Comfort zones are…comfortable, but they rarely lead you to success in any field, particularly not in writing.
Actor Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is quoted as saying, “The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.”
Yet comfort zones are so alluring! Writers are used to working hard. Once we get to a certain point, don’t we deserve to hang around where we’re comfortable for awhile?
10 Signs You’re a Writer Stuck in Your Comfort Zone
Of course, we all need breaks along the way. The key is to recognize when the break has gone on too long.
Here are ten signs you’re stuck in your comfort zone—and that it’s potentially sabotaging your writing future:
- You’re bored. Your writing doesn’t excite you anymore. You can take it or leave it.
- You’re using food or drink to dull the sensation. You’re turning to candy, chips, wine, soda, or other “feel-good” snacks to get you through your writing time.
- You procrastinate. You’re putting off your writing time and finding excuses to avoid it.
- You’re sabotaging yourself. You’re missing deadlines, failing to send your stuff out, or avoiding opportunities.
- You’re frequently fatigued. You think you need more sleep, or maybe that you need to get a few more naps. Could be, but could also be that you’ve spent too long in your comfort zone.
- The success of other authors irritates you. You see other authors getting contracts, making sales, getting good reviews, and winning awards, and you get irritated. You may feel envious or even bitter.
- You have a vague sense of unhappiness. You don’t think to connect it to your comfort zone. You just know that things with your writing career are just not right somehow.
- Your self-doubt looms larger than ever. You’re not only doubting your talent, but your whole idea of being a writer in the first place.
- Your go-to answer is “no.” Whenever someone asks you to do something different, or even when you think about it yourself, your first thought is “no.” You rarely if ever consider new ideas or new avenues for your writing career to take.
- You complain more than usual. There is no end to who you will blame for your current position: editors, publishers, agents, the market, readers, reviewers, etc. The whole system is rigged, and you’re sick of it.
There are other signs too—you may just feel uninspired, apathetic, or “okay” with things as they are.
The biggest clue that you’ve been stuck in your comfort zone for too long is a feeling that there is something more, but you just don’t know how to find it.
If you’re feeling that, or any of the 10 symptoms above, it’s time to take action and try something different.
First, Accept the Fear of Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone
We all like to think we’ll take action when the time comes, but then when the opportunity arises, it’s normal to want to shrink back into our shells.
Especially if you’re an introverted writer (you know who you are), you’re going to feel a powerful force pulling you to keep things exactly as they are.
Realize that your brain and your nerves will do whatever they can to stop you from reaching out and taking action in a direction you haven’t gone before. Their job is to keep you safe—and to resist change—and they’re going to work overtime to do that.
Your job is to lean into the discomfort. Why is this so important? Because comfort is deadly to creativity and productivity. When we get too comfortable, we tend to do only the minimum to get by, which doesn’t equate to great writing career success.
“We live in a society where comfort has become a value and a life goal,” says research scientist and author Ran Zilca. “But comfort reduces our motivation for introducing important transformations in our lives. Sadly, being comfortable often prohibits us from chasing our dreams.”
Just tell yourself that you can handle it. Don’t let your fear control you. Think back to other times you were nervous or anxious, and how you overcame that fear. Remember that most of what we worry about never happens.
Also, promise yourself that you’ll start small. If you’ve never done any public speaking, for example, don’t throw yourself into a TED talk immediately. Start with a small group of friends at a personal gathering, for example, and go from there.
It also helps to remind yourself that you’re not happy with how things are. Author and entrepreneur Sonia Thompson put it well in her recent article on Success:
“I spent much of the first three decades of my life doing whatever I could to stay comfortable. I was careful not to rock the boat, not to do things that made me look silly and check everything off of the supposed to do list. But living that way left me feeling like a caged bird longing to roam free.”
Is it time to break out of your writing cage?
Let’s Destroy Your Writing Comfort Zone
We may all be creative people, but we each face our own unique challenges when it comes to breaking out of our comfort zones. The best way to find your next step is to ask yourself where you’d like to be.
If you were to have a magic wand, and just by waving it, you could change your writing career, what would it look like?
Take a moment to free-write on that question. Let your imagination run wild. What would you do? How would you spend your days? What kind of projects would you be doing? How would your readers, customers, or students describe you?
One you have something down, you can use your notes to fashion new goals for yourself. List them out, and then create small action steps you can take toward each one.
Try to create your steps so they make you just a little bit anxious, but not too much. Scientific studies have found that we perform best when we experience “optimal anxiety,” a state that is just outside our comfort zone, but doesn’t cause so much stress that we become unproductive.
So remember: small steps.
You can also try the following zone-busting ideas:
1. Listen to Your Intuition
If you’re feeling a vague sense that you should start something new, listen to that feeling. Take a moment to get quiet and bring the feeling forward.
Are you wanting to share what you’ve learned as a writer? Help others avoid your mistakes? Who do you want to work with? How would you like to do it—in person or online? Interview yourself, and discover what it is that your heart is longing for.
Write down your findings, and then commit to taking at least one baby step toward your new goal per week. Maybe you can research how to teach online first, and then create your own course just for fun.
If you notice your excitement rising after the first few steps, you’re on the right track.
2. Play Like George Costanza
If you were ever a “Seinfeld” fan, you’re probably familiar with the episode where George decides to “do the opposite.”
The 86th episode of the sitcom is actually called “The Opposite.” It aired in May 1994, and in it, George—the main character, Jerry’s, friend—decides that every decision he’s ever made has been wrong. While having coffee with his friends, he says:
“My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat, it’s all been wrong. Every one.”
George therefore decides to do the complete opposite from that moment on, starting with his lunch order, which he makes the complete opposite of his usual. Shortly thereafter, his friend Elaine points out a woman in the cafe that is looking at him.
“Go talk to her,” she encourages him.
George scoffs at the idea, but then Jerry says:
“If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”
George listens. Normally, he says, he would sit and do nothing and regret it the rest of the day, so he decides to do the opposite. He goes over to talk to the woman, and finds out she just ordered the same thing as he did (with his “opposite”) lunch. He proceeds to make a date with the woman.
And he’s off and running on his new life!
Could “doing the opposite” of what your instincts tell you work for you?
It could be fun to try!
3. Write Something You’ve Never Written Before
Take just 15 minutes to write something entirely different from what you usually write.
If you’re a romance writer, try horror. Sci-fi? Try memoir. Slip into a reporter’s shoes, and get the story on your local baseball team up-and-comer.
Pen some poetry. Write a contrary opinion piece for your blog, or even a greeting card.
Just do something different. And remember—it’s only practice. No one has to see it but you if you don’t want them to.
4. Participate in NaNoWriMo
If you’ve never done it, maybe this year it’s time to try participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month—November 2016!)
Not everyone wants to push themselves to write a novel in a month, but it can be a great creative exercise. Again, no one needs to see your work, but no writing practice is wasted.
“I’m not very creative,” says freelance writer Miranda Marquit, who’s participated in NaNoWriMo before, “but stretching those creative muscles forces me to be a better writer….Writing outside your comfort zone forces you to be more creative and that can influence the rest of your writing career for the better.”
With NaNoWriMo, you also get the chance to meet other writers and benefit from their encouragement. It could be a great way to break out of your current comfort zone.
5. Push Yourself to do More
Most writers are overwhelmed already. Do more? It seems preposterous!
But sometimes, it can be just what you need to get going again. If you usually write 500 words a day, bump it up to 750 or 1,000. If you’re working on just one book a year, try two. Maybe your second one is in a different genre (fiction and non-fiction, for example).
Or maybe you can continue at your current writing speed, but add in something more, like guest posting, online coaching, or mentoring in writing or reading at your local schools.
Could be that you’ve just been slacking off. If you’re the type of person who needs a little push, give one to yourself—and hold yourself to the new standards for at least a few weeks, to see if they may help.
6. Read Something Crazy
When was the last time you read something entirely different?
A good way to do this is to join a book club that will push you into new genres and book choices. There are tons of options on Goodreads, and perhaps in your local area as well.
Reading something different from what you’re used to can stretch your brain, and your creative muscles. Writing guru Kristen Lamb warns:
“I can always tell writers who read only in their genre. Get out of the comfort zone and read another genre. It will help you fold new elements to your fiction that will help your work stand apart from the competition.”
Novelist Jennifer S. Brown agrees, noting that varying her reading selections helped improve her writing:
“Once I began stepping out on my historical novels, I couldn’t stop…. My writing has improved. Different genres offer different lessons: The tautness of a thriller such as The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, the humor of The Nest by Cynthia Sweeney D’Aprix, the development of character in Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl have all had an effect on my own writing.”
7. Fail Gloriously
Do something in which you’re certain to fail.
Send a story to the New Yorker, for example, or submit to some other suitably impossible publication.
Apply to a writing workshop that you think there’s no way you’ll be accepted to.
Enter a contest you think you have no chance of winning.
Submit your presentation idea to a conference that’s typically chocked full with your writing heroes.
Even if none of these actions result in any acceptances or awards, you’ll benefit just by taking the risk. You’ll teach yourself that there’s no reason why you can’t go after what you want.
And if you do happen to get a positive response—what a nice surprise!
8. Travel to Research Your Project
I’ve done this only once before, but it was a fantastic experience and taught me a lot.
I thought I was going just to gain real-world exposure to the settings in my book, but I gained so much more from the trip. I lived it in my bones, which helped me to better understand what my characters were going through.
I also met extraordinary people along the way that helped me without even knowing it. People love to share their experiences with someone who is genuinely interested. Because I was, I learned a ton about some of the experiences my characters had in my book, and I also gained a realistic view of how various scenes would actually play out.
In essence, the trip helped me to see my characters more as real people.
You may think you can’t afford it, but if you commit to it, you can make it happen.
9. Emulate Your Writing Heroes
Ask yourself: What do other writers do that I’m afraid to do?
Then pick one that you believe is worthwhile doing, and do it.
Realize that you have established writing habits based on your past experiences, successes, and failures. You do what you do in your writing career because it has worked for you before.
But if you’re solidly in a comfort zone, and you’re feeling a sense of stagnation, it’s time to now establish new habits based on new experiences. If you cling too tightly to your current habits—even if they have brought you success in the past—you could be sabotaging your future.
The best way to develop new habits is to emulate your writing heroes.
Write down three of the writers you admire most.
What would they be doing if they were standing where you are right now? Write down what you think they might have said if you had interviewed them at your stage of a writing career.
What would their goals have been? Their plans of action for the coming year?
Once you have several options down, pick one and map it out. Take baby steps toward doing one thing your writing hero has done.
10. Be More of Who You Are
Nine times out of ten, when you feel a gentle nudging in your soul, it’s because you haven’t yet reached your full potential.
What is still ahead for you? If you’re not sure, try thinking of it in a different way:
How can you be more yourself?
In other words, where are you holding yourself back? Are you shackling yourself with “rules” that don’t apply anymore? Are you chasing the dream of traditional publishing when you may experience more success self-publishing?
Are you avoiding writing about something that is uncomfortable because you fear how it will be received, even though you feel compelled to write about it?
Are you limiting your writing because you have a certain idea of how “good” a writer you are?
Think about other areas in your life where you may be holding yourself back. Does your fashion still suit your best self, or are you dressing how you think you “should” dress? What if you started dressing differently?
Does your writing studio reflect where you are in your career? What colors are you using? Do they encourage creativity? What if you changed it up?
How often do you express your opinions? Do your friends know how you really feel, or do you just keep quiet and go along? What if you spoke up?
The more you can tap into and express your true, creative self, the more it will come out in your writing and your writing career, as well.
“When I started intentionally making myself uncomfortable, I got acquainted with parts of myself that had always existed but had been lying dormant for decades. I discovered more flaws, uncovered new strengths and felt more like me than I ever had when living in my ‘safe zone.'”
How do you break out of your writing comfort zone?