There is nothing inherently wrong with a comfort zone. In fact, it takes some time and some introspection to discover what your comfort zone is. What makes up your comfort zone? What things, people, rituals, habits are part of your comfort zone? How do you do in your comfort zone? How do you feel in your comfort zone? What makes it your comfort zone?
I find myself thinking and writing quite often about comfort zones and complacency. I can see all of these points and stages in my life where I have talked about emerging or going deep. Some of those have been after breakups or disappointments, and other times they have been internal events, periods where things on the surface looked the same. I tend to be a home body and enjoy being cozy with a good book, and yet I crave adventure and discomfort.
A few years ago, I read a book about the daily rituals of very creative people like Maya Angelou, Ludvig van Beethoven, and Maira Kalman. The book, Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, intrigued me enough that I wrote a blog post about it. It was interesting to read about some of my inspirations and to see how they thrived with the routines they created. What was it that they needed to get the creative juices flowing?
Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple was iconic for his uniform of a black turtleneck, jeans, and running shoes. When asked about his wardrobe, Jobs replied that it helped to have a standard thing to wear, so his daily dressing was one less thing to worry about. Jobs famously said, “The more decisions you make, the more it gets tired. And if you waste those decisions in the morning with what to wear or what to eat, then you’ll have less mental energy for the bigger things.” Jobs focused on the aspect of decision fatigue, but I think he also created a comfort zone for himself, comfortable clothes and familiarity that freed him up to think about and do other things.
Comfort zones can be wonderful, but they can also lull you into complacency. This complacency can lead to a rut, a place where you don’t care to venture out, refuse to explore the world in a deeper way, fail to examine your own self, and ignore the injustices and problems of our time. The comfort zone can become like the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a huge area where there is nothing growing or living because of too little oxygen in the water, caused by run-off pollution from the Mississippi River. Part of the irony of the Dead Zone is that the run-off is nutrient rich and it ends up forming a low-oxygen area that small weaker swimming organisms get trapped in and die off, causing a barren area that would normally be full of life.
A few years ago, I asked one of my favorite artists, whom I know peripherally, about her creative process and how she became an artist. She said that after she graduated from college with her degree in fine arts, she saw many of her classmates and friends taking “regular” jobs, because they were afraid of not being able to pay rent or buy food, and that years later many of her friends were no longer creating or working only minimally on their art. She said she was more afraid of not creating, so she just determined that she would always make money from her art. In her early years, she said she did lots of things like commissioned murals for restaurants and even nurseries and bedrooms for clients, but that she always paid her bills with her art, no matter the different forms it took. A close friend of mine, also an artist, talked about he didn’t want the pressure of economics to determine what he painted and made. He took the opposite tactic by working as a bar tender and in a “boring, repetitive job” because it freed him up to create his own schedule and paint, draw, and write whatever he wanted. These two very different artists took very different routes to find their own creative routines and comfort zones (or lack thereof).
Of course, comfort zones and the daily rituals we have aren’t just about creativity. For some, those help manage things like time, money, and energy. When I was in junior high, my mom put together a weekly schedule for dinners and breakfasts that continued throughout the rest of my growing up years. I used to find both comfort and frustration in that routine. Sometimes, I just wanted something different than spaghetti on Monday nights. Years later, I asked her about her meal routines. She said that it helped her as a full-time teacher and single mom to have predictable dinners and breakfasts. Mom knew that spaghetti (not from the jar) sauce and pasta with a side salad and garlic bread was something she could throw together in an easy 30 minutes or less with our help. She pointed out that it helped a lot to have a predictable grocery list that made it easier to budget on a small salary and even to calculate leftovers for lunches. It was also one less thing she needed to worry about in a long day.
I realize as I write this that there are a couple of major points to comfort zones. Do you thrive with them? Or are you stagnating? Maybe it depends. It might even be something to examine once in a while. When I find myself thinking about comfort zones, I realize that I usually have some parts of my life that I need to assess and critique. Where am I thriving? Where do I feel like I am in a rut? I hardly ever find that I can look at my life in just one stroke. Lately I have found myself at the end of a period of stagnation, caused by a lack of routine and structure. I realize that it helps me to have some structure to the day, and then in other parts of my life I need to let go of my ideas of control.
Putting some routine into my creativity, with weekly blog posts and a plotted out writing project, I feel happiest and most creative. In my running life, which has been nonexistent for a few months, I need to ease my way into a routine, but also give myself some freedom to just run on certain mornings, not thinking about a training plan or an upcoming race. I realize that a little bit of structure in the week for things like cleaning and running errands helps so that those tasks don’t take over huge swaths of free time or that my living space doesn’t become a quagmire of dirty laundry and piles of paper. In fact, you can look at my bedroom and usually tell the status of my mental health. If I am pensive and worried or feeling in a funk, my surroundings begin to reflect that. When I am feeling good, my room looks good and even more so, the opposite holds true. Unsurprisingly, they both affect each other and one way I can shake myself out of a gray worried time is to do a big cleaning and clearing in my personal space.
I recently did a big clean of my room and bathroom. I could feel myself becoming lighter as I scrubbed the tub and folded loads of laundry. A little rearranging always brightens my mood and while I didn’t do a huge makeover, I did reposition two bookshelves in one corner and shifted some books and other objects. I remember talking about the energy of a room, person, or object in a class on healing that I took a few years ago. Even if you don’t veer in this direction and think that it’s all woo-woo, tell me you don’t feel better after a deep clean or when a room has been rearranged going beyond the practical layout.
A comfort zone can be the best thing or the worst thing, depending upon many circumstances. Again, I think it goes back to knowing yourself and knowing if you’re thriving or just surviving. There may be times where you have to push everything back and function in survival mode. If you are in this mode, I hope, wish, and pray that you have time to unravel and examine and get into a thriving mode when the time is right for you.
Maybe it’s middle age or getting to know myself better, or probably a combination of the two, but I can look back and see the signs of times in my life when I was in a rut and when I was in a cocoon nurturing and preparing to emerge. Both may look the same on the outside, but they look and feel very different on the inside.
I find myself creating new routines and taking up old practices that nurture my soul and help me to care for myself. I also find myself taking on more things, after a long period of not doing very much. It feels good to start some new creative projects and to fill in part of the week with a couple of volunteer roles, while still making time for what I need in small moments and throughout a busy week.
We can’t take on systemic injustice without nurturing ourselves. We can’t take care of others without giving ourselves what we need. Sometimes we have to examine our routines and surroundings and figure out what is working and what is not. What is a time-honored ritual and what is a stuck-in-a-rut-zombie-routine? What is helping you heal and what is distracting you from feeling? Do you have a sweet spot where you can thrive and challenge yourself and still find comfort and care? Are you growing, thriving, surviving? It’s not a yes-no-either-or proposition, but it may require some digging.