In Part I of this mini series on ‘Moving out of your Comfort Zone‘ I introduced the concept of the three zones (Comfort, Stretch and Panic) as being three states in which we move between repeatedly during our lives, and suggested that we should be aiming to grow our Comfort Zone by spending more time in the Stretch and, where necessacry, Panic Zones. This blog is more about how to do this in practice – either ourselves or coaching others.

At its heart I think it is about managing risk. Self awareness is a key for gradually increasing the risks we are prepared to take. I say ‘gradually’ because it is generally accepted that we grow our Comfort Zone incrementally, rather than in some big bang way, although circumstances may conspire to give us and others the opportunity to move forward in a more major way.

If we accept that the three zones are not static, we can use this to our advantage, by intentionally making and taking opportunities to ‘travel’ out of our Comfort Zone, explore our Stretch Zone and move back into our (hopefully by now larger) Comfort Zone. If we have the necessary self awareness we should be able to use our feelings as a ‘travel guide’ and know when it is time to return to comfort and rest. In time we will find that what was once stretch has become comfortable and we can either focus on a different area of our lives or start stretching still further.

We may, of course not be so self aware and find ourselves moving into our Panic Zones. One option here is to ease back into the Stretch Zone until we are ready to push the boundary forward such that that what once was panic becomes stretch and, in time, comfort. An obvious danger of staying in the Panic Zone too long is that our learning experience is such that we decide to never allow this situation to happen again as we beleive it will always be associated with panic and distress.

Once we ‘get it’ we could be in a position to help or coach others. Imagine a scenario I experienced last year.

About 100 individuals were asked how they would feel about giving a talk to an audience of more than 50 people they have not met before, and then asked them to move to a location in the room which represented the three zones. For me this was in my Comfort Zone but for many it was in their Panic Zone. The coach then asked one lady (let’s call her Lucy) who had positioned herself in the Panic Zone how she was feeling. ‘Very uncomfortable and very scared’ was her reply. The coach asked Lucy how she would feel if she could get over being scared. ‘A little better’ she replied and the coach asked her whether she could move forward a couple of steps towards the Stretch Zone. Lucy was then asked how she would go about preparing for the talk if she was going to give it. ‘Put some slides together’ was her response. Asked how she felt once she had produced the slides, Lucy responded that she didn’t know whether ‘they were any good or not’. This type of questioning and answer went on for some time until Lucy imagined she had run through and perfected the slides and practiced the presentation with some trusted work colleagues. When asked she now felt ‘OK’ about giving the presentation to strangers. By now she had moved forward clearly into the Stretch Zone and had, of course, been talking to over 50 people she had not met before.

The technique is simple enough:

  • establish which zone the person is in (the Panic Zone in the above example);
  • ask questions to help the person think what might move him into the Stretch Zone;
  • this might take some time but with the right questions and insight it will be possible in most (but not all) cases;
  • establish what the person feels like / what zone he is in if those conditions existed;
  • ask questions to keep moving the person forward until they feel able to do the task / challenge.

But does it matter if we stay in our Comfort Zones? What happens if we don’t ever stretch? It is generally accepted that if we don’t stretch we will shrink. Consider the following areas of our lives to illustrate this point.

  • Activities: It is common for parents to look at their children and consider some of their ativities as too risky, even though they may have done those same things when they were younger. Call it adult responsibility but the bottom line is that their Comfort Zone has shrunk. But not everyone’s Comfort Zone shrinks as they get older – consider Ranulph Fiennes as admitedly an extreme example. Why not take up some new activity?
  • Physical fitness: It is well known that if we stick to the same exercise and routine the body gets used to it and we lose fitness. We need to be continually changing our fitness regime, enduring some discomfort if we wish to continue building our fitness. Otherwise we will lose it – more shrinkage.
  • Relationships: It is common, but not inevitable, that people do not put as much effort into relationships once they are established as when they were developing. Do you remember the effort you made when you were courting? We can also settle down and put less effort into relationships generally; making new friends become less easy and, in short, our social skills shrink. Why not make a new friend this year?
  • Ageing: Again with notable exceptions, most people start doing less as they age, and their main aim seems to be to stay in their Comfort Zone. But they tend to lose their zest for life and they exist in an ever shrinking Comfort Zone. The excellent book by Dr John Ratey and Eric Hagerman (Spark) clearly show that research increasingly is demonstrating the value that exercise has on aging, stress, anxiety, depression, as well as learning and physical fitness. It appears that exercise is one way of stretching most of our life zones. This is not surprising because, as the book reminds us, “mind, brain and body all infuence one another”.
  • Work: How many people do you know who drift theough their careers waiting to retire? Or get trapped by the lure of a pension when really they want to leave work and do something completely different. Is that you, or are you seeking ways of enhancing your job, challenging yourself and learning new skills. In this area, too, we will either stretch or shrink.

Are you stretching and growing? Or are you shrinking? The two are mutually exclusive and there is no fence to sit on – you cannot stand still.

A helpful concept is the Wheel of Life (which we will consider in a future blog), but essentially it allows us to divide our lives up into areas (as illustrated above). It is usual to rate how satisfied we are in each area of our lives and then do something about it where we are most disatisfied. But I would suggest that we should not remain complacent or over-satisfied with any areas of our life or we run the risk of our Comfort Zone shrinking in that area, thereby reducing our overall satisfaction and sense of well-being.

A good motto to start the new year with might be Stretch for life. Frequently stretching yourself with new challenges, new stimuli, new discoveries won’t just prevent shrinkage it could significantly enhance the quality of your life and have a revitalising effect on perceptions and attitudes – yours and those of the people with whom you interact.

What will your first stretch of the year be?