If you're looking for self-improvement advice online, the first thing you're likely to encounter is some guru armed with a workout metaphor telling you that growth starts where your comfort zone ends. It's simple, intuitive advice and it clearly appeals to a great many people's masochistic desire to prove their mettle by making themselves uncomfortable.
There's only one problem with this bedrock piece of internet wisdom: science proves it's just plain wrong.
Pushing yourself harder can leave you weaker.
But wait, many self-actualization obsessed folks will respond, if you want to get better at anything, surely you have to push yourself. That's true. If you want to get stronger, repeatedly lifting a weight too small to cause you to break a sweat is going to do exactly nothing. Doing the exact same thing day after day never leads to a better result.
But as a number of overeager CrossFit enthusiasts have discovered, taking things too far in the other direction will cause you to suffer rhabdomyolysis, pee orange, and visit your local emergency room writhing in excruciating pain. This isn't just a (grim but medically accurate) sports metaphor. As performance coach and Inc.com contributor Melody Wilding confessed in the UK Guardian recently, pushing yourself way beyond your comfort zone psychologically can lead to ugly collapse too.
"When I pushed my comfort zone relentlessly, as the leadership experts advise, it led me straight into burnout," she writes. Once an ambitious Manhattan professional, Wilding confesses to feeling increasingly miserable the harder she drove herself.
"On the outside, everything looked peachy - as if I were a picture of success. On the inside, I was feeling defeated and helpless. In accordance with the self-improvement mindset, I rationalized these feelings as stemming from my own inadequacy," she recalls. "'I just need to work harder,' I told myself. 'I'm out of my comfort zone. It'll get better. I'll adjust.'"
But no. Instead of improving, Wilding cratered. "In my mid-twenties, I found myself laid up in bed, so tired I could barely move, and suffering from heart palpitations and nightmares. By pushing myself in the name of getting uncomfortable, I had self-sacrificed to the point of exhaustion," she reports. She quit her job and re-evaluated.
This is exactly how hard to push yourself according to science.
This isn't just one woman's bravely told story. Research actually backs up her anecdotal evidence that the best way to make great progress isn't to push yourself as hard as possible (and sometimes even harder than is possible). Instead, a heap of studies show that whatever area of life you're looking to improve in your best bet is to aim for something known as "the zone of proximal development."
"This conceptual space, which is near the comfort zone, allows for healthy and gradual growth," explains Wilding. And unlike the idea that more pain leads to more learning, this concept is actually backed by lots of research.
"Scientists have been studying motivation for decades. While there is still much to learn, one of the most consistent findings is that perhaps the best way to stay motivated is to work on tasks of 'just manageable difficulty,'" agrees author James Clear, who calls this phenomenon "The Goldilocks Rule."
"The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right," he goes on to explain.
Scientists have found a similar principle at work when they look at stress. High stress levels don't actually drive high performance, Harvard Business School research shows. Nor is flat out boredom a recipe for improvement and achievement (no shock there). Instead, psychologists recommend you stay in your stress "sweet spot" of just a little pressure to improve the fastest.
Your comfort zone is there for a reason.
The bottom line is that continually pushing yourself way beyond the bounds of the comfortable isn't heroic or even smart. Nor is refusing to wander far from a place where you feel comfortable a surefire route to mediocrity. In fact, Wilding movingly argues, it's actually a wise strategy for long-term success. She concludes her article:
"In a world of increasing demands on our time and attention, our comfort zones act as predictable spaces of mastery where we can seek refuge when the stress becomes too much. They act as containers to shore up confidence, gain momentum, and think clearly. When we spend less time grappling with discomfort, we can focus more on what matters most. If the people who routinely push themselves past their comfort zones are metaphorically skydiving out of airplanes, those of us who choose to operate from within our comfort zones are serenely laying bricks, creating a home we can thrive in."
Has Wilding convinced you?