"Stretch" photo by Charlie Cowins; Wikimedia Commons

Whenever I begin a new personal change group at work, there is a long pause when group members ponder what unique goal they would like to set for themselves.

Last week, one of the group participants gave voice to her hesitation: “It just seems like so much. Like it’s easier to not even start the change journey in the first place, because it’s so daunting.” The others nodded in agreement.

This was a sign that the group members had crossed over into the anxiety zone, where goal-directed efforts are paralyzed and it doesn’t even seem possible to try new habits.

The scenario is a great illustration of an old concept in psychology known as the Yerkes-Dodson law: As your arousal/anxiety level increases, task performance improves, but only to a point. Beyond that point, increases in arousal/anxiety lead to stress and a deterioration of task performance.

This concept was borrowed by an organization called Professional Thinking Partners and transformed into the three “zones of existence”: comfort, stretch, and stress (M.J. Ryan, 2006).

According to their model, when you are in the comfort zone, you are not really challenging yourself to try a new approach, and your anxiety level remains low. When you are in the stress zone, you have moved too far outside your comfort zone, and the resulting anxiety will impede your performance.

Somewhere between comfort and stress is the “stretch” zone, where your new behavior will feel somewhat awkward and uncomfortable, but you won’t experience disabling emotions. New learning and true change occur in the stretch zone.

Think about your financial change efforts. Can you think of times that you have been either too comfortable or too stressed to advance toward an important goal? How do you know when you are in the stretch zone?