We’ve all heard the cliches about getting out of your comfort zone, doing things “outside the box,” and breaking bad habits. But how much do we hear beyond these catch-all sound bites and how much real life experience do we actually have in successfully breaking routines? If we each had a pie chart of data representing how much of each day is spent performing daily (or weekly) routines vs. how much is spent on “out of the box” activities, I’d venture to guess that the vast majority of us would have a solid one color pie representing the cozy realm of routine.

While it’s true that routines help us compartmentalize and make room for our daily tasks, it would be wrong to think of them as the sole reason we get things done. Breaking routines does not mean eliminating them. It does not exchange a routine for chaos. Before we determine what actions to take we need to try to understand the ideas of “routine” and “comfort zone.” They seem simple enough but they are fraught with psychological complications that make them harder to identify and parse.

Your comfort zone is a behavioral space that you ritually create to have minimum stress and risk associated with it. It’s a way for us to unconsciously design a place of homeostasis where our deepest and most prevalent fears are mitigated. While far too many people have to live in constant fear in today’s world, it is not a condition for optimum human performance of any kind. The sweet spot for human performance on this scale is somewhere between this zone of constant fear and the slothy comfort of couch-bound routine. This is called the zone of optimal anxiety.

The zone of optimal anxiety (ZOA, why not) puts you on edge enough to have a kind of heightened awareness while still landing well short of any kind of panicky adrenal overload. The brain is more active than normal so it’s making connections more accurately and quickly. We are more receptive to new and unfamiliar challenges than we otherwise would be. So how can we get ourselves into a routine of regularly being in the ZOA?

It starts small. Try doing some basic parts of your day differently and see how these changes make you feel in the moment. Wear an outfit that you haven’t put on in a while. How does it make you feel as you notice it throughout the day? Eat at a restaurant you’ve never been to before. When you look at the menu, will you order something you’ve never had before? Why or why not?

You also may have some unhealthy habits that need to change. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself about this right now. As I always say, absolute honesty is the foundation for this and all life-changing exercises and behaviors. Sometimes the most harmful behaviors we have are the most difficult to eradicate, for one reason or another. Ask yourself if there are any parts of your routine in particular that are holding you back from breaking out of your comfort zone and achieving your goals.

Sometimes it’s hard to break a well-worn routine even if you fully and consciously intend to do so. Routines are routines because they aren’t made up of conscious decisions. Of course most of your routines won’t change. What’s important is identifying parts of your routine that are stagnant. Shuffle the deck a little bit and see what it does to your thought process. My personal challenge to you is to start today towards breaking one stagnant routine.