What does it mean to practice voluntary discomfort? Why would you want to put yourself in uncomfortable situations? How do you do it? I’m going to answer all these questions in this article.
If you’re reading this, you most likely have a comfortable life.
You have a safe shelter that protects you from the elements. You have enough food to nourish your body. You’re free to express yourself and do whatever you want, within the bounds of law. You even have access to the Internet and all human knowledge at your fingertips.
It’s also quite likely you have way more than that comfort. You have abundance.
You have ample food of all varieties from all over the world. You live in a house so luxurious our ancestors would deem it a palace. You have a car or access to public transportation which makes it easy to go wherever you want in mere minutes.
Your life is easy—or at least, incomparably easier than it was for humans a mere 100 years ago. And it’s precisely in this case, when you rarely feel uncomfortable, that voluntary discomfort can improve your life.
What Is Voluntary Discomfort?
Practicing voluntary discomfort means deliberately putting yourself through a disagreeable, distressing, or otherwise difficult situation.
For example, for one day you consume only water (fasting). Or you stop going to your favorite coffee shop for a week (denying pleasure). Or you underdress for cold weather (physical discomfort through cold exposure).
Why would you do such a thing? After all, humans detest and avoid pain for a good reason. What would motivate a sane person to deliberately create uncomfortable situations?
Short answer: voluntary discomfort is one of the greatest tools for self-improvement.
It helps you improve your self-control. It teaches you how to manage fear and anxiety. It also boosts your health because the most lethal diseases today are caused by too much comfort (rather than too little). It turns you into a tough man.
Voluntary discomfort also strengthens your mental resilience. The world is not a utopia where every single day is perfect and you never have any troubles whatsoever (if you know such a person, let me know—I’d love to pick their brain).
Putting yourself in tough situations on purpose will teach you how to handle pressure when you face challenges caused by external circumstances.
In other words, you choose to be uncomfortable on your own terms today so that you can feel more comfortable tomorrow. That’s why cultivating voluntary discomfort is sometimes called “adversity training.”
I’ve discussed the benefits of getting out of your comfort zone in another article in greater detail if you’re interested in learning more about the topic.
In this article, I want to focus on a specific kind of voluntary discomfort training. But before we do that, we need to clarify one more thing…
Oh, So This Is About Masochists Taking Cold Showers?
Before we proceed to exploring the philosophy of voluntary discomfort in more detail, I need to clear up one common misunderstanding.
Cold showers and cold baths have become so popular these days that they’re almost synonymous with the practice of voluntary discomfort. They do come with many benefits but there’s more to adversity training than jumping into a bathtub filled with ice.
It’s not about bragging how tough you are or how well you tolerate the cold. It’s not about seeking pain for the sake of pain, either.
It’s about doing whatever you personally find uncomfortable and seeking lessons in the experience. It may be cold exposure but it may just as well be your social anxiety, your fear of being judged, curbing your sugar cravings, or any other form of discomfort.
Exploring the Stoic Voluntary Discomfort Philosophy
In this article I’d like to focus on the classical, Stoic definition of voluntary discomfort.
One of the most renowned Stoic philosophers, Seneca the Younger, describes it in his Moral Letters to Lucilius. He writes:
“I am so firmly determined, however, to test the constancy of your mind that, drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: 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?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”
In essence, Seneca says that we need to train ourselves to handle adversity so that we can deal with it better when it inevitably appears in our lives.
But there’s an important caveat for this type of training. It’s one that many articles that discuss this topic miss.
Namely, Seneca warns that a practice of voluntary discomfort needs to really test you and not merely be a hobby. It’s not just about leaving your comfort zone for a brief moment.
As he writes:
“Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”
This is the key thing that differentiates the Stoic approach from the modern practice of getting out of your comfort zone. Both are helpful and both will make you uncomfortable. But Stoics taught enduring longer challenges than one hard workout or turning off your air conditioning for a few hours.
Lastly, Seneca warns not to draw a false sense of superiority from this practice:
“There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, — that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time.”
For men who have too much comfort in their lives, doing something hard may be considered merely a cool thing, a pastime that allows you to brag about how tough you are.
But for men who are are in difficult circumstances, discomfort is their daily life. Extremely hard physical activity just to get by. Cold showers, or lack of water access. Bland food or no food at all. No comfortable bed to sleep in, if any bed at all (think about it the next night you complain about your three-feet thick mattress).
Our voluntary practice can give us a glimpse into what the less fortunate are going through. So one of the additional benefits of voluntary discomfort is becoming more empathetic to other people’s struggles.
Times might have changed but there are still many thousands of people who are suffering every day. When we practice voluntary discomfort, we’re actually privileged to do so.
What Are Some Examples of Voluntary Discomfort?
There are countless ways to cultivate voluntary discomfort. It can be anything that you’re afraid of, that provokes anxiety, or that you find otherwise uncomfortable.
In this article, instead of making a random list of things people are afraid of, I focus on exercises that Seneca himself would approve if he were alive today.
Remember that each of these challenges is supposed to last at least 3-4 days and REALLY test your mettle. If Seneca would deem it a mere “hobby,” you won’t learn much. If it’s fun all the time, it’s likely not challenging enough.
1. Give Up Your Vices
Yes, I’m talking about things like: alcohol, weed, caffeine, sugar, fast food, smoking, porn, video games, binge watching TV shows, mindlessly browsing social media, and any other bad habits you engage in regularly.
Pick one, most addictive vice (easier version), or make a list of all your vices and quit them all (a more uncomfortable option) for at least 3-4 days.
As an added benefit, discovering that you can abstain from an unhealthy habit like eating fast food may inspire you to quit it permanently and save yourself some future discomfort (like obesity).
2. Take a Cold Shower
As I explained before, many people associate voluntary discomfort with cold exposure, to the point it became cliche to talk about it. Yet, there’s no denying that skipping hot showers for a few days is a great way to practice voluntary discomfort.
For many men these days, hot water is such a necessity they think they wouldn’t be able to survive without it. They’re so used to the comfort that they can’t even imagine their lives without it. A cold shower feels impossible.
Seneca would tell them to go explore the uncomfortable so that they can see that the condition they fear isn’t as bad as they think.
3. Go on a Multi-Day Hike
Walking long hours every day through challenging terrain, with a heavy weight on your back, is like stepping back in time to mimic how our ancestors lived. Granted, they didn’t have high-tech camping gear but the essence of the hardships remains the same.
A couple of days in the wilderness, eating plain food and having a simple routine, is an excellent way to engage in adversity training.
Like in life, there will be ups and downs (both figuratively and literally). There will be pure happiness when you get to see wildlife and nice views. And there will be also uncomfortable, challenging moments, when you’ll want to give up. Just as Seneca prescribed.
4. Practice Intermittent Fasting
For many men used to eating every 3-4 hours, skipping just one or two meals already poses a big challenge. And here we are talking about fasting for 3-4 days! Seneca would be proud.
Going without food for such a long period of time is one of the most extreme suggestions on this list. If you want to try it, you need to prepare yourself with shorter fasts.
Start with the most common intermittent fasting pattern of eating in an 8-hour window and fasting the remaining 16 hours. Then try a 24-hour fast where, for example, you have a meal at 3 pm one day and break your fast at 3 pm the next day. Then skip a full day of eating to fast for at least 32-36 hours. After that, you can try a 3-day fast.
Note that we’re talking about a water fast. You can drink as much water as you can (add electrolytes to avoid some unpleasant side effects). Just don’t consume any kind of food, including liquid calories. Skip caffeine since both tea and coffee contain trace calories and caffeine on an empty stomach is no fun anyway.
At the time of writing this, besides countless fasts of 24 hours and a few dozen 36-hour fasts, I’ve done two 3-day fasts: one of 89 hours and one of 84 hours. Both were challenging and both have taught me a deeper appreciation of food. I can’t even begin to describe the taste of the first meal after fasting for so long—I had tears in my eyes.
5. Sleep on the Floor
Sleeping on the floor is rare these days but was common for our ancestors. As with other challenges, try it for at least 3-4 days. This way, it will test your character more—and bring with it more enlightening insights.
After you complete this challenge, when you finally find yourself in your cozy bed, you’ll definitely appreciate it more. And if for any reason you’ll be forced to sleep on the floor in the future, you’ll know what it feels like—and you’ll know that you can survive it (and maybe even get some sleep).
6. Wear Your Worst Clothes
Wearing shabby clothes was one of the staple Stoic exercises. It wasn’t just about the discomfort of wearing a “coarse and rough dress” but also about learning to be okay with potential judgment. Stoics pursued ridicule as it taught them emotional control while facing social pressure.
Pick clothes you don’t like or clothes that you should have thrown away a long time ago. Wear them for 3-4 days wherever you go and learn to withstand the discomfort.
7. Eat Simple or Bland Foods Only
If you don’t want to take on the extreme challenge of fasting for 3-4 days, try eating simple or bland foods only. It’ll still be uncomfortable but without the immense pressure of not being able to eat anything.
What does it mean to eat simple or bland foods?
For example, skip condiments and spices. No salt, no pepper, no ketchup, no soy sauce, no basil, or anything else that gives extra flavor.
Next step: eat only plain, simple food. Some examples include:
- Brown rice with cooked beans (no salt, no spices).
- Vegetable soup (no stock, just boiled vegetables).
- Plain bread (by itself).
- Pasta or noodles (unsalted).
- Tortillas (by themselves).
And if you want to make it even harder, eat only one type of food for the duration of your challenge. For example, the only food you’re allowed to eat is rice with some beans.
8. Don’t Spend Any Money
Stoics would often pretend to be poor beggars. They wanted to familiarize themselves with such a life if fate ever presented them with such hardships.
You can follow their example by choosing not to spend any money for a couple of days. This means no take-out coffee, no restaurant visits, and no impulse purchases.
Besides being a good self-control exercise, such “temporary poverty” will make you more appreciative of your financial situation. It will also expose how often you want to spend money on things that you don’t need.
9. Wake Up Much Earlier Than Usual
For several days, wake up at least 2 hours earlier than usual. If you wake up at 9 am, wake up at 7 am or earlier. If you wake up at 7 am, wake up at 5 am or earlier. If you wake up at 5 am, wake up at 3 am or earlier.
Make sure that you actually get out of bed and begin your day—otherwise it doesn’t count and you need to start from day one.
One of the benefits of this challenge is that you’ll have more time for yourself in the morning which may improve your productivity and boost your happiness.
10. Go on a Personal Retreat and Forgo All Pleasure
Rent the most spartan cabin in the woods you can find and spend there a couple of days away from all stimulation and distraction.
During your stay, practice sleeping on the floor. Wake up very early in the morning. Wash yourself in a nearby river (or use a bucket of cold water). Fast or eat bland foods. Wear worn-out clothes (or maybe even go naked). Avoid any stimulation and modern entertainment.
It’s one of the most uncomfortable situations you can put yourself in without risking your health or life in any way (assuming you’re smart about your restrictions).
The quiet, distraction-free moments will definitely bring interesting realizations—and an immense feeling of gratitude when you return from your self-imposed banishment.
Start Practicing Voluntary Discomfort Now
The key thing about this Stoic philosophy is that reading about it changes nothing. It’s not a theoretical skill.
The only way to get the benefits of voluntary discomfort is to engage in it consistently. It’s a habit that will not only make you more capable of handling anxiety and other unpleasant feelings. It will also make you more grateful and bring you more happiness in life. So start exposing yourself to discomfort voluntarily today.
Join the Discomfort Club and Begin Your Self-Improvement
Voluntary discomfort is what the Discomfort Club community is all about.
We practice doing hard, uncomfortable, or otherwise unpleasant things because we understand that it’s the best way to strengthen ourselves as men.
A life devoid of any challenges is not a good life. To thrive, we need to continuously stimulate our brains and bodies. Most people won’t do that but we do. We know that the quality of our lives is largely defined by our comfort zones.
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