Why Your Comfort Zone Might Be the Secret to Developing Powerful Habits
How striving for comfort might just be the best thing you can do to advance yourself, conventional wisdom be damned.
You’ve likely heard someone tell you before that the only way to improve is to get outside of your comfort zone. But interestingly enough, while people sure are eager to tell you where you shouldn’t be (i.e., your comfort zone), they don’t tend to tell you where you should go.
I want to argue that rather than heading out of our comfort zone to some vague place, we actually run toward comfort. Rather than comfort being the enemy of productivity and self-improvement, it’s actually a secret ally. Comfort is a basic human motivator, and something to embrace and leverage. The best way to do that is through something that — when used to solidify better habits — can yield sustainable results: ritual.
Ritual: the Gateway to Habit
In all of the productivity literature I’ve read, there are numerous hacks and tricks invoked — all promising to deliver huge and immediate gains in productivity. And many of them will do just that. The problem, though, is not immediate and huge gains tend to leave just as quickly as they came.
What we’re all really after is sustained productivity gains. Only habit will deliver those. A fancy trick, or flashy new tool might make you feel great about yourself and your process for a while — until you fall back into your old habits. This is true in any realm of one’s life, from relationships to work, and beyond.
What really reaps benefits, what really cements progress, is the solidification of habits. Those who have good habits do well. Those who have bad habits do not. I think that often times, we get distracted from that simple truth by the (extremely) short-term peaks that we see when we begin using a new app to track our tasks, or get a new notebook with a cool new pen. Those peaks fade at the exact same rate as the excitement about the new tools and methods do. We then find ourselves back in the old habits that we find comfortable.
I want to be clear here about the term “comfort”. It does not mean satisfaction, contentment, or happiness. All ‘comfort’ really means is whatever one is used to. Heroin addicts are used to either pain and sickness or euphoria, and no middle-ground. Abused children are used to violence and trauma. The list goes on and on. The point is, people are extraordinarily adaptable beings, and they do adapt to being comfortable with terrible and damaging situations.
The Formulaic Nature of How Comfort Drives Us
Humans are chasing comfort. And while it is true that some great results come from stepping away from comfort, that’s not entirely true. What we’re really doing when we abandon comfort is trading away comfort in one realm in order to get comfortable in another.
There’s actually a fairly simple formula behind this:
- People crave comfort
- Comfort comes from familiarity — from being able to predict what is going to happen, and watching it unfold as predicted.
- Ritual makes this familiarity concrete. It literally lays out how to make sure everyone knows what’s going to happen, exactly when, and exactly how.
It stands to reason, then, that rituals are the secret to progress. Rituals are the ornamentation or decoration of habits. They’re the signs, symbols, or integrating tools of habits. The habit may be a morning run, but the ritual includes what you eat or drink when you wake up, what playlist you use, the route you take, and all of that other stuff involved.
My argument is simple: without a ritual built around it, your habit is much weaker, and therefore has much less of a chance to be effective and sustainable.
If you are unhappy, chances are the following things are true: there are already rituals in place, but they are bad ones. You’ll need to slowly cut and paste within the existing rituals of your life to transform them into good ones. Swap out the unsavory activities for ones that help make advancements toward your goals. There is no easy way to do this, but the focus is much smaller than on just “making changes”.
The real “trick”, if there is one, is to really grab on to the ritual. In order to do that, you have to insert something that you look forward to — usually something sensory. For instance, for the last 3 years or so, I realized that if I wanted to stay physically fit — given the other goings on in my life — I’d have to work out early in the morning. The necessary wake-up time is about 4–5 am.
At first, waking up that early was completely paralyzing to think about, but it became easier if it allowed me time to listen to the radio and make myself a cup of coffee, as well as fiddle around on the computer. These things are not the primary activity — working out is. However, they are part of the ritual — a part that provides immediate gratification to that version of me that was weakest as I began building the ritual. Now, 3 years in, if I don’t wake up at 4 am on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, something feels off. I begin to feel uncomfortable.
That comfort then, continues to drive me. It was supplied by a ritual — one based on comfort. After practice, it became internalized — along with the originally uncomfortable habit — and then became part of what is comfortable and familiar. Comfort effectively leveraged yields more comfort. Lather, rinse, repeat…improve.
Strive for Comfort
To put a bow on what I’ve laid out above, I’m going to offer a very unconventional maxim. At least, it’s unconventional for the personal development space: leverage comfort to your advantage.
I’m constantly hearing attempts at motivation that tell us to push outside of our comfort zone. To an extent, this is good advice, but it is only part of the story. If you are constantly outside of your comfort zone, you will wear yourself out, because human beings crave comfort. We crave it because we need it. It gives us a place to rest and recharge. Regular intervals of safety and comfort give us the chance to be confident, loose, agile, and prepare for the next charge forward.
So rather than striving to go “outside of your comfort zone,” strive for a new comfortable — a new normal — but do so in steps. This is the cut and paste method I mentioned above; take an already comfortable ritual in your repertoire, and cut out a small part, replacing it with something that makes a healthier ritual. After a short time, do the same with another aspect of the ritual, until the ritual is now a healthy one — meaning that it is working toward a goal of yours.
Take a look at your existing habits, and the rituals associated with them. Which of those rituals can you transplant (cut and paste) onto a habit you want to build? In other words, how can you make a currently uncomfortable and unfamiliar activity more comfortable and familiar? If you can answer this, you have won half the battle for motivation and habit-building. The rest is simply showing up for the ritual.