The Discomfort Zone Is Where Growth Happens

To achieve your goals, there’s got to be risk involved.

Courtesy of Jackson Hendry/Unsplash

We all have dreams for a better future. We set goals for improving our health, our family and friendships, our finances, our work lives, and more. When we start dreaming about the future, however, our aspirations can feel too far away. We start worrying about how we’re going to achieve those goals. Then, because we let the how overshadow the what, we downgrade our aspiration and throttle back our vision, convinced our goals must be “reasonable” or “realistic.” We aim low. And what we expect becomes our new reality.

But the old adage is true. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Goal researchers have documented a strong, direct relationship between the difficulty of our goals and the likelihood we’ll achieve them—not to mention greater motivation, creativity, and satisfaction.

For a goal to matter, it has to stretch us. That means it has to stand somewhere outside our Comfort Zone. If you can easily imagine completing the challenge—it’s probably not challenging enough to be compelling. Rising to the inherent risk of a goal creates huge emotional gains for us. In other words, we get more out if we put more in.

Let’s say you’re the sales manager of a small manufacturing plant. You’ve been growing at 5 percent a year, and this year you’re going to set your growth goal at 6 percent. Is that going to heighten performance, engage your creativity, or up your enthusiasm? No way. Small goals just aren’t very compelling. If we want to win, we need to get beyond our natural urge to play it safe, jump outside our comfort zones, and set some risky goals. Now imagine if that growth goal was more like 20 percent. Delivering that result will require more from you than you currently know how to manage.

That’s when growth happens.

You’ve probably already experienced Discomfort Zone benefits to some extent. Maybe it was learning a new skill, meeting a new person, or taking on a challenge you’d never done. We don’t often enjoy these things when they are happening, but looking back, we have to admit: the really important stuff of life happens outside your Comfort Zone. This is where the growth happens, where the solutions are, where fulfillment resides. But instead of encountering this retrospectively, we can engineer these experiences by intentionally embracing goals with greater levels of risk baked in.

For a goal to be meaningful, its attainment should lie in the Discomfort Zone. You’ll know you’re there when you start feeling emotions we normally consider negative: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. When rightly understood, these supposedly negative emotions work like indicator lights telling us we’ve arrived. When we don’t see the path, or we’re unsure about having what it takes to reach the goal, then we’re closing in on a goal worth trying for.

That looks different for everyone, of course. I’ve been working with a personal trainer for a while now. The other day my team and I were shooting video for a new project. Earlier that morning my trainer put me through a rigorous leg workout. It shredded me. And I was really feeling it standing there in front of the camera. But, honestly, I felt great. The discomfort tells me I’m making progress and becoming stronger. Instead of shrinking from discomfort, I let it guide me toward accomplishment. Most people shrink back when they feel negative emotions. Don’t. They might just be markers you’re on the right path.

You need to be smart about this. For instance, in the business environment there’s a big difference between setting bold goals and managing up. It might be unwise to publicly stand for a certain goal that’s on your personal goal list. There’s nothing wrong with having a public number that’s in your Comfort Zone and your personal stretch goal that’s beyond it. But how do you know if your goal is challenging or just crazy? There is also a difference between discomfort and delusion.

Some goals are simply impossible and fail to align with the rest of our priorities. They don’t inspire; they ensure failure.

If we’re not careful, we can all step into the Delusional Zone. Me thinking I could play on the PGA senior tour, for instance—that’s delusional. Ask anyone who’s ever played golf with me.

What about you? How can you tell you’re veering into crazy town? In his one-day EntreLeadership event I heard Dave Ramsey mention a salesperson who set a goal of calling a huge number of new leads in a certain period of time. Did Ramsey praise him for his bold stand? Nope. He showed the salesperson there wasn’t enough available time in the week to accomplish the goal. The guy had lunged right over the Discomfort Zone into the Delusional Zone.

And here’s a warning. You don’t need one crazy leap to land in the Delusional Zone. Sometimes we can drift there with the accumulated demands of multiple goals. I see this when people plan major deadlines simultaneously or stack up projects one after another without enough margin. You know what happens next. It’s a train wreck just waiting to happen.

Goals in the Discomfort Zone challenge us and summon our best performance. Goals in the Delusional Zone invite defeat and merely leave us frustrated and discouraged. What I like to do is set a goal that’s almost delusional and then dial it back a few clicks, which puts me back in the Discomfort Zone.

From the book Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals, by Michael Hyatt, Copyright © 2018 by Michael Hyatt. Published by Baker Books. Reprinted with permission.

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