfall?) and you keep standing (despite your discomfort) and you can then see that by standing firm you have made a difference (as Mark Twain said ‘You’re never wrong if you do the right thing’), you will not only have created magic, but been rewarded by feelings of satisfaction. And when you return to your comfort zone, you will be able to bask in that satisfaction, finding, also magically, that your comfort zone has expanded.

“Sounds great in theory”, you might say, “but just thinking about challenging my boss or confronting a co-worker makes me go all cold and clammy. It’s just too scary.”

And you’re right. You are considering and recoiling from your current panic zone. Attempting such a step change is likely to reduce rather than expand your comfort zone.

So how can we ‘do the right thing’ by practically engage with the Growth Zone. Here are some ideas:

  • Do ‘no risk,’ everyday things differently first, to build up your confidence. Take a different route to work. Try a new restaurant without checking Trip Advisor first. Go vegetarian for a week. You will feel the discomfort safely and then enjoy the satisfaction which will accompany the return to your Comfort Zone.
  • Do it in small steps. It takes courage to break out of your comfort zone. Over the long term, you get the same benefits whether you go in with both feet or if you start slow. So, don't be afraid to start slow.
  • Release idea balloons and gauge colleague’s reaction to them. ‘How would it be if we made one more sweep round the facility. I don’t think we checked on that valve which was dripping yesterday’. Gauge your colleague’ reaction, remembering a significant part of communication is non-verbal. Be prepared to accept no graciously. They are now aware of the idea, which they may adopt in their own time. Perhaps the next time you ask.

To sum up, in order to get more out of your Comfort Zone, you might try getting out of your Comfort Zone a bit more.

idea balloon