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My Thoughts on Discomfort

Recently, Michael Easter was on the The Drive podcast with Peter Attia to talk about the comfort crisis:

“I discovered that 98 percent of people choose short-term comfort over long-term growth.”

The Comfort Crisis

Easter begins the conversation by opening up about his past as a drinker and the discomfort in quitting. A couple lines stuck with me, particularly around the process he took and benefits he gained from quitting. Easter talks about “white knuckling” it, abruptly changing one day and the ensuing, ultra-uncomfortable struggle. It turns out, going this route, as opposed to a slow, gradual weening, had long term benefits. Drinking became a conquered mountain and built up resistance to hopping back on the wagon. The discomfort of quitting strengthened his resolve.

The second point, which I remind myself of regularly, is that after he stopped drinking, everything improved. His health, his weight, his sleep, his writing. Everything.

Which is to say: everything was worse until he dealt with the discomfort of quitting.

Michael’s book, The Crisis of Comfort, follows his 33-day journey into Alaska on a caribou hunt. Confronted by discomfort from every direction, from cold to boredom, it became clear how much we’ve all lost by continually taking the comfortable path.

Practicing Discomfort

Wim Hof, master of incorporating cold into our lives, has become famous for his teachings on cold water therapy. His writing, videos, and name have become stuff of legend and maintain an avid following. Discomfort clearly strengthens the mind and body, and people are listening. Sauna and hot yoga sessions lie on numerous high performers’ list of regular habits. And if body temperature extremes doesn’t do it, we’ve taken aim at eating. Fasting, from 12 hours to 12 days, is now a research supported practice for weight loss, mental performance, and disease control. Early adopters are hooked on discomfort and it seems mainstream is next.

As a practitioner of cold therapy and fasting, I’ve found these habits to be truly revelatory. Nothing puts my mind at ease like the sauna, except the cold shower that follows. But these new practices are merely that, practice. Unexpected discomforts still wreak havoc. Disruption during a deep work session or an unnecessary meeting can still completely alter my day. Plans destroyed by a child or a short-lived junk-food binge can trigger anxiety. For a discomfort junkie like myself, there are obvious opportunities.

Passive Discomfort

One topic from Easter’s message strikes me as particularly relevant: our discomfort with boredom. Waiting for caribou in the Alaskan tundra forced boredom on him and he was better for it. He grew more creative and thoughtful from the monotonous days gazing at the horizon. Personally, it has me appreciating my time in school and church as a child, forced to live in my own head. Being bored allowed my mind to wander. Yet these days, as Easter points out, most people can’t even use the toilet without a distraction.

Boredom is interesting. It’s passive, something like a dream. Efficient boredom is illusory, a conundrum that doesn’t fit with the hyper-growth mindsets among us. Letting the mind wander, truly wander, eats into time that could be spent reading or learning a language. For many, that’s massively uncomfortable, yet especially necessary. Life is full of boredom-like situations where the best path forward isn’t action, it’s accepting our fate.

A Step Further

As a corollary to Easter’s message, especially for the discomfort junkies like me, I want to discuss the step beyond. Once we begin to seek out freezing water or scorching rooms, the target has moved. Growth must come from a constant process of recognizing and managing all of life’s discomforts, not only the ones we manufacture. It’s great to stretch our bodies and minds, but creating a family crisis because a 20-minute sauna session isn’t possible doesn’t amount to winning. Conquering discomfort shouldn’t come at the expense of a happy, positive life.

The steps below have fueled my growth from easily perturbed to even-keeled, and not only in practice.

  • Planned Discomfort: Incorporating small discomforts into our lives is incredibly powerful. The conversation between Attia and Easter suggests numerous starting points. Eat less frequently or alter your diet for an immediate, winnable step into discomfort. Cold showers, even a few seconds at the end, can surprisingly help the day start with an uncomfortable win. Better (and easier) yet, stop using the phone on the toilet. Let your mind wander.

  • Honest reflection: Many of us have become masochistic discomfort seekers, reveling in the time our body is pushed to the edge. Take a step further and push to the next level. For me, it’s the unexpected moments when life is beyond control. Children and pets are great for this, testing patience and destroying a meticulously planned schedule. This starts with recognition and reflection, pausing after an outburst to understand the triggers and senselessness. Without meditating on these moments, we don’t stand a chance for improvement.

  • Execution: The inner peace gained from a sauna session is worth little if every unexpected moment triggers our anxiety. Recognizing these moments as they approach is critical, a skill that can be strengthened through meditation and boredom. To put training into practice, we must first notice the opportunity then decisively rise above. At our best, no one notices. Maybe our partners, and only because we’re so typically provoked. Maintaining peace in these moments, regardless of what’s happened, is when the resolve and strength learned during cold showers can flourish.

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” - Marcus Aurelius

For most, discomfort appears to be a choice. We can work, eat, and sleep however we desire. Adding difficulty allows the mind and body to excel and reach their potential, but discomfort still rears its head. Incorporating training into life, outside tightly regimented habits, is the true value of practicing discomfort. We must look beyond what we control.


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