The Discomfort Zone: Manage it for Growth and Success
When you try something new, you're unlikely to be good at it. What's more, you'll probably be uncomfortable for the first few times. The more foreign the activity is, the more uncomfortable you will be.
However, being uncomfortable from trying something new isn't a bad thing. In fact, discomfort is often a good sign that you have the opportunity to learn something.
In poker, it's too easy to become comfortable with your playing style after initially getting through all the discomfort and struggle. Instead, you need to systematically manage your discomfort zone so that you are consistently growing as a player.
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How Discomfort Forces You To Learn
There's a powerful human phenomenon called the curiosity gap, which basically means that once a person becomes curious about something, they will expend effort to find the answer.
When you're put in an uncomfortable situation at the poker table, it's because it's a situation that you don't know well. This discomfort is a key driving factor of the curiosity gap. Now you will instinctively start to think and analyze the situation and try to understand the situation better.
Say you play a (borderline) hand out of position that you wouldn't normally. Now you have to think through all your options, try to understand your opponent better, and make a decision. You'll start asking questions like:
How aggressive is my opponent?
What's my fold equity if I check/raise?
How does my opponent view me from this position?
And so on...
Many of these questions will be questions you've never considered, because you've always played it safe and only played simple (read:strong) hands out of position. This helps you learn what loose players feel like in that situation, and you can use that new knowledge to your advantage.
Can There Be Too Much Discomfort?
In a word - yes.
Discomfort can be a great driving force, but it can also be paralyzing. Everyone has experienced this feeling at one time or another.
If the curiosity gap is too big, in other words, there is too much discomfort, you can get overwhelmed. If someone told you to learn how to build a car, you'd have no clue where to start, and likely give up before you start. But if someone told you to learn how to take a wheel off, you could probably handle it.
Small, incremental levels of discomfort are incredibly useful for personal growth, but large bouts of discomfort are rarely productive.
How Do You Incorporate the Discomfort Zone Into Training?
Learning can be stimulated from insightful questioning and explanation, but we can't all afford the high hourly rates of great poker tutors and coaches. Instead, we have to systematically and consciously incorporate discomfort into our lives.
You can put yourself into situations that fall in your discomfort zone both at the table and off the table. Here are a few things you can do:
Decide to play much looser pre-flop on the button
Experiment with donk-betting for a session
Raise with a random hand (like 7-2 offsuit) anytime it is folded around to you
Min 3bet a regular a few times
Play suited connectors out of position
Check back a flop where a continuation bet is marginal at best
The sky's the limit. Spend some time looking at your game and identify the spots where you feel really comfortable. This is often an indication that you are playing it safe to avoid tricky spots.
Have a Schedule and Stick to It!
The worst thing you can do is to randomly incorporate discomfort into your play. You'll likely lose money short term, and have small bouts of sporadic improvement.
Just because it's on your mind now, doesn't mean that you'll remember in a few days or weeks. Remember this has to be a long-term habit if you want continuous growth as a player.
Create a simple calendar or list and schedule a "discomfort session" every X number of sessions. Personally, I think 1 every 4 or 5 sessions is a good place to start. You can always adjust the frequency if you feel it's too little or too much.
Won't Uncomfortable Situations Make Me Play Worse?
One common, and justified, worry is that you'll make mistakes when you find yourself in unfamiliar spots. It's true, you're going to make mistakes. But learning from those mistakes will make you a much better player in the long run.
It can be tough as poker players to remove emphasis from short term results since you see fluctuations in your bankroll daily, but if your goal is to be the best player you can be, you must see the long term picture. Every lesson you learn, even if it costs you a buy-in, will earn you much more than a buy-in in the long run. The key takeaway from all of this is to ensure that you spend the time during and after the session to really analyze all your decisions and learn the lessons.
Now for your homework: Brainstorm 10 ways you could play to get into that sweet spot of your discomfort zone. Then plan out your schedule and stick to it. Writing a journal of all the lessons you learn along the way is a good way to measure your progress.