The Geometry of Discomfort V.1

The title of this article lives at the core of *waves hands around* whatever all this turns out to be. The Geometry of Discomfort is a confluence of ideas and influences that have been in and out of my mind like a lightbulb swinging in the dark since the early 2000s. When the pandemic kicked off proper in 2019, that swinging stopped. For a long time there was no language around it, a nebulous feeling more than formulated concept. ‘Geometry’ sounds more sophisticated than it is, but the term alone compelled it to hover in front of me.

What

The whole deal is a hypothetical rubric for understanding how much of A Thing is enough to make ‘progress’ and what Thing we best make ‘progress’ on. I’m of the opinion that ‘progress’ (but we’ll use the term adaption from now on) is a product of enough discomfort (or disruption) and this appears to uncontested in a broad range of disparate fields of study.

The concept itself is represented as a circle inside a triangle. Now, similar shapes can be found all over the place. Some say this symbolism represents the scary occult, others a symbol from second rate, second-hand fantasy, others – secret or at least secretive societies. It chose itself for me – I had a graphical representation on my mind before words to describe it. The story behind the design can be found on the Who page if you’re interested.

The circle represents what can be referred to as our comfort zone – alternatively – our capacity (think current capacity). The triangle should be considered our discomfort zone – a location outside of our current perceived capacity. It also represents 3 concepts that can be used to help narrow down the how aspect of achieving adaption and/or our intentions. More about that at some point. The triangle also probably obeys the ancient laws of the sacred triad. More about that never – it’s just a fucking triangle okay? Calm down.

Straightforward right? Circle – comfort zone, triangle – discomfort zone. Not chaos theory physics or anything. The important part is understanding why and then how to step out of our comfort zone, which is essentially the whole point. The modern human animal (sorry if it’s news to you we’re animals) now has to manage comfort and discomfort in a way such that it drives adaption an a favourable manner. Adaption is neutral. Humans are anything but. We adapt to our environment, but seldom understand whatever condition we find ourselves in is less about us and more about our environment and ay, there’s the rub. To elicit change, we must know how to change our environment – rarely easy and rarely comfortable (seeee?). If only someone codified how to do it.

Oh wait.

Why

There are a load of whys when it comes to this. The most personally important being it has helped me – a serial quitter – sanely and realistically stick to an adaption model without the need for the standard grindset bullshit associated with what normies would term “progress”. Negative drivers like guilt, fear etc. or finite resources such as motivation, determination etc. I figure if it helps me do stuff, then maybe it’ll help other people do stuff too.

This article is entitled V1 is to serve as a first pass of sorts. The backbone of this site. It might be refined over time, but this is the ground floor and my Feynman Technique style of articulating it should hopefully serve to solidify our understanding. If I’m able to articulate things that it gives a single listener/reader (that’s you) a way to overcome inertia in some way, I’d consider it a triumph.

How

A C T

We now understand that our comfort zone is the circle. How does it work? We want to expand it. The goal is to make the circle bigger, to increase capacity. As the circle gets bigger, so does the triangle. Impossible things become hard things, hard things become normal things, normal things become easy things. Too much time inside the circle shrinks it. Too much time outside it does the same – we lose capacity over-reaching, we lose capacity under-reaching.

Time to ACT

Let’s pick something you want do or learn. Now that we understand what the triangle and circle represent, let’s talk about the three points of the triangle. Here we use the A.C.T model1, or C.A.T model for fellow fans of felines. ACT tells us ‘do something’ and here’s how that something breaks down.

A – Attenuation

How perishable is this thing? How quickly will we lose the adaption and/or forget what we’ve learned if we don’t maintain practice? This should influence the frequency with which we pursue it. This also becomes a budgeting concern. In our lives, are we able to afford the time, or must we reorganise our time to accommodate it’s meaningful pursuit?

C – Criticality

Think importance. Criticality can manifest in different ways. It might be important to you alone – a core part of your current or burgeoning identity. It could be a critical skill – life saving techniques or self defence. It could be essential for your current or prospective vocation. This should influence the priority we associate with it over other things in life.

T – Technicality

Self explanatory, but loaded. If I am, and always have been ambulatory, taking up regular walking is unlikely to be highly technical. If, however, I wanted to take up a martial art – the same cannot be said. Realistically considering technicality is essential as it requires budgeting in a number of dimensions. We must budget time based on it’s criticality, to prevent attenuation and to ensure we’re able to fold this new pursuit into our skillset. Alongside time, we must also consider budgeting financially. Development is a multi-factoral investment. The reason for me stating technicality must be realistically considered is because people tend to budget poorly when beginning a new endeavour. Many convince themselves they can go it alone, haphazardly leveraging free resources and bashing their heads against walls of various types hoping to find one soft enough to break through. Trial and error is for those of us with ample resources, time and energy. Is that you? Didn’t think so. Investing into a new technical pursuit has a higher initial energetic, emotional and likely financial cost, but is likely to increase it’s stickiness and lower both the barrier to entry and return. Instruction is outsourcing the miserable trial and error phase that can often kill a new pursuit in development. Some other poor bastard did that – and they can teach you how to avoid most of the mistakes they made though instruction.

How Much is Enough?

So I mentioned people with ample resources, time and energy earlier. These people aren’t us, even if we think they are. On a trip to the mountains earlier this year I was commanded to outline this hypothetical model of more efficient adaption to those present. When I got to the ‘how much is enough’ question they balked at my response. “I reckon a 90/10 split of comfort versus discomfort is optimal.” Said I.

This was met by “Nah, I like 80/20.” And “I prefer 50/50.” Justifications for these splits were somewhat vague, evident by the numbers involved. It’s likely the primary driver of disagreement was that a 90/10 split sounds awfully timid. This is maybe true, if what we were pursuing was the only thing we were doing. As mentioned previously, it never is. The modern human animal is rarely capable of viewing the gestalt of its existence, instead narrowly focusing on single shiny objects.

Let’s say I’m trying to become a capital R Runner and 20-50% of my training time is spent overreaching (outside my comfort zone). I would dread most sessions, cost of recovery would be high to untenable and all my focus on the shiny object would mean I missed the volume of other factors in my life that could have an effect on success. Am I stressed out? Am I well fed? Am I well slept? Is the weather conducive or unfavourable? Is my musculature and connective tissue in good shape? All of these external factors may add a few percentage points of additive cost to my training. Stack all these modifiers together and you have a ticking timebomb. The wheels will fall off. The towel will be thrown. The tits will be wrapped in. The end will be upon us. All too soon.

90/10 It Is Then

What exactly does 90/10 mean? It means 90% of our time spend should be on the edge of our comfort zone and 10% should be the ‘find out’ component of our ‘fuck around’ model. Note here that I’m saying the edge of our comfort zone. This is the transition space between order and chaos from the Edge of Chaos hypothesis – proven in a vast spectrum of fields for systems where feedback is a featured component. If we follow this 90/10 rule, we should see enough breathing room for other modifiers we haven’t accounted for, allowing us to fine tune our adaption in a manner that ensures the wheels are less likely to stop turning and / or fall off.

One could fall into the trap of thinking that ‘inside our comfort zone’ means relaxing in front of algorithmically selected streaming televised or musical wallpaper. This is not the case. Were we to attempt to improve our running by watching Netflix shows or listening to a ‘music to run to’ Spotify playlist, we’d cause our comfort zone to shrink. This would result in what was potentially within our abilities to move beyond them. It may appear I’m stating the obvious here but it’s an important distinction for the people in the back who have started scrolling social media.

Summary

ACT

Attenuation: decide upon the frequency required for upkeep

Criticality: prioritise and organise based on importance

Technicality: Budget time / money investment based on instruction / difficulty / barrier to entry requirements

90/10 Rule

90% of time should be spent working within your current limits, close to or at the edge of your ability

10% of time should be spent stretching past these limits into uncertainty

The Shape of Things to Come

There’s more to discuss on the subject of driving our adaption that are articles unto themselves. Edge of Chaos, Self-Organised Criticality (SOC), negative and positive drivers, changing our environment instead of ourselves in a non psychotic way, identity establishment and certainty – to name a few. We’ll take a look at that down the line. For now, you have a new way to look at making meaningful change stick by introducing ACTions built on the Geometry of Discomfort.


1 Jared Wihongi of Tricom Training uses an ACT model, which has a completely different meaning and context, but the acronym fits well for this context. Matt Smith of Sheepdog Response has a system called ‘inverse bottleneck theory’ which influenced the decision making component of the ACTion adaption model within the GoD.

Something to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.