Learn Efficiently by Understanding Comfort Zones

Empire State Pigeon by ZeroOne

Getting out of your comfort zone doesn't have to be this extreme...

Learning a new skill is hard, time consuming work. Whether you’re learning a new language, learning to play guitar or learning to breakdance – it all takes a lot of effort. Luckily, we can make it an easier and more efficient process if we understand our comfort zones. Few people do, and I see the same problem coming up again and again in people learning all sorts of different skills. They either don’t understand their comfort zones, or they understand them but don’t know where to focus their efforts to maximize learning. As a result, they either sit at a standstill and never progress, or they drive themselves into the ground and never make any progress. So how do they fix it?

Understanding Comfort Zones

Comfort zones are exactly like they sound – the zones of differing levels of comfort for an activity. By comfort, I mean any type of comfort, social comfort, mental comfort, physical comfort, emotional comfort, whatever. The type of comfort applicable will depend on whatever skill it is you’re trying to learn.

Now you can divide these zones into as many as you like in general but for our purposes only three are important. These three zones are the Easy Zone, the Challenge Zone and the Frustration Zone. Each of these is represented in the picture as a concentric circle. The green is the Easy Zone, the yellow is the Challenge Zone and the Red is the Frustration Zone. Let’s look at each one of these in detail as applied to someone learning a new language.

Comfort Zones Diagram by Adam Wik

These are the three basic comfort zones you can occupy while trying to learn a new skill.

The Easy Zone

Any practice or learning that requires little to no effort and generates little to no discomfort falls in the Easy Zone. In the case of learning a new language, some things that would fall into the Easy Zone might be occasional work with a computer program, a one hour language course conducted mostly in your native language or for some people, flipping through some flashcards.

Lots and lots and lots of people fall into the trap of never leaving the Easy Zone. This isn’t surprising, people don’t like to be uncomfortable. The problem is, practice in the Easy Zone is just too easy. The reason it’s called the Easy Zone is that nothing you do here is any real challenge. As a result, you’re never pushed beyond your current limits and never make progress. People who focus all their efforts in the Easy Zone feel like they put in a lot of time, but they stagnate because it’s halfhearted.

The Challenge Zone

The Challenge Zone is the sweet spot. This is where all the most efficient learning happens. Practice here is challenging, like the name would suggest, but not so difficult as to be frustrating. For a language learner this might be writing a letter or e-mail in the target language, ordering a meal in the target language or having a short conversation. Anything that causes a good bit of discomfort goes here, whether that’s the mental discomfort of struggling with new sentence structures in an e-mail or the social discomfort of having to have an actual conversation with a native.

The reason the learning happens here is because this is the not-too-hot not-too-cold Goldilocks zone. When you focus your efforts on this zone you’re working on things that are far enough beyond your current level to challenge you, which is what forces you to grow. The real trick is to not go too far into…

The Frustration Zone

If you hit the Frustration Zone, you’ve gone way too far. The Frustration Zone encompasses any practice that causes so much discomfort, is so difficult or so stressful that it burns you out and makes you frustrated with your attempts. Some examples for a language learner might be trying to understand an entire movie, read a whole book or take a college course in the target language way before they’re ready.

Now that isn’t to say those three things aren’t great ways to learn a new language, but if you jump into the them too early they can seem impossible. After a while of throwing yourself at something that seems impossible, frustration inevitably sets in. Frustration leads to quitting, or at best a lot less practice because you dread doing it. A lot of people dive into things with the best of intentions and wind up pushing it too far. They never get any further than the people who keep it too easy because they burn out and quit before they make any real progress.

Making It Work

The first step to making your learning more efficient is to figure out where the Challenge Zone is. Sit down and think about all the practice you could possibly do, and figure out what makes you uncomfortable or what seems hard but isn’t so daunting that you would have almost no chance of success. Once you’ve got that, just focus all your efforts into those activities.

The list will change from person to person and from skill to skill, but as long as you keep most of your practice time in-between way too easy and way too difficult, you can guarantee you’ll be learning something and you won’t be likely to give up in frustration.

Have any experience stepping outside your comfort zones? What are some things you’ve found help you learn more efficiently? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: ZeroOne

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • kdramafan

    I’ve been in the easy zone with Korean for the past few months. I started to watch dramas for the fun of it, because I was introduced to them by my cousins. I’ve been watching them regularly, and I noticed that I’ve been picking up on short, isolated, repeated phrases. Now, I’m considering delving into the challenge zone; however, I’m not sure if I should work on my literacy as much as my speaking and listening comprehension. When I started to learn Mandarin a few years back, I got overwhelmed by the characters and never developed even a proper basic level. Plus the little I had I’ve lost due to lack of use. Because I don’t want the same to happen, and I don’t plan to use Korean in the same way I’d planned to use Mandarin, I’m considering skipping that part to see if I get better results this time around.

    Spanish is my second language, and I was one the knowledge-proficient people you mentioned in another post. I enjoy languages, in general, so much so that I considered Linguistics as my college major. (I’m actually still interesting in learning the international phonetic alphabet, because I always thought it would help with my pronunciation whenever I learn a new language.) Because I was already interested in study, I learned lots of vocabulary; but my true challenge came when I moved to the Dominican Republic. I’m the introvert who was forced to socialize, and that made the difference for me.

    Other activities I find challenging are learning characters for languages like with Hangeul or Mandarin well enough to read anything and writing (in any language-even English). I suppose speaking can be a challenge at first, because of inexperience and consequent fear; but after time passes, that ceases to be a problem, because I like to talk a lot.

    • If you mostly want to learn for the purpose of chatting with people and watching dramas and movies and things, learning to write honestly isn’t that big of a requirement. You can certainly get to fluency without ever really worrying too much about literacy.

      That being said, I do encourage you for Korean to learn the Hangul mostly because being an alphabetic syllabary it’s much easier than something like Mandarin. Knowing how to read, or rather sound things out, will open up a lot more learning material to you than remaining largely illiterate in Korean.

      If your goal is mostly to speak and watch media, don’t stress out over the writing too much though. Do just enough to be useful for your goals and don’t worry about the extraneous stuff.

  • pwlsax

    In music, traditionally, frustration – to an extreme level – is considered part and parcel of the craft. We do not differentiate between challenge and frustration. All that is important is to stay out of your “easy zone.”