Lifehacker recently had a good article about the science behind why it can be difficult to break out of your comfort zone, and the reasons it’s important to do so.
Your comfort zone is a place “where your activities and behaviors fit a routine and pattern that minimizes stress and risk.” I get stressed out pretty easily so I love my comfort zone. However, if things are too easy, I get bored, which explains why when I’m busier I’m more productive.
This is called Optimal Anxiety, and “it’s just outside our comfort zone,” says Lifehacker, “a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal,” but not too high, otherwise “our performance drops off sharply.”
My brother Greg took himself out of his comfort zone (sometimes way out) every day for a year. He’s said it’s not necessary to do what he did, that even small challenges are good, but sometimes I forget that. The Lifehacker article reminded me of Greg’s points, that sometimes it’s as small as doing an everyday activity differently.
While YP and I were in Paris, he asked me what I hoped to get out of the trip. I realized then that I had no idea. “To have fun?” I said at the time. That was true. To get away? Not really. Even with recent struggles, I love my life. I love my job and writing; I love where I live. I love my routine.
Ding! ding! ding! I wanted to go to Paris because, well, Paris, but also I wanted to change my routine, no matter that the trip would be slightly stressful what with leaving work for so long, spending money, and being in a brand new place with a language barrier.
Now I realize that those slightly stressful reasons were partly why I wanted to go. When I returned to my comfort zone, I knew I’d feel great. I’d be physically tired, but mentally and psychologically re-energized and more creative. (This is probably why I like vacations that require effort, rather than, say, a cruise or resort.)
This weekend I broke my usual routine, and I’m so glad I did, although when I planned it, I didn’t think, I need to break out of my comfort zone. What I wanted was to be a tourist here in San Francisco the way I was in Paris, and see some things I’ve been wanting to see.
How I bailed
Let’s get this out of the way first. I did bail on one of my planned activities. The night of July Fourth, I was supposed to go to the Exploratorium. Every first Thursday of the month, the museum stays open late for adults only and has special programs. This month it was about the science behind fireworks. Cool, right?
But the later the day got, the less I wanted to go. Then I started hearing firecrackers in the street, and remembered that there’d be tons of drunk people out, and I wanted to go even less. In the end, I stayed in.
The Winchester Mystery House
Going to the Winchester Mystery House was scary, but not because of ghosts.
I was going alone. I’m not someone who always needs to do stuff with people. I love going shopping, to the movies, and museums by myself (although I love doing those things with friends too). But I’ve been wanting to go there for a while, and the timing was perfect.
However, when I got there, I kind of felt like everyone was looking at me like I was a freak (ironic considering the freakishness of some of the people there). Was it because I was Asian? Or because I was on my own? But they didn’t necessarily know that. Anyway, what these random people thought made no difference in my life so I ignored them.
Next I had to brave being in a tour group as a single. After they checked our tickets, they made us take a picture with props, which they’d try to sell to us afterward. GOOD GOD NO. I was not going to be made to stand there by myself with everyone watching. Sure, that would have taken me right out of my comfort zone, but I was already there, wasn’t I?
While the photographer was distracted, I sneaked in behind him and avoided it all together.
It was in a place I had never been before. The house is in Santa Clara, which is not far from San Jose. The Caltrain goes straight there, which was a comfort to me, but once I got there, I had to figure out where my bus was, and then get off the right stop.
Getting to the house was easy (although the bus ride was much longer than I expected, about 20 minutes, and I kept thinking was, Where the fuck is this place? [off the highway and across a mall, that’s where]), but returning to the train station was another story.
I assumed the bus stop would be on the opposite side of where I first arrived, and so that was where I waited. And waited, and waited. The schedule said the next one was due to arrive at 7:51. That time came and went, and that was when I started to panic.
I ducked into a nursing home and asked the man behind the counter if he knew anything about the bus. He said it came in more like 40 minute increments. I went back outside and tried to calm down. Sure enough, it eventually arrived, and I got to the station in time to catch the next train back to SF.
Was it worth it? Yes, in that I’ve wanted to see the house since moving here back in 2009, and I overcame my fear of going to a new place on my own. But the house itself? Not really, I’m afraid to say. It was neat but pretty cheesy and not worth the 1.5 hours on the train, plus the 20 minutes on the bus, plus waiting 40 minutes for a bus to go back.
Alcatraz and Angel Islands, or How I Almost Bailed Again
I know, I know. But these were circumstances beyond my control. And I said “almost.”
I woke up early Saturday morning to get ready to catch the 9:30 ferry to Alcatraz. First thing I checked my phone – Instagram, Facebook, email, Twitter, and Words with Friends (in that order) – as I do every morning. That was when I discovered my internet wasn’t working.
Long story short, I called my provider and they said the earliest someone could come was between 8 AM and 12 PM that day. At first I thought, Screw Alcatraz, I can’t be without internet. But after a few minutes I thought, No, I want to ride a ferry to see a cool prison. I don’t want to sit at home for four hours. So I wouldn’t have internet for a couple of days (I still had cable TV). Living on the edge!
I rescheduled for the next afternoon, but in the end I didn’t even need the appointment because by the time I got back that same day, the internet was working again.
I’m really glad I didn’t skip Alcatraz and Angel Islands. Alcatraz was the opposite of the Winchester House: gritty, dirty, smelly (large flocks of seagulls STINK, even the cute fluffy baby ones), and real. In other words, I freaking loved it. Other highlights:
- The ferry rides. Who doesn’t love a ferry? Even when they’re freezing cold.
- The park ranger who led the Escapes tour. I can’t remember his name but he was nerdy and awesome. Made me want to be a park ranger.
- The audio tour. The narrator is a former guard and has this gruff voice. “Now walk down this hallway. Turn left. You’ll see a photo. LOOK AT IT.”
The tour on Angel Island wasn’t as exciting. It was an hour-long tram ride. The scenery was beautiful, but I’d rather hike there. In fact I hope to return and do just that. More Danger Zone!
The Lifehacker article mentions that the comfort zone is neither good nor bad. It’s a natural state for most people and shouldn’t be thought of something that’s holding you back. It’s a place of recovery after stepping into a more dangerous zone, a “head-space where we’re least anxious and stressed so we can process the benefits we get when we leave it.” That may be my favorite part of these danger zone adventures: returning to comfort to remember them.
[Photo: “Zone Dangereuse,” CC BY 2.0 by Frédéric BISSON]