Don’t get out of your comfort zone, expand it!

Experiencing pressure tends to trigger ‘something’ in most of us. Sure, everyone acts differently when under pressure. If I were to give the same simulation to 10 people we would see 10 different reactions. Functioning well under pressure is an extremely valuable skill to have whether you are an executive, medical professional, investment banker, manager, entrepreneur, or team member.

I do agree with people who say that we grow and learn the most when pushed, when working at the boundary of our abilities and that we have to push over those boundaries every so often. What I do not agree with is that the boundary is static and that you need to be extremely uncomfortable before you learn. “Get out of your comfort zone” is something that I do not agree with. As a Paramedic I did not perform well because I got out of my comfort zone when dealing with critical cases – no, I performed well because I became comfortable with being in the fray. A ‘no stress’ zone is also important because it it here where we recover.

After making sense of my own relationship with pressure I believe that we move between two multidimensional zones: a functional green-orange zone and dysfunctional red zone. These zones are separated by a vertical boundary that resembles a cliff. I believe that we have the capacity to make our functional zones bigger by pushing the boundary of our limitation back.

The green-yellow zone is a spectrum on the functional level. When we are in the green extreme of the spectrum we are unstressed and not under pressure while the orange extreme approaches the boundary where it borders on the edge of the dysfunctional red zone. The red zone, as I see it, is a state into which we fall much like an uncomfortable and anxious state. This zone is below the green-orange zone. The boundary is a vertical cliff over which we fall into the red zone or that we have to climb to get back to our green-orange zone.

Watch this short video in which I use some images to explain how I see this:

I try to work at the boundary right at the edge. Typically, I have asked others how they experienced me while I work at the edge and I have developed the ability to notice what is going on for me in that moment. Based on these perceptions and observations I was able to create a model of my behaviours under pressure and have come to learn how I feel just before I fall over the edge. This prepares me for those moments and removes the destabilising elements of being surprised.

When I experience those ‘warning signs’ I try to slow down a bit, to step away from the edge just enough to sit with what is going on in that moment. Once I have a grip on myself I then step back onto the edge. I do this a couple of times until the discomfort becomes too much and I step far away from the edge (i.e. remove myself from the situation) or until I fall over the edge. My feeling is that I can only really define my personal boundary when stepping over that edge occasionally and falling into the red zone.

You do not need to go to extremes before you get to know yourself while under pressure and can do this type of work in controlled outdoor and indoor exercises. I only ever consciously allow myself to risk falling over the edge in safe and controlled environments where I know that I am able to get support to climb back to the green-orange zone. Through years of working under pressure I was able to develop the ability to help others explore their zones and boundaries in controlled environments.

Sure, there are times when I tip over the edge in situations where I have no control and I still try to learn from those situations. I too have a point where I cannot function optimally any more. By constantly working on the edge over the years I believe that I have pushed back my own boundaries to expand my green-orange zone. The area of ground that I am able to cover before falling over the edge has become bigger and my ability to remain functional under pressure has therefore also increased.

Instead of ‘getting out of your comfort zone’, I say expand it by getting to know how you are under pressure. Push the boundaries back so that you can become more resilient. Play in a simulated pressure cooker. Explore the boundary and step up to the edge and learn from the experience of falling over it.

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