In this fourth installment of VRB's Stoic Tools for a Good Life series, we’re outlining a few actionable tools for improving your life – significantly, quickly, and relatively easily. The goal is to provide clear tools you can use today in a straightforward manner that answers the questions of what, why, and how.
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Next up, practicing deliberate discomfort.
“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” — Seneca
Practicing discomfort is the process of voluntarily exposing oneself to uncomfortable things or situations on a periodic basis. This discomfort can span the mental, physical and emotional realms.
Popular options include:
- Fasting: refraining from eating for periods during the day or days at a time
- Cold exposure: Periodic ice baths or cold showers
- Purposeful embarrassment: As the above quote implies, this option could include dressing in ridiculous clothing for a period of time in public
- Exercise: Do something very hard, something you’re not good at, or that you will find embarrassing. Think CrossFit or jiu-jitsu, especially as a newbie
Getting uncomfortable regularly has multiple benefits.
Often, being uncomfortable induces growth. Each time you face your fears, you cast a vote for yourself as the type of person who does not let fear stand in the way of life. This concept is commonly referred to as “acting your way into being.” Deliberate discomfort is an intentional path to growth by taking action – action that a fearful person would not take. The more a person demonstrates a behavior, the more they become that type of person.
Exposure to discomfort can reset our perspective. Like practicing gratitude, deliberate discomfort can help you identify the things in your life that make life better and more manageable. After a few days without eating, you’ll think about food differently and how lucky you are to have access to it.
Exposure to discomfort acts as a ‘check’ on fear. By facing your fear, you can essentially look behind the curtain and more often than not, identify the fear as worse than the object of the fear itself.
Fear is scary. Nobody likes to be afraid or embarrassed or uncomfortable. However, those feelings are not a great reason not to try. Practicing periodic deliberate discomfort is a discrete method of inoculating yourself against that response to fear. When you subsequently get that feeling of fear or embarrassment in the wild, you’ll find yourself more likely to say, “OK, I feel embarrassed asking her out. Cool. I’m going to go do it anyway.”
Set a goal for yourself to do something that makes you uncomfortable periodically. Personally, I prefer to do a few things on a daily, monthly, and quarterly basis.
Consider doing something uncomfortable every day. For me, this usually takes the form of a cold shower and a workout. For you, that could be not turning on the A/C in your car. Or staying in the sauna for 2 more minutes than you think you can. Or taking on that hot yoga class. Or asking that guy at the coffee shop out. Or going to the park and asking if you can join in that pick-up game you see every Wednesday night. Just do something that makes you uncomfortable every day.
Start with a 30- day challenge to get started. If you miss a day, just jump back in when you remember. Consistency matters
Daily discomfort is incredibly empowering. Once you’ve gotten a taste for it, you might find yourself ready to increase the valence of the discomfort or at least to take on bigger, scarier fears.
Make a list of things that you think would make you uncomfortable. This list could include:
- Multi-day fasting
- Cold exposure
- Public embarrassment
- Cutting out a temptation (coffee, alcohol, sex…get creative)
- Adventure (Does it scare you to camp in the wilderness. Sweet. Go learn to do that.)
Now set a monthly, quarterly, or annual cadence for deliberately taking on something uncomfortable. This will be a personal decision for you based on your constraints and where you’re coming from in terms of capacity for discomfort. Do what works for you, but I recommend making goals that seem like a slight reach from what you’re comfortable with. After all, we’re trying to be uncomfortable here.
An example game plan could look like this.
- For the next month, at the end of my morning shower I’m going to turn it to full cold and stay there for at least 2 minutes
- Go join that gym I’ve been scared of going to because I’m out of shape. Commit to three days per week and hold yourself accountable.
- Once per quarter I will fast for 2 days
- I’ve always wanted to go ski mountaineering in the backcountry, but I know nothing about it so it feels like a scary thing to take on. This year I’m going to go take a ski mountaineering course and schedule an entry-level expedition.
However you choose to do it, deliberately taking on discomfort will make you a happier and more capable person. You will feel better about yourself and you will actually be better. Now get out there and get after it.