Feeling Unmotivated? Try Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Asian woman about to start running, looking determined

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Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that discomfort can lead to increased motivation
  • Experts say that there is a line between productive discomfort and harm or distress
  • Increasing motivation via discomfort takes a variable amount of “conscious exposure”

We live in an inherently stressful world, one that challenges our ability to be comfortable on a daily basis. Recent research, published by academics from Cornell and the University of Chicago, has found that increased motivation can stem from seeking discomfort. Using results from five experiments, they point to the inherent messiness of growth.

The study authors conclude, "Whether through improvisation, writing about difficult emotions, seeking uncomfortable information, or relating to other people with opposite views: Instead of avoiding the discomfort inherent to growth, people should seek it as a sign of progress. Growing is often uncomfortable; we find that embracing discomfort can be motivating.”

The question then becomes, how can the public identify when their discomfort is helping rather than hindering their motivation? 

Tangible Link Between Cultural Understandings of Discomfort and Motivation

Discussions about comfort and discomfort surround us. Massive YouTube channels like Yes Theory, for example—where their guiding principle is that “…life’s greatest moments and deepest connections exist outside your comfort zone”—have launched entire brands around the idea of moving towards discomfort rather than away.

However, whether you’ve been there and (literally or figuratively) gotten the t-shirt has a lot to do with society’s perceptions of comfort, according to Dr. Bobbi Wegner, PsyD. Wegner is a clinical psychologist and teaches about motivation as an adjunct in Harvard’s School of Education. She says that part of the issue is society’s approach to feelings of discomfort more generally. 

Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD

So, being present and thoughtfully engaged with experiences that make us uncomfortable…rather than simply creating a narrative or self judgment around our response to discomfort, having a certain willingness to allow the discomfort to be there can grow our tolerance for that state.

— Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD

“I think we're in a society right now where people assume that happiness should be baseline and that discomfort is not tolerable or not good. But discomfort and uncomfortable emotions, uncomfortable experiences, uncomfortable social relationships, and uncomfortable dynamics. That's a part of life and the more we can learn to manage that discomfort, the better off we are,” says Dr. Wegner.

Those involved in the research were offered improv training and writing classes, as well as learning sessions about the pandemic, engaging with opposite views, and gun violence. Whatever the method, Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD, says that building capacity for discomfort and applying it productively requires a certain level of what she calls “conscious exposure.”

“So, being present and thoughtfully engaged with experiences that make us uncomfortable…rather than simply creating a narrative or self judgment around our response to discomfort, having a certain willingness to allow the discomfort to be there can grow our tolerance for that state.”

Keep This in Mind if That Discomfort Becomes Too Much

With any level of discomfort, there is the possibility that it can grow to create distress. Wegner likens this to a tipping point where fight or flight takes over and the brain shifts into survival mode. 

“There's literally a physiological reason why, even if you can tolerate that discomfort, you might not actually be achieving what you are wanting to achieve.”

She gives two examples to illustrate the different experiences of discomfort and exposure. In one, a child is being taught that it’s okay to ask a waitress at a restaurant for extra crayons, an experience Wegner has had with her own kids. In the other scenario, an adult is foregoing sleep to push through and finish a project, a project that is more likely to be done poorly because they are badly rested. In the former, the discomfort is managed and supported. In the latter, the risk for negative impacts is increased. 

She says that the question people need to be asking themselves when they’re assessing their discomfort and accompanying motivation levels has to do with how their actions are having a ripple effect. 

How distressing and how disruptive is it to other parts of their life?”

For Roeske, the advice is similar.

“At what point are we not able, any longer, to be present? If it's so overwhelming and so great that it doesn't feel tolerable to be with it then that might be an indicator that we need to step back a bit. And not completely run away from it, but somehow mitigate the exposure.”

What This Means For You

While discomfort can lead to increased motivation and the accomplishment of your goals, it's important to realize when that discomfort is becoming a detriment. Being able to remain in the moment can help improve your capacity for discomfort.

1 Source
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  1. Woolley K, Fishbach A. Motivating personal growth by seeking discomfortPsychol Sci. 2022;33(4):510-523. doi:10.1177/09567976211044685

By John Loeppky
John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.