The Four Operating Zones

At any given moment, we find ourselves operating in one of four zones. These zones are differentiated based on how comfortable we feel operating in them and on the potential benefits and risks associate with the pursuit of goals found in these spaces.

I will refer to these four zones as the Comfort, Productivity, Opportunity and Danger zones.

The operating zones are multidimensional*, and their sizes and shapes are different for each one of us. Their shape and size dynamically change over time and are based on external factors and circumstances but also on the time we spend in each one of them.

I believe that each one of us has an unconscious tendency (or preference) in operating on one of these zones, for instance, we can be comfort-driven, productivity-driven, opportunity-driven, or even danger-driven. However, the Zones in which we consciously choose to operate in is a demonstration of our ability to manage ourselves towards achieving our goals.

Operating within our Comfort Zone is convenient and comfortable while operating within our Danger Zone is stressful and dangerous. Both of these zones have a lower value creation potential.

Operating within what I believe to be our two highest-value creation zones, our Productivity and Opportunity Zone, allows us to maximize our performance and keep expanding the area of these zones and thus the time we end up operating in them.


The Comfort Zone

Our Comfort Zone is the space in which we enjoy a high level of control over our environment, over our conduct, as well as over the goals and the expectations set.

Ultimately, the chances of failure in whatever we do in this Zone are negligible, while similarly negligible are the consequences of failure, as in a safe environment, the consequences (and/or visibility of failure) are under our full control. As a result, physical and mental anxiety levels are extremely low.

Unfortunately, though, our Comfort Zone is also associated with low productivity and opportunity. The product of our conduct in our Comfort Zone is of low value (relatively to the other zones), and there are no real opportunities for major gains, learning and growth.

For achievers, spending too much time in this Comfort Zone is a waste of time, although it’s a great place to be for resting, reflection and recharging, and therefore, a useful space to choose to be in when needed.

The Productivity Zone

The Productivity Zone is the space in which we enjoy an adequate level of control over our performance, and in which we have enough influence over the goals set, the process, the environment and expectations. The chances of failure are manageable, but so are the consequences of failure – the consequences and/or visibility of failure are manageable and well justified. As a result, physical and mental anxiety levels are low and manageable.

Our Productivity Zone entails some opportunity for increases in gains, which are even higher in the space nearing the Opportunity Zone. Stress is at a productive level (i.e., not too high nor too low) which contributes positively to our performance, while the level of pain is easily justified by the pleasure/satisfaction of the process/journey, which includes secondary benefits (i.e. positive by-products such as amassing experience and learnings).

At the edges of the Productivity Zone, the potential returns of our activities start to increase, but so does our anxiety, both because the risks have increased but also because the level of control over the situation we have is significantly reduced.

Past the Productivity Zone, with boundaries that seem to be fuzzy and blurred at first, we find the Opportunity Zone.

The Opportunity Zone

In the Opportunity Zone, physical and mental anxiety is high but justified in view of the potential short and long-term gains. The main motivation for operating in this zone is the increase in gains, and not necessarily the pleasure of being there. Stress levels are often high, and some of the gains or learning (which we should be aiming for) should be harvested to keep stress at a manageable and productive level. If managed effectively, the boundaries of the Opportunity Zone will keep shifting, with the innermost areas gradually becoming part of an expanded Productivity Zone and the outermost areas merging with the areas that formerly comprised the Danger Zone.

In the Opportunity Zone, the potential gains are high enough to justify taking the risks, but the potential losses remain manageable. Opportunity Zones have a justifiable potential gain, have significant secondary gains (i.e. positive by-products), but only limited potential losses.

Everyone’s Opportunity Zone is a different size. It may start out as a thin slice between the Productivity and Danger zones, but the more often we venture into it, the wider and larger it becomes while the pockets of high gain/low risk become easier-to-recognize.

The deeper we venture into the Opportunity Zone, moving further away from our Productivity Zone, the higher our stress and potential losses become. Eventually, we will enter our Danger Zone, which is reckless on our part to venture in by choice, since the risks and costs here are unjustifiably high.

The Danger Zone

The Danger Zone is the space in which our level of control is very low (or zero), the process of operating in that zone is painful and stressful and the chances of success low. In some cases, the potential gains may be remarkably high, and therefore sometimes mistakenly perceived as part of the opportunity zone, however, in the danger zone the chances of failure as well as its consequences are also very high.

Deliberately operating in our Danger Zone is a high-stakes gamble and should be avoided when long-term success is our goal. Venturing into the Danger Zone, however briefly, can only be justified when we have developed a highly resilient approach to dealing with adversity. That said, acquiring this skill serves to shift the boundaries and convert that part of the Danger Zone into a high risk/return area in our Opportunity Zone.

Navigating through the Operating Zones

The boundaries of our zones are unique to each one of us, as they are defined by our individual experiences. To be able to successfully navigate within our own zones, we need to be able to correctly assess situations, to be able to act in ways that contribute (not always, just more often than not) in safeguarding our well being and success.

Beyond any unconscious preference, our ability to cross zone boundaries and chose the zone in which we operate in depends on the level of our skills, knowledge and competencies. It depends on the effectiveness of our judgement to assess the situation and chose the level of risks that is justified given the persued gains and our capacity to deal with the challenges and the losses associated with that pursuit.

Note that when the expectations end up being very different from the results of operating in a zone, we may have been operating in a different zone than the one anticipated. In such cases, we should use this realization as a lesson to improve our judgement, in which case a secondary benefit, that of learning has been achieved.

The following guidelines help us to manage effectively our operation in these zones:

  • Develop awareness of the existence of the Zones.
  • Be able to recognize the boundaries of the Zones – know where one ends and another one starts.
  • Be able to strategically decide how much time to spend in each Zone.
  • Invest the time needed to develop the skills and attitude to keep expanding the two highest-value Zones (P and O).
  • Develop the judgement skills needed to be able to recognize and avoid deliberately operating in the Danger Zone.
  • Be able to navigate out of the danger zone (when unavoidably finding yourself in it) with minimum pain and maximum (side) benefits (e.g. learning).
  • Performance is multidimensional, so operating in the Productivity and Opportunity zones and in those dimensions we are best at, builds confidence so that we can effectively navigate through all the other zones.
  • Invest in overcoming individual weaknesses, that is, avoid having zones that are very different in size in the various dimensions*.
  • Develop the virtues of Insightfulness, Judgement, and Courage, Honour, Magnificence and Magnanimity that will allow us to better navigate in the Productivity and Opportunity zones and help us navigate out of our Danger Zone.

Read more about the virtues in my post “Aristotle on Effective Intelligence”

*Note: performance zones are multidimensional. These dimensions are different for each one of us and depend on our own definition of success via the pursuit of goals. Examples of these dimensions are professional, intellectual, spiritual, social, financial, or physical (sports) etc. For instance, our comfort zone in playing music is a very different shape than in competing in sports.

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