Monday, January 13, 2014

The Value of Being Uncomfortable - And How You Can Start

So we're two weeks into the new year. By now, some people have already quit their 2014 resolutions, and some are going strong. Of late, it seems more en vogue and hip to haughtily and cynically eschew the New Year's resolution for some reason or another.

Very specific resolutions can be of limited value, especially those which prioritize an outcome over a process. I'd like to propose a non-specific resolution to you, the reader. It's not nearly as specific as "lose 20 pounds", "go to the gym four times a week", "stop eating junk food", "stop biting my nails" or anything of that nature. The resolution I propose is as follows:

Be uncomfortable.

Comfort is generally something we think of as a good thing. We want comfortable shoes, comfortable beds, comfortable sofas. We want the air to be at a comfortable temperature. When stressed, we seek comfort food.

But little attention is paid to the value of discomfort. Discomfort is tremendously important, just as important as comfort.

Exercise is the most obvious example of a beneficial discomfort. Living organisms generally want to conserve energy. Sometimes they are forced to expend energy (to survive a predatory attack, to kill prey themselves, to reproduce, to migrate, or a number of reasons). Since most 21st century humans don't actually have to exert physical energy avoiding predators, killing prey, attracting mates or moving countries, we use exercise as a substitute.

Exercise is necessarily discomfort. Like all organisms, we desire to conserve energy, so the expenditure of energy is necessarily uncomfortable.

Here's the thing, everyone understands that some amount of exercise is good for people. But if this type of discomfort is good for you, aren't there other discomforts that are good for you?

I have a roommate who strongly dislikes the cold. As soon as the room becomes too cold for his liking, he immediately turns up the heat up to a desired comfort level. Similarly when it's too hot for his liking, he'll turn on the air conditioning. And to be honest, I don't much like being too cold or too hot either. But humans are actually pretty well-adapted to being a little too hot or a little too cold. I'm not advocating that you go out in a t-shirt in Siberia or try to jog in a sweatsuit during a Vegas summer. And I'm not saying you should never use climate controls. But it is my contention that we should make an effort to be uncomfortable, with enough regularity that it creates a decent hormetic effect. If nothing else, think of the maxim that what won't kill you, makes you stronger.

I went through a phase for a while in November and December where I jumped in the freezing cold (not literally, but damn cold) outdoor swimming pool for a couple minutes a day. It fucking sucked, and I cannot know for sure that it provided any real health benefit (the research on cold water therapy actually seems pretty inconclusive), but I thought it was important to be consistent with the idea of being uncomfortable.

Another good example of discomfort is fasting. Sometimes people say that fasting is bad, that you'll waste away and lose valuable muscle mass and screw up your metabolism and so on, but I think the medical literature is decently clear that some amount of fasting is good. The incredible 24/7 availability of food to satiate any and all hunger pangs, as soon as you get them (or much sooner), is surely a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic. So, once in a while, when you're hungry -- just keep going hungry! Don't make that sandwich or order that pizza. Just suck it up, princess, and learn to embrace the hunger. Better yet, if you're hungry: go run a few miles, or lift some heavy shit, and then eat something. You'll get some improved insulin sensitivity out of it and hell, food just tastes better when you've earned it.

Fasting is something that I had never tried until fairly recently, but once I did it, I found out it wasn't really that hard. And now I reap the benefits. I used to be a cranky, ornery, son-of-a-bitch when I was hungry. How, I've learned to embrace the hunger and I'm better off both mentally and physically for it.

Discomfort does not need to be only physical, as well. Doing brain teasers, studying a new language, public speaking, and other cerebrally difficult or stressful things also qualify as discomfort. But most people (especially those who read blogs written by former professional poker players) are pretty good at practicing mental discomfort. Anyone who has ever made a big bluff in a cash game or late in a big tournament certainly experiences discomfort, and most poker pros have done this many times.

Important point: Too much discomfort is a bad thing.

It's pretty obvious how too much fasting would be a bad thing. At some point, excessive fasting becomes anorexia, or starvation. It's a bit less obvious, but too much exercise is a bad thing too. Too much exercise can leave one chronically stressed and cause serious health and injury problems. And obviously staying for a long time in extreme conditions of heat or cold without taking adequate mitigating measures is a bad idea. On the mental side, a professional poker player who grinds 10 hours a day, 10 tables at a time, 300+ days a year, is just asking for mental burnout (the cure for which cannot be purchased in the FPP store, by the way).

Nevertheless, I'd suppose most people reading this are leaning towards the "too comfortable" side of the balance. Are you reading this blog post in your comfy computer chair? Do you have a nice, just-right beverage sitting next to you? If you get hungry by the end of it, are you immediately going to the fridge to satisfy it?  My advice to you: get more uncomfortable. Turn off the heat or the a/c for a few hours. Take a cold, or at least a somewhat-too-cold, shower. Skip breakfast once in a while, or dinner, if you prefer. Or both. Learn a difficult language or a musical instrument. Gamble a little too big for your bankroll.

You shouldn't do it all the time -- you'll end up either chronically stressed, dying of heatstroke or hypothermia, mentally drained, or broke -- but you should at least do it with some regular frequency. So the next time you're faced with something that will cause you physical, mental, or emotional discomfort, don't look for a way out of it. Face it head on, and dive in. I think you'll be a better person for it.

All the best in 2014!


  1. If you are looking for a surefire way to reduce your general personal comfort level, I can attest to the fact that having a child will quickly accomplish this! :)

    1. Funny, I was going to suggest he try babysitting for us to enjoy some discomfort.

    2. Perhaps, though, while he's babysitting, we should have to go to an MMA class or something

    3. I snap-call babysitting for MMA role reversal day.

    4. Trying to decide which side would have the greatest risk or irrevocable damage, having trouble deciding.

    5. T, I'm wondering if your thoughts on this matter would change in 5 months or so?

  2. If you've got a rambunctious boy age 7 like me, babysitting and MMA feels quite similar and involves equal amounts of personal danger and discomfort.