You hear it all the time: Step out of your comfort zone. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Nothing grows in your comfort zone.

But is that true? Can getting uncomfortable and enduring the stress that comes with it really help you grow as a person, move you towards achieving your goals, and push you forward to the next stage of your life?

Let’s unpack what “getting outside your comfort zone” means and how it can be your new tool for achieving the life you desire.

The Science of the Comfort Zone

So you want to run a 5k. You see a 5k raising money for a good cause, and you’ve always wanted to run one, so you sign up.

But you’re not a runner — the most fitness you get is walking between classes — so you know being able to run that 5k is going to take some work and be a bit of a challenge.

In other words, you’ll need to step out of your comfort zone, or your place of greatest security, and get uncomfortable in order to achieve that particular goal.

How do you know where that boundary is — and is the “comfort zone” even a real thing?

The idea of comfort zones is rooted in research conducted by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908. They developed the Yerkes–Dodson Law, which states that performance increases as stress increases, and performance decreases as stress decreases.

However, at a certain point, high levels of stress inhibit performance.

In the context of our 5k example, this means that while you may just want to just walk on a treadmill to train, there’s not much stress in doing so and therefore no increase in performance. However, when you apply stress by upping the speed on the treadmill, it gets a little harder and you have to jog.

Now you’re actually training. But, setting the speed of the treadmill too high to start won’t be beneficial and may result in injury or propelling you off the treadmill altogether.

The Benefits of Leaving Your Comfort Zone

As you train for your 5k, you can see how speeding up your walking pace and pushing yourself to jog — getting outside your comfort zone — can help you develop the fitness, stamina, and mental fortitude to run your race.

But there are a number of benefits to moving outside of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to grow beyond just crossing the finish line.

Achieving your goals. Not everything you want to achieve in life will be easy. By moving beyond your comfort zone into the growth zone, you’ll be able to do just that: grow. You’ll find yourself becoming more productive, achieving more, and reaching the goals you set for yourself — if you’re willing to put in the work.

Boosting your self-confidence. Accomplishment brings self-confidence, especially if you worked hard, challenged yourself, and saw it through. And the boost in self-confidence you get after achieving one goal can push you to achieve more.

Expanding your world. Stepping out of your comfort zone means learning new things, meeting new people, seeing new places, and trying new experiences. All of these can serve to help expand your awareness of the world and how you fit into it and may introduce you to new interests or areas of study you want to explore.

Building your resilience. Challenging yourself to move outside your comfort zone can increase your resilience as well. You’ll gain more confidence in how you handle failure or setbacks and become more comfortable with increased levels of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.

Giving you self-agency: Finally, by stepping outside your comfort zone often, you’ll learn more about yourself and gain more control over how you want your life to look and what you want to do with it.

Why It’s Hard to Leave the Comfort Zone — and When You Should

If it was easy to leave your comfort zone, there probably wouldn’t be so much talk about it.

But it’s not easy to do. Moving into that learning or growth zone requires that aforementioned stress, and will likely require facing some anxiety, uncertainty, and a little bit of fear. Yet as humans, we’re wired for survival, and naturally shy away from those perceived threats as much as we can.

This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to step out of our comfort zones.

Individuals who do want to do it must be mentally prepared. They must also be prepared to change habits and mindsets that may keep them in their comfort zone.

How do you know if you need to step out of your comfort zone and push yourself towards some new things and new experiences?

If you’re not growing or learning new things. You’re not taking chances in your life. You’re not fulfilling your goals or dreams. If you find yourself wondering why you’re not accomplishing things you want to accomplish — making new friends, getting better grades — then it’s time to look at areas where you might be a little too comfortable and passive.

However, it’s also not healthy to push yourself too far all the time. Being in a constant state of high stress can take its toll; humans need to return to the safety of their comfort zone every so often.

Just like you wouldn’t train on the treadmill all day, but may just put in an hour or two, you should step outside of your comfort zone for only certain lengths of time.

How to Leave Your Comfort Zone

Sometimes we’re forced out of our comfort zone by our situations and have to adapt in the moment. But if you want to actively move yourself out of your comfort zone, here’s how to get started.

Set a goal. First, decide what you want to achieve and set a goal. Make it a SMART goal: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

For example, don’t just set a goal of wanting to run a 5k. Set a goal that you want to run a 5k on a specific date, achieve a time of 30 minutes or less, and run or jog the whole race, not walk.

Make a plan. Once you have your specific goal, now you can make a plan to achieve it. If a 5k is on a certain date, you know how long you have to train. If you want to be able to run or jog the whole way, you need to increase your ability and stamina to get to that point before the race. Make a plan for how you’ll get to your goal, which will include steps that move you out of your comfort zone.

Take action. Start working towards your goal, following the plan that you’ve created. As you do, you’ll likely run into the following:

  • Finding your boundary: As you begin the work, you’ll be able to find where your comfort zone line is and when you’re pushing past it. Maybe you thought running at a certain speed would be challenging, yet you find that it’s actually pretty easy so you increase your speed to have it be more of a challenge. Look for these shifts in your comfort zone boundary.
  • Confronting your fears: As you move outside of your comfort zone, you may need to face some of your fears as your stress increases. If you’re someone that lets discomfort derail them from action, you may need to get used to that discomfort in order to grow. If you tend to have some limiting beliefs about yourself, you may need to reassess those beliefs as you push forward.

Adjust as you go. Realize that you may not always be successful in your efforts. Everyone has a bad day or two when trying to accomplish something, so don’t let it derail you from achieving your goal.

However, if you’re constantly feeling like the tasks are too hard, you may have gone past your growth zone into the panic zone. Reassess your plan to see how you can simplify the tasks.

Assess and make new goals. Now that you’ve achieved your goal, assess how it felt to move outside your comfort zone. You may realize it actually wasn’t as bad as you thought, and want to do it again.

You probably already know the areas in your life where you need to step more outside of your comfort zone.

Here are some suggestions on activities you can tackle to help you grow:

  • Take a class in a subject area you know nothing about but want to learn — or take a summer course at Harvard Summer School
  • Go to a social event and meet new people, especially if doing so is challenging to you
  • Travel to somewhere you’ve never been before — even if it’s just across town
  • Have a difficult conversation you might be putting off
  • Learn a new hobby or skill
  • Volunteer with an organization in a role that takes you outside your comfort zone

Crossing the Finish Line — and Looking for the Next Challenge

It’s race day! You’ve made your plan for the 5k, committed to training, got outside your comfort zone, and achieved your goal of running the race in under 30 minutes!

Think about not just the achievement, but about the ways in which you grew as a person by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone during the process.

Knowing more about your comfort zone and what it means to step outside of it can help you face new goals, projects, and adventure head on.

And knowing that a little added stress can actually help you grow, expand your world, and increase your self-confidence will help you become more adaptable and open to change as well.