You know when someone suggests doing something new that you generally have one of three reactions? You either think, “Yes, I could do that, no problem it’s easy enough” or you start to get butterflies in your stomach at the thought of it and feel excited at the prospect, or the mere thought of it makes your stomach turn a somersault, the blood drains from your face and you start to panic (minor exaggeration there, for effect, but I`m sure you knew that anyway!).
These three reactions are generally described as the Comfort Zone, the Stretch Zone and the Panic Zone. And, as they have come up as concepts in three completely isolated conversations I’ve been involved in this week, once with a client, once related to public speaking and once related to my business development, it felt as if I was being nudged to write something about them for you. And, with Ramadan coming up soon, Allah is going to push us all to move out of our Comfort Zones, so let`s look at how we can benefit from this precious time.
How do you know when you’re in your Comfort Zone? You feel no stress, you’re doing things that you know how to do and usually do, you feel comfortable doing the things you’re doing and they don’t take much physical or emotional energy to perform. The activities are usually ones you learned a long time ago and they’ve become routine or can be done without conscious thought. It’s what we described previously as the stage of being Unconsciously Competent.
The danger of staying in this stage for a long time is that it gets too comfortable and leads to stagnation rather than growth or development. Its a stage that, if you stay in it too long, you`re eventually likely to feel lifeless, bored, and unchallenged. When I first came to Islam, people often used to tell me that developing as a Muslim is a bit like going up a slope, if you stop moving forward you won’t stay still, you’ll start sliding back. And that is what happens if you live in the Comfort Zone; it can actually result in the zone shrinking in area and you doing less and less.
So for example, if you pray the five daily prayers in your Comfort Zone, you`re likely to become less particular about the time you pray them, do them with less Khushu` (the heart being fully present in the prayer) and maybe often find yourself unsure about the number of Raka`ah you’ve done. You may have slipped into doing the same exercises at the gym and your body has become accustomed to them and your heart rate doesn’t rise, so there is less benefit. Or maybe at work, you’ve become so accustomed to what you’re doing that you don’t look forward to going into work anymore and you’ve lost your enthusiasm for your job.
The Stretch Zone is the exciting zone, the zone where the butterflies in your stomach tell you that this new activity would be good for you, it’ll be a challenge, but one you can deal with and enjoy. It’s also the learning and development zone, where you’re able to take yourself to the next level, to stretch your boundaries and become more fulfilled with the way you’re living your life.
Once you step into the Stretch Zone, you’ll be doing new things and taking part in new activities, which a first won’t be easy. You’ll have to think about them at first and they’ll take some concentration. You may even feel uncomfortable at first, but once you repeat them a few times they get easier and eventually, your Comfort Zone will expand to include them.
So why did I say that Allah is pushing us out of our Comfort Zone in Ramadan? He’ll be pushing us into our Stretch Zone by asking us to not eat at the times we’ve become accustomed to, He’ll be asking us to read more Qur’an, pray extra prayers, do more good deeds, and show more control over ourselves and our manners and behaviour. We’ll find that if we do all these things on a consistent basis, it will expand our Comfort Zone, so it’ll take less effort when the satans come back after Ramadan with their waswasa to fight them and continue with the new extended activities.
In relation to exercise, moving into the Stretch Zone will show more benefit to your fitness levels and maybe even your weight. I’d been going to the gym for quite a while and doing the same exercises, with some minor adjustments to relieve the boredom. As I was doing the exercise regularly I was increasing my bone density, improving my circulatory system, and general well-being, etc., but it wasn’t until I stretched myself and made some dietary adjustments and increased my anaerobic exercises that I started to see any effect on my weight.
And in work too, you don’t necessarily have to take on new tasks or get involved in new activities - although that always helps to make work more interesting and take you into new areas - it could just be that you decide to put more effort into doing your work with Ihsan (excellence) or to work on improving your relationship with someone or to start speaking up more and increasing your contribution in meetings. All these things will cause the butterflies to start fluttering initially, but after a few times they’ll get easier and expand your Comfort Zone.
The Panic Zone is the one you can enter by the mere thought of doing something that just stretches you way beyond what you feel you can cope with. This can either cause you to freeze with fear, act aggressively, seek out support to help you avoid it or it can send you running back to your Comfort Zone.
The reason for the panic may just be that it’s a step you want to take, but you feel you need to develop competencies first, such as learning to drive before you set out in a car to drive – be wary though that you’re not just using this as an excuse to procrastinate over something and that you really are working towards your goal – or it could be that the step would be morally unacceptable to you, such as being invited to go to a bar, being encouraged not to pray, or it could be that the task seems just too huge for you at the moment, such as the thought of having to read a whole Juz’ of the Qur’an every day throughout Ramadan when you’re still struggling to learn the basic Tajweed.
For most people, it’s better to spend most of your time in the Stretch Zone, gradually taking steps towards your target; making sure that the steps are big enough to get you to your target and giving yourself breaks when you let yourself slip back to the Comfort Zone to have some down time maybe with friends and family. There are some people though who are adrenaline junkies, they like to live life in the fast lane and love nothing more than feeling the rush as they face a massive challenge. As long as this is done with care and there are some down times, this is ok. There is one theory that if you can come through the Panic Zone, you’ll reach the Freedom Zone, where you’ve conquered your fear of fear and are able to take on any challenge. I would suggest that there are only a few people who fit into this category; they’ll take bigger risks and get bigger rewards, but they also stand the chance of bigger failures too...but that’s a risk they’re prepared to take.
So as an exercise, I want you to spend some time and think what you are going to do to move out of your Comfort Zone, for Ramadan or in general.
If you’ve got some things that you’re panicking about, what steps will you take in your Stretch Zone so you can move closer to your target and expand your Comfort Zone? Write them all down and commit to them.