Stepping Into the Discomfort

I've been thinking a lot about the benefits of discomfort. It seems like it's the less-scary cousin of pain and injury. Most people avoid it like they would something that causes serious distress in their life. Breaking your leg creates true pain and would definitely be classified as an injury. Working out so hard that your legs are really tired... now that's a case of discomfort. How often does discomfort result in permanent injury or death? Never.

So why do we work so hard to avoid it? 

Evolutionarily, I understand it. Our bodies like to conserve energy and remain in a state of equilibrium. Conserved energy means more warmth in the winter and a higher likelihood of surviving long enough to reproduce and propogate our species. Luckily, most of us live in a society where living long enough to reproduce represents the very lowest rung of the aspirational ladder. Now, It's okay for us to feel discomfort. We don't need to act like our paleolithic ancestors preparing for the next high speed sabre tooth tiger evasion or incoming ice age. If so, why do we work so hard to avoid it and how can we learn to embrace it?

Discomfort as Metric of Improvement

One of the toughest things about any long term change (whether we're talking about a habit change or a project) is identifying signals of progress. How do you know if you're improving? One method I'm a fan of is collecting data on yourself over a long period of time. If you're making progress then you'll see it in the data. Unfortunately, collecting data can sometimes be tedious and not everyone has as deep and undying love for data and graphs as me.

That's where mindful discomfort comes in. As a first step, just noticing where and what causes you discomfort is a type of progress. Discomfort is caused by your body being pushed or stretched out equilibrium. It's resisting some type of change. If you're the one inflicting the discomfort, then it's resisting the  positive change you're trying to create. It means you're at the barrier between what's normal and what's possible. Your job is to push that barrier farther into the realm of what's possible until it becomes the new normal.

With that mindset, discomfort is reason to rejoice, not shy away. It means you've found that all-important barrier that will allow you to improve. Over time, mindfully entering into that zone of discomfort over and over will change what you perceive as normal. Whereas running a mile may have been as uncomfortable as anything you can imagine, consistently stepping into that discomfort will result in that mile-long run no longer causing you discomfort. Then, you'll have to run faster or longer to find that area of discomfort again. And in the process of doing so, you just became a runner.

How to Deal With Discomfort

The first step in dealing with discomfort is not using that word at all. You don't "deal" with discomfort. You seek it out. You sit in it. You try to relish it. You take a break. And then you do it again, and again, and again. 

You start doing things because they will cause discomfort. Discomfort stops being an unfortunate byproduct that you have to work through to get where you want. By mindfully choosing it, it becomes something that you control. Instead of going for a run and thinking, "I'm going to run for three miles and I hope it's not too uncomfortable," you try thinking, "I'm going to go for a run for three miles and I'm going to see how much discomfort I can tolerate." That probably sounds a little bit weird, however, it's strangely liberating once you adopt it. Instead of thinking, "I'm going to write this article and I hope it's not too difficult," you try thinking, "I'm going to write this article and I'm going to push myself stylistically and with my vocabulary and with my tone and with my syntax and with my grammar to create as great a piece of writing as I'm capable. And it will be hard. And that will be okay."

Process, Then Product

One of my favorite lines is "process over product." I'll recite it to anyone who will listen and I'm sure many of my clients are tired of hearing me say it. Taking care of the process, the way you do something, the way you live your life, how you make decisions, how you approach your work etc. will inevitably lead to the product you ultimately seek. However, it rarely works the other way around.

Embracing discomfort is embracing the process behind change. When you've moved from working out to lose weight/be more attractive to working out because you enjoy the process of working out then the spoils you seek are near at hand. When you approach each day of work as an opportunity to improve the way you work, to improve the way you think about work and the way you solve problems, then you will inevitable create better products. Those who speak passionate words about change and self-improvement, those who buy new shoes and download training plans, those who spend hours looking for new tools to make them more productive at the expense of doing the work are searching for shortcuts around the discomfort.

There is no shortcut around the discomfort. You have to step into it. You have to learn it. You have to master it. And, ultimately, you have to learn to love it.

Thank you to Leo for writing the article that got me thinking about this topic.

Photo by Lorenzo Sernicola