The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk (White 2009). A person's personality can be described by his or her comfort zones. A comfort zone is a type of mental conditioning that causes a person to create and operate mental boundaries. Such boundaries create an unfounded sense of security. Like inertia, a person who has established a comfort zone in a particular axis of his or her life, will tend to stay within that zone without stepping outside of it. To step outside their comfort zone, a person must experiment with new and different behaviours, and then experience the new and different responses that occur within their environment.
To step out of the comfort zone raises the anxiety level engendering a stress response, the result of which is an enhanced level of concentration and focus. White (2009) refers to this as the Optimal Performance Zone - a zone in which the performance of a person can be enhanced and in which their skills can be optimized. However, White (2009) also observes that if the work of Robert Yerkes (1907) is considered in which he reported 'Anxiety improves performance until a certain optimum level of arousal has been reached. Beyond that point, performance deteriorates as higher levels of anxiety are attained', if a person steps beyond the optimum performance zone they enter a "danger zone" in which performance will decline rapidly as higher levels of anxiety or discomfort occur.
In terms of performance management or development, the objective of the trainer or manager is to cause the person to enter the optimum performance zone for a sufficient period of time so that new skills and performance can be achieved and become embedded. The same reasoning is used with goal setting: change the anxiety level and the performance will change. (However, in performance terms, the term incentive is used to describe the process of changing the anxiety level - an incentive being anything that causes a change in behaviour.)
An example of stepping out of the comfort zone could be a recognized need to leave an unsatisfactory job but the fear of doing so as it would result in losing the sense of security the individual derives from the job. The sense of security the individual perceives could be attributed to the mental conditioning formed initially. This example highlights an example of a professional challenge. Research by WhatisMyComfortZone suggests that challenges that are commonly outside of one's comfort zone can be categorised as either professional, adrenaline, or lifestyle.
A comfort zone may result when the mental concept that a person has about something and the actual reality of it are not congruent with one another. A classic example to take would be of self image.
Self-image may consist of three types:
- Self-image resulting from how the individual sees himself or herself
- Self-image resulting from how others see the individual
- Self-image resulting from how the individual perceives others see him or her
These three types may or may not be an accurate representation of the person. All, some, or none of them may be true.
- Bardwick, Judith. Danger in the Comfort Zone: How to Break the Entitlement Habit that's Killing American Business. New York: American Management Association, 1995. ISBN 0-8144-7886-7.
- White, Alasdair A. K. "From Comfort Zone to Performance Management" White & MacLean Publishing 2009. ISBN 978-2-930583-01-3. 
- Yerkes, R & Dodson, J. - "The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior" 1907 "Journal of Comparative Neurology & Psychology", Number 18, pp 459–482