Finding your stretch zone (and staying in it)

Willing yourself to step outside your comfort zone is never the easy choice but it is vital to personal growth and satisfaction. Here are my thoughts on why this is.

Two years ago I stood in front of a group of Heathrow Terminal Two leaders asking them: “Are you growing in your role?” While I was encouraging them to think about where they were going and what they could achieve, I had a revelation of my own: I was well within my comfort zone. It seemed ironic to me that I was helping this group to connect with their purpose and set their own goals and yet I wasn’t stretching myself!

This insight was the start of a journey for me, which has since led me to start my own consultancy practice - for someone who had always worked within the security of large organisations this was a major step. But I knew if I didn’t make the choice to move on and push myself, I would stay in my comfort zone and wouldn’t learn or grow as much as I could. Since then, I have kept a stretch journal, where I constantly ask myself “Am I growing enough?” and set myself personal challenges and record my learning.

What is the stretch zone?

There are three zones: the comfort zone, the stretch zone and the panic zone. Most of us naturally drift towards the comfort zone. However, the main place that learning and development takes place is in the stretch zone.

For me, I know I’m approaching a stretch zone when I get a weird feeling in the left side of my body and I want to walk away. For others it might be butterflies in the stomach or shortness of breath. Whatever the sign, it is important to recognise that it indicates your personal stretch zone and an opportunity to make a decision there and then to grow. Spontaneity is important here. If you don’t take up the gauntlet now in the heat of the moment, you probably never will. So I try to ignore the doubts and say ‘ok, let’s give this a go’.

Incidentally, I sometimes see people working beyond their stretch zones and in their panic zones, where they are overstretched. This can lead to ineffective learnings and weaker performance or, at worst, be pre-emptive of a burnout. In these cases, it is a good idea to step back from the challenge, rest and re-energize, perhaps getting additional support. The panic zone is not somewhere we can sustain ourselves in the long-term.  

You may be asking yourself if it is so challenging to be in the stretch zone why on earth would you want to go there? Well, in nature, if you’re not growing or adapting (and the world around you is), you’re in danger of dying or becoming extinct and here the metaphor seems to fit. A recent attendee on my leadership training admitted after an intensive day of self-evaluation and personal value assessment that he’d never even considered his personal goals before. It was only when he was given time and space to think about what it was he wanted to achieve that he thought “I don’t want to get to 60 and think ‘what was that all about?’.” I don’t think he’s alone here. No-one wants a robot-like existence, carrying out the same tasks without question. To escape this risk will inevitably involve putting yourself in your stretch zone at some point.

But in my view it shouldn’t only be down to the individual to decipher what they want from their professional life. The organisation can play an important role here too. A good leader will work with their people to help them achieve things that the individuals may not believe possible by supporting them and making resources available. The kneejerk, ‘no way!’ reaction is often there but it takes the encouragement and support of a good manager to allow the person to believe in themselves and achieve more. All too often, managers don’t challenge their teams as it is quicker to tell someone what to do (or just do it themselves) than to support their teams in stretching themselves.

In fact, it is one of the best parts of my job helping people to achieve what they thought they never could. Like a school playground dare, but with constructive consequences, it gives you a satisfying  sense of achievement. And the nature of the stretch zone is that it continually moves as we grow, so life never gets boring!  So go on, stretch yourself daily. I dare you…

How to find your stretch zone:

  • Constantly ask yourself: “Am I growing enough?”I keep a stretch journal, with thoughts about my next stretch goals. This has led me on a journey and transformed my professional life. You’ll be amazed of the transformative effects of this simple question.

  • Don’t always take the path of least resistance: I recently worked with a leadership team on a management issue. Their time together led them to realise that the solution was not what they had thought. By looking at the less comfortable option and seriously considering it, they collectively agreed to take it and stretch themselves.

  • Stay open to new possibilities: It is easy to shut off options altogether because we are naturally scared of leaving our comfort zone. Stay open, listen and be present, without holding onto a fixed viewpoint of your abilities. You might be surprised what you can achieve.

  • Relax and let go: On my honeymoon recently, I met a traditional Indian yoga teacher. He said, before you do anything in life release, relax and let go. These are wise words. When you are in your stretch zone and don’t achieve what you want don’t get frustrated and give up. Just breathe, relax, ask for support and try again.