In the Zone

Two weeks ago, we talked about the importance of setting attainable goals. But how do we actually evaluate whether our goals are attainable?

The central question that an attainable goal answers is “How?” Two common “How?” questions for a goal to answer are “How will I achieve this goal?” and “How realistic is this goal, really?”. Each of these questions serves different purposes, but it’s important for a goal to address each of them in some manner.

A specific, well-stated goal will often answer the first question directly and explicitly. The major benefit of this is to help remind you of your vision for how you’ll achieve your goal. Plus, it provides a specific activity whose completion you can easily assess. (We’ll talk even more about the importance of formulating specific goals later on.)

For example, last week I talked about my plan for making sure I posted blog articles on a timely basis. In that article, I outlined some specific strategies for achieving this goal: scheduling time during the week to work on my blog, and maintaining a “reserve” of blog posts to schedule in advance.

The second question, “How realistic is my goal?”, is often much trickier to address within your goal statement per se. This stems largely from the fact that answering this question involves many moving parts, including a healthy dose of self-evaluation and probably a dash of subjectivity as well. Goals are basically statements about a future we wish to inhabit, and when we’re making statements about the future, it’s impossible to predict anything with certainty.

Of course, we can’t let that stop us from striving towards improving ourselves. To that end, people have spent a lot of time coming up with rubrics for assessing whether their goals are realistic or not.

One of these useful frameworks is something I like to call the “zones of productivity.” This model asserts that we can assign various situations in which we find ourselves to one of three categories: the comfort zone, the growth zone, or the danger zone. You can envision these zones as three concentric circles, each within the other: comfort zone in the center, growth zone in the middle ring, and danger zone on the outside.


This inner circle is your comfort zone. This represents tasks you can perform effectively and without much stress, if any. To me, the comfort zone is represented by the color yellow: you’re happy to be in it, but it can be a little boring. The fundamental issue with the comfort zone is precisely that, it’s comfortable. As I alluded to earlier, goals that just restate minimum expectations or simply echo your baseline performance aren’t really even goals at all. In order to really achieve something, you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

The central zone is your growth zone. The growth zone encompasses tasks that are challenging and possibly even stressful, but not overwhelming. This zone is where we find our optimal performance level: exercising our (judging) muscles just enough to force them to grow stronger. It’s important to note that we aren’t expected to be perfect when we’re completing a task within our growth zone; making some mistakes and missteps is a critical part of learning, and judging is no exception.

The final, most distant zone is your danger zone (danger zone!). This zone contains all the situations that we simply aren’t yet suited to handle, where our anxiety or inexperience or both dramatically reduces our performance. Appropriately, this zone is often represented by the color red, for “DANGER!” or “STOP!” To use the muscle metaphor, this would be lifting such a heavy weight that we seriously injure ourselves. Although we can sometimes learn things if we end up in the danger zone, such “trials by fire” likely come at a high cost to ourselves, our event, our fellow judges, and our players. Fortunately, thanks to the program’s emphasis on mentorship, it’s rare to end up in the danger zone.

The boundaries among the three zones are constantly shifting as we gain experience and knowledge. From a certain perspective, your journey as a judge can be understood as constantly expanding your comfort zone to include more and more aspects of the judge program. (Reaching a certain threshold of comfort is often externally recognized by an advancement to a higher level.) Moreover, the size of each zone will be different from person to person and judge to judge, even among judges of the same level. Some of us might excel at rules exams but be flummoxed about how to handle a player who aggressively rejects your ruling; for others, the reverse could be true.

An attainable goal is one that falls within your growth zone: difficult to attain, but not impossible; completing them represents a significant accomplishment. These are the goals that will help us develop into more effective judges.

To determine which zone your goals belong to, try to figure out your own zone boundaries: what are some tasks that you feel completely comfortable doing? When was the last time you felt truly challenged? Have you ever experienced the “danger zone”? Spend a few minutes thinking about it, then share your thoughts in the comments!

Next week, I’ll wrap up our discussion of attainable goals with some specific examples of the three zones, plus a few thoughts about my personal zone boundaries and how they’ve changed over time. See you then!

(Author’s Note: Although I didn’t invent the concept of the three “zones of productivity,” I haven’t encountered a consistent or systematic name for them, so I gave them one. If you’ve heard of a different name for the three zones collectively, let me know in the comments!)

2 thoughts on “In the Zone

  1. When I became a L2 Judge I was not very experienced at working larger events. When chosen to be a Team Lead at a PTQ very shortly after, I only had in mind that I wanted to prove myself. I spent countless hours preparing and researching how to be a deck checks Team Lead and even coordinated with my selected team before the event to figure out everyone’s experience level.

    The day of the event I was early and I thought prepared. However when the event started and the lists were collected I constantly found gaps in my plan and problems out of my control caused the sorting/counting process of the time to become completely useless. Having little experience at large events I found it very difficult to adapt quickly to keep the event moving and after figuring out a operable system it had done a few things. 1 it damaged floor coverage having to pull a judge to help with the process 2 it damaged my teams experience having to wait a full extra round before breaks ( I had to delay round 2 breaks until round 3)

    Throughout the day I did learn a lot, and have certainly benefited from the experience, however I do believe that I should have been on the Deck Checks Team a few more times before asking to lead it.

  2. On my path to L2, I’m trying to become more confident when I deliver rulings. One thing that prevents me from being confident is the knowledge that I am not perfect, and I will sometimes get it wrong. Once I discover I’m wrong, I have to fix the situation and maintain the appearance that judges are good sources of knowledge about the game.

    The last time I judged, I gave the wrong answer because I didn’t realize something had trample. When discussing the ruling with a judge after leaving the table, we realized that the creature had trample, and both life totals were off. I went back to the table and explained that I had been wrong and what should have happened. Neither player was opposed to changing both life totals, so we resolved the situation.

    I think it would make me more confident giving rulings if I knew better how to fix mistakes I’ve made. Unfortunately, I can’t think of ways to work on that skill without giving wrong rulings at events, which hopefully doesn’t happen often enough that it’s useful practice. Do you have any advice?

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