A comfort zone is a familiar pattern of behavior. It grows gradually, but once established, it resists change. We repeat in order to play a game where we master the rules and know exactly how to win.

A comfort zone is a belief combined with a behavior pattern, repeated until automatic. It is familiar and predictable. It makes sense to pick the known over the unknown. We follow comfort zones unconsciously and automatically because we know what the outcome will be.

Here’s an example of a comfort zone in action. Most lottery winners manage to spend or give away their newfound winnings to return to their previous situation. In fact, in the U.S., 80 percent of lottery winners file bankruptcy within the first five years. Their money changes, but their mindsets don’t. The money they win moves them out of their comfort zones, and they end up returning to them.

Your Inner Thermostat

Think of your comfort zone as your home thermostat. If the temperature increases or decreases, the thermostat signals the heater or air conditioner to turn on or off. It keeps the temperature in a narrow range of comfort.

Your performance—including the money you make—operates in a similar way. Greater success initially registers as discomfort, like the discomfort of being in new and unfamiliar territory. Especially if the results go outside your self-image, this cues an internal thermostat to return to the comfort zone.

I heard Jack Canfield tell a great story about his stepdad. Jack’s stepdad was a regional manager for NCR. He noticed that each of his salespeople had a particular image of himself as a salesperson: he was a $2,000-a-month salesperson, or a $3,000-a-month salesperson. If a salesperson’s self-image was that he earned $3,000 a month in commissions, then every month, when he got to that figure, he would slack off until the next month. However, if he had nearly reached the end of the month and earned only $1,500, he would then work sixteen-hour days and weekends, and do whatever it took to beat the bushes and make sure he reached that $3,000 before month’s end.

Your comfort zone acts as an unconscious thermostat—unless and until you make it conscious. Then, you can do something about it. You can reprogram your mind and brain with what you want and when you want it. Your brain has a mind of its own, and sometimes you have to outsmart your brain.

Becoming Aware

A comfort zone can be beneficial and save energy, such as your automatically driving to work the same way each day and not having to think about the route. It can be a behavior pattern, such as self-effacing jokes, or a specific role you play in relationships.

A comfort zone can also become an obstacle, when familiar patterns get repeated even when they don’t work very well, such as waiting until the last minute and creating crises, or automatically playing devil’s advocate.

A comfort zone can trade passion for predictability, creativity for continuity, the new for the familiar. How do you know when your comfort zone is not serving you? Here are some clues:

Your comfort zone is the ghost writer, invisibly creating the same storylines without awareness, let alone questioning the outcome. Here are nine ways to generate awareness without a huge event crystallizing your confrontation:

  1. Recognize patterns and repeating behaviors to determine which comfort zones no longer serve you and which ones continue to benefit you.
  2. Assess what you really want apart from your comfort zone.
  3. Picture what you want in each aspect of your life. Consult with a friend, relative, mentor or coach to determine the best way to proceed. What is the next step to break free of your comfort zone?
  4. Concentrate on new behaviors and not on problems in order to create new brain pathways. When you notice yourself diverting to old feelings or behaviors, redirect your focus and energy flow to the new ideas.
  5. Create new ways of thinking to stimulate brain circuits, with an “eye on the prize” to lay new mental maps.
  6. Remember that the power is in the focus, and that permanent change is from the consistency of that focus.
  7. Think about your new experience and evolving self—how your new experiences require thinking of yourself, your identity, in an evolving way, and no longer in the old story.
  8. As you take the next step, hang in there. It takes continuity and consistency in order to change. Repetition often requires twenty-five to thirty days done consistently in order to rewire the brain. Your challenge is to continue with the new behaviors until they become automatic.
  9. Recognize that when you initiate change to move from your comfort zone, it will challenge the system. People around you will tend to react to your change. Their first reaction inevitably will be change-back pressure. Take their “help” to restore the old comfort zone as an opportunity to validate your loyalty to yourself.

DAVID KRUEGER, M.D. is CEO of MentorPath,
an executive coaching practice tailored to the needs of executives,
entrepreneurs and healing professionals. Dr. Krueger is
author of eleven books on success, money, work and self-development.