‘The only thing I can’t stand is discomfort.’ ~Gloria Steinem
Of all the skills I’ve learned in the past 7 years of changing my life, one skill stands out:
Learning to be comfortable with discomfort.
If you learn this skill, you can master pretty much anything. You can beat procrastination, start exercising, make your diet healthier, learn a new language, make it through challenges and physically grueling events, explore new things, speak on a stage, let go of all that you know, and become a minimalist. And that’s just the start.
Unfortunately, most people avoid discomfort. I mean, they really avoid it — at the first sign of discomfort, they’ll run as fast as possible in the other direction. This is perhaps the biggest limiting factor for most people, and it’s why you can’t change your habits.
Think about this: many people don’t eat vegetables because they don’t like the taste. We’re not talking about soul-wrenching pain here, not Guantanamo torture, but a taste that’s just not something you’re used to. And so they eat what they already like, which is sweets and fried stuff and meats and cheeses and salty things and lots of processed flour.
The simple act of learning to get used to something that tastes different — not really that hard in the grand scheme of life — makes people unhealthy, often overweight.
I know, because this was me for so many years. I became fat and sedentary and a smoker and deeply in debt with lots of clutter and procrastination, because I didn’t like things that were uncomfortable. And so I created a life that was deeply uncomfortable as a result.
The beautiful thing is: I learned that a little discomfort isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can be something you enjoy, with a little training. When I learned this, I was able to change everything, and am still pretty good at changing because of this one skill.
Master your fear of discomfort, and you can master the universe.
Avoidance of Discomfort
When people are stressed, they often turn to cigarettes, food, shopping, alcohol, drugs … anything to get rid of the disomfort of the thing that’s stressing them out. And yet, if you take a deeper look at the stress, it’s really an unfounded fear that’s causing it (usually the fear that we’re not good enough), and if we examined it and gave it some light of day, it would start to go away.
When people start to exercise after being sedentary, they are uncomfortable. It’s hard! It can make you sore. It’s not as easy as not exercising. It’s not something you’re used to doing, and you fear doing it wrong or looking stupid. And so you stop after awhile, because it’s uncomfortable, when really it’s not horrible to be uncomfortable for a little while. We’re not talking about incredible pain, but just discomfort.
When people try a healthier diet, they often don’t like it — eating veggies and raw nuts and flaxseeds and fruits and tofu or tempeh or black beans isn’t as thrilling as eating fried, fatty, salty or sweet foods. It’s a form of discomfort to change your taste buds, but the truth is, it can easily happen if you just get through a little discomfort.
Discomfort isn’t bad. It’s just not what we’re used to. And so we avoid it, but at the cost of not being able to change things, not being healthy, not being open to adventure and the chaos of raw life.
The way to master discomfort is to do it comfortably. That might sound contradictory, but it’s not. If you are afraid of discomfort, and you try to beat discomfort with a really gruelling activity, you will probably give up and fail, and go back to comfort.
So do it in small doses.
- Pick something that’s not hard. Take meditation as an example. It’s not really that hard — you just sit down and pay attention to your body and breath, in the present moment. You don’t have to empty your mind (just notice your thoughts), you don’t have to chant anything weird, you just sit and pay attention. If you don’t like meditation, try a new healthy food, like kale or raw almonds or quinoa. Or a fairly easy exercise if you’re sedentary, like walking or jogging.
- Just do a little. You don’t have to start by doing 30 minutes of something you’re not used to doing. Just do a few minutes. Just start.
- Push out of your comfort zone, a little. My friend and Zen priest Susan O’Connell has a favorite meditation instruction that you can use for any activity actually: when you’re meditating and you feel like getting up, don’t; then when you feel the urge to get up a second time, don’t; and when you feel the urge to get up a third time, then get up. So you sit through the urge, the discomfort, twice before finally giving in the third time. This is a nice balance, so that you’re pushing your comfort zone a little. You can do this in exercise and many other activities — push a little.
- Watch the discomfort. Watch yourself as you get a bit uncomfortable — are you starting to complain (internally)? Are you looking for ways to avoid it? Where do you turn to? What happens if you stay with it, and don’t do anything?
- Smile. This is not trivial advice. If you can smile while being uncomfortable, you can learn to be happy with discomfort, with practice. When I did the Goruck Challenge in 2011, it was 13 hours of discomfort — raw and bloody knees, sand in my shoes as a hiked and ran with 60+ pounds on my back, carrying teammates and logs, doing pushups and crabwalks and other exercises, needing the bathroom and being tired and hungry and cold. And yet, I practiced something simple: I tried to mantain a smile through all this discomfort. It’s an important practice.
Repeat this practice daily. It will be strange, perhaps difficult, at first, but soon your comfort zone will expand. If you practice it enough, with different activities, your comfort zone will expand to include discomfort. And then you can master the universe.
What You Can Now Master
If you master discomfort, what can you now master as a result? Just about anything:
- Procrastination. We procrastinate to avoid something that’s not comfortable, but if you can learn to stay with that task, even if it’s not comfortable. The discomfort isn’t bad. Those of you going through the Procrastination module in my Sea Change Program are learning about dealing with the discomfort of staying with your important task.
- Exercise. We avoid exercise because it’s not comfortable, but if we expand the comfort zone a little at a time, we can make exercise something we’re comfortable with, after a little repetition.
- Writing. If you want to write but always seem to put it off, that’s because writing is often difficult, or less comfortable than checking email or social networks (for example). Stay with the discomfort, and you’ll write more than ever.
- Eating healthy. It’s amazing how much our taste buds can change over time, if we gradually get used to healthier foods. That means going through small periods of discomfort, but it’s not that bad in little doses.
- Meditation. We avoid the disomfort of sitting and doing nothing, of focusing on the present. But it’s not that hard — just a little uncomfortable.
- Waking early. Waking early means being a little tired for a little while, but that’s not a horrible thing. Read more about rising early.
- Learning a language/instrument. Want to learn something new? That means doing something you’re not used to, by definition, and so we often quit before we master this new skill, simply because (you guessed it) it makes us uncomfortable. Stay with the discomfort, and before long you’ll enjoy learning this new skill.
- Clutter. Clutter is just another form of procrastination. You don’t put things away, or you let a pile of things you don’t need build up, because it’s not comfortable dealing with it right now (as compared to, say, browsing the Internet or watching TV). But dealing with something right now isn’t that hard once you get past the discomfort.
- Reading novels. We tend to avoid simply sitting with a book, because we are pulled towards something more comfortable (again, Internet browsing as an example). If we can just sit with the book and a little discomfort, we can read more.
- Empty email inbox. Another form of procrastination — you get some emails, maybe look at them, but put off dealing with them right now because it’s easier not to.
- Debt. This is a series of things we have to deal with that are uncomfortable — listing out our debts and bills, making a simple budget, doing things that are free instead of shopping, etc. But I got out of debt by finally facing all of these things, and it was wonderful.
- New adventures. Many people stay with places they’re comfortable with, which means missing out on new experiences that might be a little uncomfortable. Even when they travel, many people stick with the tourist sights and food that they’re used to, rather than finding strange but more authentic experiences in a new land. We avoid meeting new people, speaking on stage, letting go of what we know, being open to new things … to avoid discomfort.
And that’s just the start. Within each of these areas there’s many things you can work on over the coming years now that you’re not afraid of discomfort, and there are many other areas of exploration now open to you.
Discomfort can be the joyful key that opens up everything for you.
‘Discomfort is very much part of my master plan.’ ~Jonathan Lethem