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A friend and I were chatting the other day about her dreams. She was telling me how her dreams used to be so big and clear and defined. And now she’s so confused she’s thinking of closing the business she once thought was her dream.
As we talked, she said something that resonated with me: “I’m just in such a comfort zone with my business. It was so challenging at the beginning but now it’s just the same thing every day.”
I understood exactly what she was saying. For the last three years I’d been doing exactly the same thing every single day, week-in and week-out. I would look around me and see friends doing amazing things, starting dream jobs, launching businesses or travelling the world and I felt like I was stagnant. Worst of all, if you’d asked me, I couldn’t even have told you what it was I wanted out of life. I realized I was stuck in a comfort zone.
Comfort zones aren’t bad and we all have them. A comfort zone is any situation where your activities and behaviors fit a routine pattern that minimizes stress and risk. In other words, it’s your safe place or the thing you do that you know you’re good at but don’t have too try to hard at.
There are times in our lives when we need to be stretched a bit and there are times when we need comfort zones. For instance over the last two years I needed the comfort zone I had at my job. My husband was undergoing 18 rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. I wanted a job where I could show up, go through the motions, and get back to the hospital at the end of the day.
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However as my husbands’ treatment came to an end I started feeling restless. I applied for and took a new job in a slightly different field; one I knew would take me out of my comfort zone. Psychologists would refer to what I was looking for as “optimal anxiety”. Optimal anxiety is the space just outside our comfort zone where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal but not high enough to negatively affect performance. It’s the perfect mixture of stress and safety to get things done.
Getting stuck in comfort zones isn’t something unique to modern times. Jesus’ disciples got stuck in one too. In John 21 we read that the disciples went out fishing. They fished all night, doing the same thing that they always did but they caught nothing. Then a man came along (who they later recognized as Jesus) and shouted from the shore, “Have you caught anything?”
“No,” they yelled back.
The man told them to, “Throw your net on the other side of the boat, and your net will find the fish.”
They did what he said, and suddenly they could not lift their net because of the massive weight of the fish that filled it.
I love that the disciples were stuck in a rut but that they couldn’t identify it themselves. Often we need someone else to tell us we’re stuck in a rut. Often our friends and colleagues will try doing this by hinting we should try and do something differently. If you’re hearing comments like, “Have you thought of trying this” fairly often maybe it’s time to step back and see if you’ve hit a rut.
Other times, you’ll know you are in a comfort zone because you feel bored. This was one of the signals to me that I needed to look for new career challenges. I could do the job in my sleep. Another sign is if you are underperforming at a task. Perhaps you are the leader of a bible study but you’ve been doing it so long you no longer worry about preparing properly. The women you lead still enjoy their times together, but you know you could be putting more effort in.
So—you’ve identified that you’re in a rut—what do you do now?
1. Once again, let’s look at what the disciples did. They took advice from the people around them who could see the bigger picture. When I started to think about changing jobs, I consulted a number of people who knew me well and who also were in the loop about the health challenges my husband was facing.
2. The disciples were prepared to try and do everyday things differently. Just because they always threw the net on one side of the boat didn’t stop them from trying the other side. This might take the form of ordering a dish with unusual ingredients at a restaurant, walking the dog around a new route, or changing the after dinner routine. Making small changes and learning to adjust, whether or not you like the outcomes, helps you to learn how to cope when you decide to make a bigger move out of your comfort zone.
3. Don’t confuse stepping out of your comfort zone with being reckless and stupid. The disciples threw there net over the other side of the boat, they didn’t all dive in when they couldn’t swim. For me being responsible in moving out of my comfort zone meant I stayed in my job for longer than I would have liked because my husband and I needed a stable, predictable income.
4. Don’t let fear and responsibility hold you back from stepping out of your comfort zone and finding a place where you can feel fulfilled and satisfied. After our conversation, my friend decided to keep her business but start doing things differently in order to challenge herself and remain interested. If you’re in a rut, start small and look for little ways to challenge yourself. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be hard, but worth it.
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Wendy van Eyck is married to Xylon, who talks non-stop about cycling, and makes her laugh. She writes for anyone who has ever held a loved one’s hand through illness, ever believed in God despite hard circumstances or ever left on a spontaneous 2-week holiday through a foreign land with just a backpack. You can follow Wendy’s story and subscribe to receive her free ebook, “Life, life and more life” at ilovedevotionals.com. She would also love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter.