How Real Growth Occurs Inside The Comfort Zone

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How Real Growth Occurs Inside The Comfort Zone

In the last six weeks, I’ve witnessed a remarkable improvement in my workouts. My strength has doubled in almost all my lifts. (In some exercises, it has more than doubled.)

When I deconstructed my routine, I noticed three reasons behind this.

First, I give my body plenty of rest between reps and sessions and fed it well. This is why my body doesn’t ache or feel tired when I hit the gym, and I can give my best in each session. As a result, my muscles recover faster and I grow stronger.

Second, while lifting heavier weights or learning a new exercise, I prioritize getting my form right over the number of reps. If my instructor says my form is wrong, I stop and collect feedback from him. Then, after a minute of rest, I repeat the process. I perform the exercise and collect feedback from the instructor.

Finally, before sleeping, I spend five minutes visualizing myself doing the exercises correctly. This imbibes the right form deeper into my subconscious. When I perform the exercise the next time, I make fewer mistakes. This doesn’t just make me stronger; it also keeps me safe from injury.

In other words, my improvement has occurred because I keep reverting from the Adaptability Zone to the Comfort Zone while avoiding the Danger Zone at all costs.

The 3 Zones We Live In

Each of us lives in three zones — The Comfort Zone, the Adaptability Zone, and the Danger Zone.

The Comfort Zone is where we feel safe and comfortable. We experience various emotions like complacency and distraction, focus and flow, or rest and recovery. In this zone, we don’t learn anything new. Instead, we leverage what we already know.

When I do the exercises I know and lift the weights I’m comfortable with, I’m in my Comfort Zone. I follow the right form and breathing patterns out of habit.

The Adaptability Zone is where we experience rapid change, which results in stress. This stress can be negative (distress) or positive (eustress).

Distress leads to defense mechanisms, tunnel vision, and sticking with what we’ve been doing. Our survival instincts take over and cannot think of other ways to get out of the mess. The result is we land in the Danger Zone of burnout, trauma, or stagnation (or worse, decline).

When I lift heavier weights or learn a new exercise, my muscles and mind get stressed. Here, I’m in my Adaptable Zone.

If I get my form wrong, lift more than my body is capable of, or don’t take enough rest after a workout, I feel distress. I get pushed into the Danger Zone where I have unbearable body aches and even risk injury. I start seeing a workout as a burden and look for excuses to avoid an activity that makes me fitter, stronger, and better.

The opposite of distress is eustress, a state where we retain a sense of safety while challenging ourselves. This unlocks new learning modes and expands our Comfort Zone[1]Hat-tip to this McKinsey article from where I got the idea of the three main zones..

When I increase the weights I lift incrementally and get my form right, I feel eustress. My brain secretes endorphins, the chemical which triggers a positive feeling in the body for hours after each workout. I also feel good when I look in the mirror.

The craving for a repeat of such an emotional rush makes me stick to the diet and exercise regime. In the process, my strength also keeps increasing.

But here’s the thing. Taking rest, processing my instructor’s feedback, and visualizing the right form are equally important contributors to my improvement.

Resting allows my muscles to recover and grow. The processing of the feedback, which helps me learn, happens while I’m relaxing. And the visualization, which helps me apply what I learn, happens at the end of the day.

Each of these actions is effective when I feel safe and comfortable. In other words, my growth occurs in my Comfort Zone.

Growth Occurs Inside The Comfort Zone

Most people think growth occurs outside the Comfort Zone. This is only partly correct.

We come across new experiences outside the Comfort Zone. But such experiences alone are not enough to teach us. Many people go through the same experiences over and over again, but fail to learn their lessons. They wonder why the same thing keeps happening to them, but miss a fundamental truth about learning.

To actually learn something, we have to process what we experience. We have to introspect, ask questions and seek answers. We have to build strategies to apply our learning in our daily lives in order to cement it further in our minds.

We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. — John Dewey

Such learning cannot occur in a state of stress or feeling threatened.

You cannot learn new skills when the fear of getting laid off looms overhead.

You cannot make better investments when you lose money and worry that you’ll lose some more.

You cannot become fitter and stronger if you don’t take enough rest between your workouts.

When we feel threatened, we can’t process our thoughts with a clear head. We end up making bad decisions and do more of what we already know, which is what landed us in trouble in the first place.

Real learning only occurs in an environment where you feel safe and certain. That’s why it’s important to revert from the Adaptable Zone to the Comfort Zone while avoiding the Danger Zone at all costs.

Here are five tips to achieve this:

1. Learn when you don’t “need” to.

As I mentioned above, learning is poor when the consequences of failure are high. It’s better to cultivate the mindset of a lifelong learner. Keep learning even when things are going well and you’ll be better prepared when things go wrong.

2. Learn what you need.

A marketing executive would be better off learning psychology, digital marketing, and copywriting than Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. When you want to learn new skills, choose the ones that complement your core skills.

3. Measure your progress.

Without a map, you can’t know whether you’re headed in the right direction. Measurement is the map for your goal. Without it, you won’t know whether you’re making progress or stagnating. Identify the metrics that define success for you and track them diligently.

4. Focus on the process.

Exponential growth might become visible overnight, but it’s a result of incremental growth compounding over time. Show up, put your head down, and stick to the process. The right process will almost always lead to the desired outcome.

focus on the process over the product
credit: Visualize Value

5. Visualize Future You.

The mind cannot tell the difference between real and imagined; for it, everything is real. Visualize the person you want to become for a few minutes daily. Your subconscious mind will start directing you to the actions that move you towards your goal.

Summing Up

The Comfort Zone gets a bad rep, and for good reason. It often keeps us from doing what’s important. And staying in it for too long stunts our ability to adapt.

But without the Comfort Zone, there would be no learning or growth.

The balance lies in spending some time outside the Comfort Zone and then returning to it. Allow ample time for rest, recovery, and reflection. This will empower you to step into your Adaptable Zone over and over again and expand your Comfort Zone.

You won’t just reach your destination faster. You’ll also enjoy the journey and discover your true self along the way.


1 Hat-tip to this McKinsey article from where I got the idea of the three main zones.

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