How to Get Comfortable With Discomfort

Discomfort Doesn't Feel Good

When you’re tackling a large project or new endeavor in your life, two of the most common causes of low motivation are overwhelm and lack of clarity. Both overwhelm and lack of clarity can feel very uncomfortable, which is what makes most people avoid situations that produce them. Doing so, however, is neither helpful nor productive. Learning to get comfortable with discomfort is they key to long-term growth and development.

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When the amount of work starting you in the face seems insurmountable, it can be overwhelming, stifling your motivation. To use a computer analogy, when you feel overwhelmed, your brain’s operating system essentially crashes, causing you to revert back into bios operating mode, that little black and white screen you see when your computer first boots up. When you’re in that mode, you can only perform very basic functions. You definitely aren’t willing or able to try new things and develop new skills. This response is your brain's natural energy-conservation and self-defense mechanism.

Your natural response to discomfort

When you aren’t sure what steps to take next (meaning you lack clarity), you can be paralyzed by the fear of making a bad decision. So, instead of making a bad decision, you do nothing at all. The thing that most people fail to realize is that not taking action is also a decision.

Another common reaction to lack of clarity is to spend a bunch of time doing more “research”. This pattern of behavior is what’s known as analysis paralysis, where you tell yourself that you’ll get started once you have enough information or know what to do.

We all like to have a crystal clear, big-picture view of the master plan; to be able to see the forest for the trees, essentially. Unfortunately, that expectation is unrealistic with new and challenging endeavors.

Broadening your perspective

Taking action engages different parts of your brain, forcing you to consider different options and look at the problem from different perspectives. The irony is that once you get moving, it often leads to the insight you need to see what the next step is. So, taking that first step, even if it's initially in the wrong direction, helps you figure out what the right direction is. When a lack of clarity is sapping your motivation, it’s important to remind yourself that, while it would be nice to see the big picture, all you really need to know is the next step.

From a bigger picture perspective, if you want to accomplish something beyond your current skill level or expertise, you need to learn to appreciate the value of discomfort, and get more comfortable with it. It sounds like an oxymoron, but you can improve your ability to tolerate and even thrive in situations that seem overwhelming or unclear. One way to do that is to consciously put yourself in situations that push your comfort zone just a little bit.

Rejection therapy treats discomfort

Author Jia Jiang wanted to do that very thing, so he decided to make a game out of it. He came up with the idea of giving himself 100 days of what he calls “rejection therapy”. For 100 days in a row, he purposely put himself in progressively more challenging situations, to develop his comfort with discomfort. He has a list of every challenge posted on his website. I’ve included a link to it here if you want to check it out.

He documented his experience in his book Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection. Jia had a couple of key takeaways from from the experience that we can all learn from. First, his confidence grew and he found that he was much more capable than he originally gave himself credit for. Second, he found that people were much nicer and willing to accommodate his requests than he would have expected going into it.

He documented his experience in a series of YouTube videos. He was even asked to give a TED talk about it, if you want to check it out. One classic example of his rejection therapy took place early in his 100 days. In this video, Jia went into a Krispy Kreme and asked an employee to custom make a donut for him in the shape of the Olympic rings. It’s a very cool video and worth checking out if you have a few minutes.

What can you do?

So what can you learn from Jia's experience? If you want to accomplish something big in your life, something you’re not sure you can do, you need to stretch yourself. If that idea scares you a little bit, that’s ok. It’s human nature to resist things that are uncomfortable. But we humans also have a unique ability to think about those things and decide to act in spite of our instinctive impulses. You can get more comfortable with discomfort. It can even become enjoyable, as crazy as that might sound right now.

If you decide to try this in your life, I need to make one important point. When you come up with ideas for your challenges, be careful not push your boundaries too far. Doing so can have the opposite effect of what you're hoping to achieve, causing you to revert back to your comfort zone even more strongly and resist further challenges or even to abandon the experiment altogether.

I haven’t figured out how I want to build this into my life yet, but I am definitely planning to give this idea a try. Let me know if you’ve done something similar or if you’re going to give it a try by leaving a comment below.

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