• Andrew Graham

How to make music outside of your comfort zone.

It’s common to hear of the benefits of stepping outside your comfort zone and a quick google search pulls up a tapestry of images to suggest it’s a positive activity. But what even is your comfort zone and what are the real benefits of stepping outside it? In this blog we’ll attempt to define it, look at the pros and cons of stepping outside your comfort zone and then offer some suggestions on how to get the best results when stepping outside of it.

Image credit: Chris Ho

What is your comfort zone?

Your comfort zone is a mental state without anxiety, where stress is low and any challenges and tasks are familiar and within your capabilities. Your comfort zone will be different to anyone else's; it is entirely related to your individual subjective experience of the world and things that you find familiar might make others uncomfortable. There is a very low level of uncertainty and you feel in control. As nice as it sounds, this isn’t always a good thing. In professional and creative life, low levels of stress and anxiety can give you more of a challenge and even lead to better performance, it’s what someone might call being “in the zone”.

In the zone

When the conditions are right, we enter a flow state where awareness of time leaves us and all that is left is complete immersion and enjoyment of the task. The author who coined the term referred to it as optimal experience, believing it to be a very desirable state. But you are unlikely to reach a flow state happily inside your comfort zone, challenges are not complex enough to challenge your ability level and very quickly you’re likely to become bored. If you stay inside your comfort zone you’re less likely to experience true immersion in what you’re doing. From the point of view of a musician, songwriter, mix engineer or any other creative, artistic flow is characterised by becoming lost in your work and loving every minute of it. There’s good evidence to suggest that if you’re properly challenged you’ll feel happier and more fulfilled.

Drawbacks of staying in your comfort zone

Staying in your comfort zone can stagnate you artistically and professionally. You may perform your work to the same standards you always do, feeling that you’re doing a good job when actually you are on the slow, imperceptible slide into mediocrity. Evolutions in your creative environment can sneak up on you and appear like revolutions if you are not seeking to understand new developments, work with new people and accumulate new skills.

Comfort zones and growth

Stepping outside your comfort zone allows you to refine your process and determine what elements of your work flow are working for you and what ones aren’t. Think of comedians, they can never know if a joke is good or bad until they step on a stage and deliver a bad joke to a silent room. Is this uncomfortable? Definitely, but it gives them the feedback they need to improve their set. Deviating from the norm and taking action outside your normal routine can allow you to tap into your creativity. You don’t have to jump out of a plane to create a masterpiece but approaching your process in a different manner could open the door to the most innovative work you’ve ever done.

Stepping outside your comfort zone to assert control

Stepping outside your comfort zone means stepping into stress. Stress is different for everyone and there are different types of stress. We’re interested in a positive type called Eustress; though it’s uncomfortable, it can allow you to grow both creatively and professionally. Positive stress occurs when we stretch for a goal that is slightly beyond our abilities. This could occur when you don’t have the tools you depend on to complete the job or when a deadline is a little closer than you would prefer. It is self confidence building, it’s about looking at a situation that previously made you feel uncomfortable and feeling in control of it. As you develop your abilities you can rise up to new challenges. The important step in creating positive stress is accepting it voluntarily and feeling in control of it.

Ideas for stepping outside your comfort zone

There are lots of ways you can begin to push your boundaries to write your best song, deliver your finest mix or play your best take and the first steps need not be extreme. Remember, you want to stretch yourself far enough that you feel a little uneasy but not so far that you feel out of control. You should consciously step outside your comfort zone and not be thrust into anxiety against your will. As a songwriter it could be as simple as writing a song in an unusual key or perhaps look into co-writing with another songwriter. If you’re recording or mixing why not change the software you use, limit the microphones you use on a recording or step into a whole new environment like a new recording studio. Shaking things up like this can be very reaffirming and as you adapt to your new environment you’re likely to feel a sense of accomplishment. Of course we would recommend coming to More Than Sound, where you can push your boundaries in a controlled environment with mentorship on hand and a community of creatives doing the same as you.

To get the most out of an excursion outside your comfort zone, you should consider sticking to the following criterias:

  • The task must be structured, with clearly defined end goals and a way of measuring progress. For example, when recording an album, have a chart that you can tick off as you complete sections of the project, don’t start a massive unknown project with no end.

  • You should have feedback on how the task is progressing to allow you to assess progress.

  • You should have a good understanding of the difficulties involved in the task and your ability to overcome them. If you’ve never mixed an 8 piece jazz band before it’s a good idea to listen to some recordings, go to some shows, or even better, talk to someone how has.

Though we recommend stretching your abilities in pursuit of creative greatness it’s important not to overdo it, spending some time in your comfort zone is not a bad thing. Stretching yourself too far can lead to unpleasant stress and anxiety. The aim is to expand your comfort zone and enjoy what you do as much as possible.

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