The Myth of the Comfort Zone

TL;DR: The comfort zone is a bullshit concept

When you search for »comfort zone« on google images you’ll get all sorts motivational graphics. There are many circle (»Veen«) diagrams showing that this »comfort zone«-circle does not intersect with some other circle with vague, but nice terms in it – most frequently, it is »magic« (sufficiently vague, I assume).

This article e.g claims more productivity, better coping with changes and more creativity.

What the articles about it seem to agree on is, that if you are doing/living in a way that is usual and comfortable to you, you are in that »comfort zone«. Getting out of the comfort zone will be good for you, even if it feels, well, uncomfortable.

Feeling uncomfortable is seems to be vital: It is not about leaving the boredom- or familiarity zone, but leaving the comfort zone 3.

What I wondered about: Is leaving the comfort zone needed to get magic, productivity and creativity? Or can you already have these while happily staying there? – in which case, these great things would be supported or hindered by something else than the comfort zone itself.

Most texts on the comfort zone I found were from business publications and life-advice webpages – some of them referring to »science« a lot. So it seemed like a good start to see what this »comfort zone science« is.

It was a bit disappointing. The only reference which I could trace to some written-down research is the Yerkes-Dodson-Law1. In its basic form, its a upside-down-u-shaped curve stating that learning speed increases as arousal rises until it falls again if arousal becomes to high 5

The experiment was done with mice, who learned to discriminate stimuli, in this case the colours black, gray and white. Failures where punished with electric shocks of different strength (more shock, more arousal/stress).

The experiment is famous and it may be our best guess. Or has been over a hundred years ago. But research on stress and learning is not too rare and there was a neat report written for the NASA on the web2, which is lengthy but gives and overview of research and stress and learning 4 My apologies for taking the short cut instead of reading all the primary research, at least it got 179 citations on google scholar for the time being. So what does science say about the gains of leaving the comfort zone?

It does not look good for the get-out-of-your-comfort-zone claims:

  • There is no consistent influence of the stress: It may improve the performance in some cases, but in other situations, in particular when doing more complex tasks, it lowers it: The more stress, the worse the outcome.
  • The getting-out-of-the-comfort-zone-improves-creativity is pretty much bogus. For a given individual, stress lowers the creativity and leads to rigid thinking and resorting to old, tested solutions (even if they don’t work any more) (p 68). It could be the case that creative people enjoy new experiences more, even if other people might feel uncomfortable in this situation, but in this case getting-out-of is part of the effect, not the cause.

Learning form new experiences and feeling uncomfortable in a situation is not much tied together at best, and negatively correlated at worst. So, feel free to learn from the situations you feel comfortable with. There is no universal gain of feeling not comfortable.


2021-02-09 Moving out of one’s comfort zone and, as free individual, discovering previously inaccessible potential matches well to the idea human potential of the 60s and (even more so due to its spacial metaphors of areas and discovery) to the idea of the US-American frontier.

See also: “Navigating the problem space” and “revealing user needs”: User Research and how we talk about what it does”

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The Myth of the Comfort Zone by Jan Dittrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  1. Robert, M. Yerkes, and D. John. "The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation." Journal of comparative neurology and psychology 18 (1908): 459-482. 

  2. Staal, Mark A. "Stress, cognition, and human performance: A literature review and conceptual framework." NaSA technical memorandum 212824 (2004): 9. 

  3. While the typical articles on the comfort zone will focus on getting out of the comfort zone, some claim that moving out too far lowers performance again. This seems to be intuitively right: Being so uncomfortable that all one feels is terror will certainly not make you more productive. This makes perfectly sense. 

  4. One could argue that »not feeling comfortable« and stress are not the same, but 1) It would be rather hard to use a definition like »absence of comfort« in scientific research 2) When you feel comfortable you are probably not stressed 3)Alternatively we can talk about ›arousal‹ which is not the same as stress but a related concept; in the research I found it has been treated pretty much the same. 

  5. The research actually concluded that there are two curves: one for complex learning, which is the one described; the other is for simple learning in which more arousal meant more learning in all the conditions which were tested.