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Constructive Discomfort

How to do what you don’t want to do.

How often have you thought, “It would be a good idea to exercise/socialize/make some plans/get something done, but I just don’t feel motivated”? “Lack of motivation” is a key part of depression, but it’s also part of anxiety, procrastination, and your pervasive avoidance of doing things that you don’t “feel” like doing. Do you feel stuck? Inert? Like something is blocking you.

Then look in the mirror for your answer.

Let’s take exercise. You would probably agree that exercising several times each week would be a good habit to have. But you don’t do it. What is keeping you stuck?

1. Listen to your Excuses

You have a long list of excuses—every one of which you believe allows you not to exercise. Your excuses include

  • I don’t feel like it
  • I’m too tired
  • It won’t do any good—I am too far gone
  • I can do it later when I feel better

Listen to yourself. You are the “Anti-Self-Help Voice." You have all the reasons not to do anything. When you don’t do these things you end up feeling ineffective, you criticize yourself, and then you don’t have the motivation the next day because you are depressed.

2. Do What You Don’t Feel Like Doing

What keeps you stuck is your belief that you can’t or shouldn’t have to do things that you don’t want to do. “I don’t want to exercise, I don’t want to do the assignment, I don’t want to take any chances."

Here is your formula:

“I don’t want to do it” = “Don’t do it."

This is the key to your lethargy, laziness, and ineffectiveness. You think that you can’t do things unless you feel like doing them. Here is a different way to approach your daily life:


If you want to be effective, you need to set daily goals and one of them is conquering this idea that you have to like what you do. You don’t have to like it. You have to do it.

Maybe you can “like” that you got it done.

Ok, you think it’s hard. But the goal should be doing what is hard to do. That’s how you become resilient.

You are in the gym. You want to get stronger. Put on more weight. Push through your comfort zone. Show yourself that you can do what you didn’t think you would be able to do. Prove yourself wrong.

Be the person who does the hard things.

3. Don’t wait for the motivation to show up

You have an implicit rule about motivation. You have to wait for it to show up. You say, “I’ll do it when I am motivated” or “I’m not ready." Maybe your well-meaning therapist has said to you for the last four years, “You have to be ready to make a change."


Let’s imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk downstairs from my office in New York City. You see me pacing the sidewalk, looking east and west. You wonder what I am up to. It seems like I am looking for something. You say, “Bob, what are you looking for?” And I answer, “I am waiting for my motivation to show up. Then I will go to work."

Motivation is not a bus that you get onto. You are the driver of your own motivation.

Rather than wait for the motivation to show or wait to feel like you want to do it, choose to do it anyway.

After all, what is the worst thing that will happen if you exercise or get some work done that you didn’t feel like doing? Will they take you to the Emergency Room: “He exercised but he wasn’t feeling motivated. Poor guy.”

Action and behavior create motivation. Maybe the motivation comes later.

  • Rely on your habits not on your feelings

In order to make progress you need to focus on developing the right habits—exercise, proper diet, getting your work done on time, socializing with rewarding people. Whatever. Make a list of three habits that you want to commit to over the next three months and keep track of any behavior that represents that habit. I got up this morning and worked out like I do five times every week. I didn’t feel like doing it. But it’s a habit. I am committed to my habits and my habits have been good to me. You make progress by practicing your habits, not by letting your feelings and your inertia dictate what you do.

  • Practice Constructive Discomfort

I often tell patients who are depressed or anxious that the goal of therapy is to do the hard things. To do the things that they are avoiding. I propose that developing the ability to do things that are uncomfortable empowers you to accomplish your goals. When I was in graduate school I took Judo from Insoo Hwang who had been the National Champion in Korea. This guy meant business. He told us that in Korea they would practice outside at noon during the summer—when it was the hottest—and during the early morning in the winter when it was coldest. The goal was to tolerate discomfort.

Think of discomfort as a means to an end. “I will use my discomfort to accomplish my goal." Ballet dancers will tell you, “It was a good workout. I know, it hurt good."

Constructive discomfort involves three steps:

  1. What is my goal? To lose weight.
  2. What do I have to do to accomplish it? Exercise and eat fewer calories.
  3. Am I willing to do it? Not, “Do I want to do it?”

Are you willing to do what you don’t want to do? Aim for constructive discomfort this week. Set some simple goals, keep track of what you do, and ask yourself if you tolerated discomfort.

Give yourself Points for TOLERATING DISCOMFORT.

Think of discomfort as a tool. The stronger you get, the more discomfort becomes your friend.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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