Are you a creature of comfort? You might be standing in the way of your productivity. 

I’m writing this while sitting on my kitchen floor. If you want proof, here it is:

comfort zone

Selfies are very hard from this angle.

What has brought about this strange choice of workspace today? I’m experimenting with my workflow and being uncomfortable.

As you know, here at FlowReader we’re always interested in personal productivity and what techniques can improve our lives (and work). This week, I thought it’d be nice to explore one of the more popular tips out there:

Get out of your comfort zone.

I’ve always been curious about what that looks like in daily practice and why does it work? Turns out, there’s actually a lot of science that backs breaking out of your comfort zone and explains why it’s good for your productivity.

And so, I’m on my kitchen floor.

The Comfort Zone and ‘Optimal Anxiety’

Most of the time when someone suggests “escaping your comfort zone”, they mean: push your limits and step outside your normal habits in order to open up more opportunities for yourself.

The idea of the comfort zone goes back to a classic psychology study conducted in 1908 by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson that found a state of relative comfort creates a steady level of performance. However, the brain learns best when stress levels are slightly higher than normal – a space called Optimal Anxiety, which falls somewhere between our comfort zone and the point of total freakout.

In other words, the right level of anxiety can actually focus your attention and help maximize your work. This  “anxiety sweet spot” should be enough to motivate hard work without being so debilitating that your performance drops.

Take a look at this graphic of the Yerkes-Dodson Curve that shows real-life examples of how elevated stress levels can yield good performance, while not enough can actually block our best work:

yerkes dodson comfort zone

The Yerkes-Dodson Curve via The Wall Street Journal

The idea of Optimal Anxiety shouldn’t be too surprising. Ever let a deadline creep a little too close for (ahem) comfort or pushed yourself to meet expectation? Been surprised that you got everything done? Yup, the awesome result of leaving your comfort zone.

But it actually goes beyond mentally increasing your stress levels…which brings me to why I’m on my kitchen floor.

The Scrooge Principle

We’re natural creatures of comfort. It’s in our nature to strive for comfort – pursuing a sense of stability and general coziness in life is a strong source of motivation for many of us. During my research, I came across a post on Productive Flourishing discussing a book called The Talent Code written by Daniel Coyle, who researched talent hotbeds around the world in an effort to figure out how people become experts at something.

Coyle discovered some similarities in approaches, in particular a lack of the luxurious training environments he was expecting to find. Here’s what he noticed:

“They tend to be junky, unattractive places. If the training grounds I visited were magically assembled into a single facility – a mega-hotbed, as it were – that place would resemble a shanty town. Its buildings would be makeshift, corrugated-roofed affairs, its walls paint-bald, its fields weedy and uneven…”

According to Yale psychologist, John Bargh, what Coyle was seeing was something called the “Scrooge Principle”. The human brain is designed to preserve energy. When we’re in a calm, comfortable environment we actually neurologically shut our effort off to save more energy. So, when we place ourselves in a rough and uncomfortable atmosphere, it signals our subconscious that it needs to unlock all the energy it’s been working to conserve.

So, how do you use the Scrooge Principle to your advantage?

Here’s 3 tips that Sam Spurlin shared on his blog:

  1. Create adversity for yourself. For example, if you’re a writer – turn off your internet and only access it for a short time each day. He also suggests working without air-conditioning or turning off your heat.
  2. Use simple tools. Ditch modern gear and pare down to the bare essentials. Try jogging without music, drawing without software, or writing with a paper and pen. You don’t need fancy equipment to be good at something.
  3. Focus on what’s important. Don’t get distracted by extras, master the core components of your activity. Reading about productivity, for instance, might help you learn some tips, but it’s not the same as actually taking steps towards being more productive. Eliminate as many distractions as you can from your working environment.

Which brings me to…the kitchen floor. I decided to ditch my comfy couch for a hard tiled floor, but kept the internet and computer to save myself some time. It’s probably too early for me to say whether or not this had any real effect on my writing for the day, but I’m going to keep experimenting and see what happens.

What I can say for sure is that when I lived for 8 months without internet, it was amazing what I was able to get done. I read a book every couple of weeks, my room was spotless, I studied every day, and it was easier for me to focus on work when I wasn’t fighting the temptation of internet browsing. Buford Taylor also shares some great insights on his blog about the positive results of practicing minimalism at home and beating work distractions.

Tips to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Okay, so get why it’s good to get out of your comfort zone, but how do you do it without going overboard?

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Switch up your daily schedule. Try getting up at a different time in the morning, take a different route home, try an activity outside what you normally like to do. I normally listen to classical or piano music when I work, but occasionally, I’ll listen to something completely different (like metal). I find it wakes me up and gets my mind moving again when I’m stuck. Just make a change: it can be big or small and it doesn’t matter if the outcome is negative or positive.
  • Hang out or work with someone different. We all tend to spend time with people who have similar interests or something in common with us. Break this pattern. Hanging out with someone who is more adventurous than you might bring out your crazier side, and similarly, working with someone whose skill set is completely different from yours can increase your ability to see an idea from a different perspective.
  • Embrace being nervous. A  friend of mine is terrified of public speaking, but he likes to face this fear as often as he can. When I asked him why, he told me it’s good for him to place himself in situations that make him nervous because taking a risk forces him to focus. He also finds that doing an activity he’s not naturally good at means the outcome always reveals ways to improve.
  • Don’t be satisfied with comfort. Even if you’re happy with your life, you may find yourself missing the energy you felt when things weren’t as predictable. Figure out ways to slowly stretch your limits. Identify your fears and face them one step at a time. Learn a new skill or language. Travel somewhere you don’t fit in.

Just remember, you can be content without being complacent. Becoming too comfortable can kill your productivity as you often lose your drive without a certain amount of unease to motivate you. I’m not advocating ramping up your anxiety to the point of meltdown, but it’s always good to test yourself. It forces you to continue growing as a person as you experience new things and helps you deal better with the unexpected. At the very least, if things don’t go as planned, you’ll never be bored.

Is comfort getting in the way of your work? How do you like to get out of your comfort zone?

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