Surfing Your Comfort Zone – Finding Flow (4)


The best way to expand your comfort zone, while not also being overwhelmed by a great tsunami of anxiety, is to expand it at a rate and speed where you can comfortably deal with the anxiety generated by the expansion… so that it never overwhelms you.

This advice comes from the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose lifetime’s work has been the investigation of people’s comfort zones, all of which helped him to formulate his influential Psychology of Flow.

As we saw earlier, if we stay totally within our comfort zone, then we not only experience a feeling of security but also one of boredom, because after a while we are experiencing nothing new… But if we leave our comfort zone, then not only do we experience anxiety but also potentially feelings of freedom and excitement as we encounter new information and sensations.

There are forces that try to keep us within our comfort zone (security and anxiety), but there are also forces that are enticing us to leave and expand our horizons (boredom, freedom and excitement).

Now the trick, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is to move out of your comfort zone at a rate and speed that allows you to experience enough freedom and excitement to motivate you to keep going… but not enough to create sufficient anxiety to discourage or stop you in your tracks.

In addition, your comfort zone also represents the skills that you have acquired and mastered to date. So if you can use your existing skills to master new ones, it is also possible to find the balance point between boredom and anxiety, between security and excitement.

If you do all this, then you spontaneously enter a psychological state which Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow.

According to Csikszentmihalyi:

When all a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process information about what the activity offers. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimuli.

As a result, one of the universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.

Csikszentmihalyi explains that when a dancer starts to dance then they often get caught up in their experience, they forget themselves, and in this forgetting they experience a state of flow… a state of happiness, joy, and exhilaration.

He goes on to quote similar experiences from a rock climber, a mother reading to her small daughter, a chess player… all of whom describe this feeling of flow in terms of their own activities… different contexts, but the same basic experience.

Whenever an individual is totally immersed in the flow experience, they really don’t have spare mental capacity for worry and anxiety or boredom, all their concentration and mental bandwidth is taken up with an experience of being in the moment.

Csikszentmihalyi goes on to state that although the flow experience appears on the surface to be effortless, it can only be sustained through mental or physical effort, or through ability and acquired skills, and is held together through concentration and focus. This means that fear, worry or doubt can break the magic spell which sustains the flow and bring us crashing back to our normal ‘reality’.

The Ancient Greeks defined ecstasy as the ability to stand outside of yourself, outside of your fears, your worries, and your concerns… and if you can do that then you are automatically in a state of flow… a state of ecstasy… because for a moment you have forgotten all the things that limit you… you literally forget yourself… which in the Indian mystic tradition is known as the state of samadhi.

Based on Csikszentmihalyi observations:

  • When we remain in our comfort zone, we cannot enter a state of flow.
  • When we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by anxiety, we cannot enter a state of flow.
  • When we do not develop skills that we can enhance, master and take pride in, we cannot enter a state of flow.

To create flow, we need to be brave and venture out from our comfort zone, just as a small child bravely sets out to explore the world around them. In fact, you could argue that a child is naturally in a state of flow when they exploring and playing. It is only anxiety that crashes their party.

But, often, we adults have lost that ability to play naturally like a child, and are lousy at locating that exact balance point between boredom and anxiety, and so end up being either tipped into total boredom or total anxiety in our personal lives.

You also come across this phenomenon in large companies and organisations, especially ones that have stagnated, and need to change fast in order to survive.

Usually, a young and dynamic manager, or management consultant, is brought in to create change, to whip the organisation back into shape, and their motto is something like ‘Everyone has to get out of their comfort zones if we are to survive’.

Now, their analysis of the situation is usually quite correct, the organisation has become stuck in its ways, and everyone has to be challenged to move out of their collective comfort zones if it is to survive.

But then what happens next:

  • Does the manager try to find the balance point, so that the employees can move forward with excitement and with minimal anxiety?
  • Does the manager totally trash the collective comfort zone, so that all the employees are plunged into a state of uncertainty and anxiety?

Yes, you’ve guessed it, what’s the point of being a senior manager if you can’t trash something when the mood takes you…

To be fair to these senior managers, when faced with change in their own lives, they are usually very good at dealing with their own anxiety, so don’t really understand how other people could be crippled by theirs.

These types of manager usually end up creating the very situation that they should desperately have been trying to avoid.

As well as having to deal with all the organisational changes and new skills necessary for the organisation to survive and prosper, the employees have to do so while also wading through their collective ‘sea of anxiety’. And when people are anxious, what do they do? They desperately try to hang on to their comfort zones, resist any new ideas, and this makes the whole situation worse.

Now, I admit, there are times when things are so bad that a manager has no other option but to push people out of their comfort zones, and hope for the best.

But I have also seen so many bad managers who, with little or no understanding of how people function, have made a bad situation worse through their pathetic attempts at social engineering.

So what if you are an employee caught up in such a situation… or you are involved in any situation where someone is trying to trash your comfort zone, and you are becoming more and more anxious… what should you do?

Well, it all comes down to how good you are at controlling your own anxiety levels.

If someone else has effectively blown up your comfort zone, and thrown you into the sea of anxiety, then the only person who can counter these feelings is you.

So knowing what makes you anxious… and knowing what reduces your anxiety… are essential skills during these anxious times.

For example, if you are someone who knows that:

  • Gardening and being close to nature reduces your anxiety,
  • Reading and intellectual stimulation reduces your anxiety.
  • Physical fitness and training reduces your anxiety.
  • Spending time with friends and family reduces your anxiety.
  • Tidying and clearing clutter reduces your anxiety.

Then ensure you make time for those activities in your personal life to counter-balance any stress you are feeling in your work-life (or potentially even vice-versa… I know of one person who was so stressed at home, that they came to see work as being relaxing).

Now, in the next post we will discuss some energy tools which you can use, but the most precious thing you possess is your own knowledge of yourself and what presses your buttons… what makes you anxious, what calms your anxiety. So if you ever find yourself feeling anxious, then a little self-knowledge goes a long way.

OK, think of your comfort zone as your castle. You can’t stay inside forever, you will only get stale and bored if you try, and you many need to extend it from time to time… But it is also your primary defence against anxiety and uncertainty in this unpredictable world… and so it is worth defending.

(c) Brian Parsons October 2016

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