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Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe

‘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.

Mastering Discomfort

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC