Last Updated on February 18, 2022
The importance of consolidation in a world that worships growth.
Note: I first published this Comfort Zone post here on Medium many years ago. In some ways it’s just a rehashing of the old idea around balance, but I think it’s one of my more important posts. Here’s a slightly updated rewrite.
Neale Donald Walsch said “life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. In the manic modern type A world we tend to worship growth and goals. In this Dale Carnegie-inspired era we have learned to worship being out of our comfort zone and “stretching ourselves” — being in what I’ll call a stretch zone. It’s all about working harder, training harder and so on. There’s always encouragement and advice to “get out of your comfort zone”.
However, after doing that for most of my life— now I’m thinking that it’s not that simple. Here’s some uncommmon advice: stay in your comfort zone for a chance. Why? Time in a different zone, a zone of consolidation, is crucial.
There are a bunch of different models out there on this, but I find it most helpful to draw on parts of each and think of it in terms of four zones – the comfort zone, consolidation zone, stretch zone, and snap zone.
The Comfort Zone
Being in a comfort zone can be described as being “in a state in which one feels familiar, safe, at ease, and secure.” A state where you feel comfortable — whether that be a physical state or a mental state. The comfort zone is by definition routine, and unchallenging. It can be a place of atrophy.
The Stretch Zone (Hormesis)
When you leave the comfort zone, you enter the stretch zone. This is the zone where growth is triggered. You are no longer in perfect comfort. In fact, you are often uncomfortable, because it is the zone of eustress and the zone of hormesis and possibly antifragility.
Let’s take an example of moving from the physical comfort zone to the physical stretch zone. To stretch yourself physically means to push your physical boundaries, through exercising your physical body via literally stretching, or aerobic or anaerobic movement. When stretching we overload our bodies by going to the edge of our current range, beyond our current comfort zone. (Staying in a hormetic zone.)
To stretch mentally is similar. You push your mental boundaries, maybe it is practicing a new skill. It’s that repetitive and grueling struggle to learn, and often includes deliberate practice.
The Snap Zone (Injury/Burnout)
It’s important to mention that if you go to the edge of your stretch zone, you reach the snap zone. Anyone who ever injured themselves “overdoing it” with some kind of physical activity would have entered the snap zone, or anyone who can recall a time of burnout also likely hit the snap zone.
Nietzsche was definitely pointing at antifragility when he said — “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger”. Nietzsche was correct, but only to a certain extent, we need to make sure we stay out the snap zone.
The Consolidation Zone
After we’ve been in the stretch zone, for example when doing physical activity, our muscles and connective tissue then adapt to that stress and even over compensate, they go further than necessary in adapting.
Any good personal trainer will tell you, if you work your back muscles hard one day, you should rest them the next day and work on your leg muscles instead. They will tell you the importance of rest (consolidation) periods. Stretch then consolidate. Your muscles don’t grow during the exercise, but they grow during the recovery period — consolidation. We are antifragile, we get stronger after a certain degree of stress.
Stretching mentally is no different. You stretch and learn a new idea, and you need to sleep on it. During sleep you consolidate learning.
Many of us chronically spend too much time in the stretch zone, it’s not uncommon for us to experience burnout or injury when reaching the snap zone. Thus, spending time back in consolidation is as important as the stretch zone.
Consolidation can be considered in a more macro or longer term way as well. If some major event happens that affects you physically or mentally, I’ve noticed I need longer periods of consolidation. Some major learning, a big jumps or changes. These take time to assimilate, and the body and brain needs time to consolidate.
Stretch. Consolidate. Repeat.
I’m still getting out of my comfort zone, but definitely making some time in consolidation compulsory!