Sneaky Energy Leak: The Discomfort Tax

Last year, I was preparing to run my first 5k race ever.

Well, I wouldn't exactly call it preparing.

I wasn't running every day. Nope. What was I doing?

Buying clothes, because I didn't have anything that would keep me warm for a December run.

So a few days before the race, with zero miles run under my belt, I went shopping for a long-sleeved shirt I could run in, maybe a layer to top that one, a pair of warm running pants, and something to keep my head warm. 

The first store I stopped in had exactly the kind of long-sleeved shirt I wanted. Lightweight, super-special keep-you-warm technology, and good-looking. The good-looking part was especially important - this guy's not going to go out there looking like a scrub!

I pulled my size off the rack, found a great short-sleeved short to layer over it, and wandered around for a couple minutes before I knew I had everything I was going to get from this store before going to the next.

Then something funny happened. I started wandering around some more. Probably about another 15 minutes or so.

After that, I put the shirts back on the rack and started to walk toward the door.

WHAT??????

My longtime vaunted energy leak, The Discomfort Tax, had me in its clutches. And I didn't even know it.

Energy leaks are everywhere in our lives. EVERYWHERE.

An energy leak is a release of energy that happens in a pressurized moment that keeps us from commitment, decision, and growth.

I remember the very first time I heard the phrase "energy leak." 

April 2016, I was at a group coaching intensive, and the leader was coaching a member of the audience. The leader asked the audience member a question, and she made a little joke. The room giggled a little.

In that moment, the leader held his hand up and said, "No energy leaks, guys. When we laugh in an intense moment like this, we break the energy and tension that's built up, which is growth."

The audience member making a joke may have been an energy leak, too, but that's another post.

From then on, I was fascinated with energy leaks - not to make anything a game of perfect, but because I know that tiny shifts can lead to huge leaps in growth.


The Discomfort Tax is a powerful energy leak. If your time and energy were a boat, The Discomfort Tax would be a hole in the bottom that's really hard to find.

The Discomfort Tax comes at a point of decision or dread (think of conversations you don't want to have) and rather than getting us through them, it prolongs the discomfort. It wastes time, burns energy (both physical and mental), and sometimes even costs us money.

Back to the story.

As I was about to walk out the door, I looked at my watch - it was 6:45 in the evening, the store was closing at 8, I had a couple more stops to make, and I realized I had no freaking plan for what I was going to do when I walked out that door.

Was I going to come back? Where was I going to go next? Did I want a cup of coffee? 

I had no clue.

So I did something smart: I turned around, walked back in, picked my shirts back off the rack, and paid for them.

While I was standing in line, I had the urge again to put the shirts back and leave. I wanted them. 

But I was also dreading that buying these meant I was committed to doing this 5k run. Which I didn't want to do, but I'd promised my wife I'd do it. Locking in the commitment was a conversation I was dreading having with myself.

After I paid, I walked by a Starbucks on the way to my next stop. And I thought, "I could use a cup of coffee right now. What a great idea!"

Fact: I did not need a cup of joe at that time. It was 7pm. That would have been a bad idea.

Most of the time, I would give in to that urge. Get the coffee. Be up late. Wake up sluggish the next morning. This time, I stopped myself and moved on.

Another form of The Discomfort Tax - attempting to stop myself from further cementing the commitment, and soothing myself with my drug of choice, good old caffeine, along the way.

The cost of that is typically 15 minutes, maybe a half-hour, plus $5 because I always want the most bougie drink I can get.

Normally, when I don't catch myself in any of this (which was most of my life before this), I'll turn a 30-minute trip into 2 or 3 hours, plus coffee or food or something else to sooth myself.

The thing is, this is all really subtle. It's like sales tax - you buy lunch, a little bit gets added on the end. You don't really notice it to the point that you HAVE to do something about it, but it adds up over time.

Ultimately, what The Discomfort Tax does is represent how you expend extra time, energy, or money in situations where there's some low-grade uncomfortable feeling. And you're doing all this below the radar of your conscious behavior.

It might even feel like there's a reward in it - spaciousness of time, indulgence - but in the end, it feels empty and unsatisfying. You might refer to it as numbing or soothing, and you might judge it or avoid thinking about it.

Whatever you call it, whatever your relationship with it is, it just might be a tiny hole in your game keeping you from performing at an even higher level.


What do I do about The Discomfort Tax?

The key to working with The Discomfort Tax is one of my clients' least favorite games: developing awareness.

The first awareness to develop is that it has happened. See where it's happened in the past. Get into the memory of it, see if there are any unique feelings or thoughts it brings up. Notice what you were experiencing.

Don't judge it. You were getting something out of it.

The second awareness is noticing that it's happening in the moment. Catching yourself. And here's the tough part: course-correcting in the moment. Do whatever that thing is that you're avoiding and don't compare the outcome with continuing to pay The Discomfort Tax.

Again, don't judge yourself if you don't course-correct the first time or the second - this is a practice. 

The third awareness is to notice its pervasiveness. See where else in your life this happens - subtly or not-so-subtly. Let yourself remember where it's happened, be in the feelings and thoughts of it, catch it in the moment, and ultimately, course-correct. And of course, leave your judgments of yourself at the door.


What's your flavor of the Discomfort Tax?

Take some time today to sit with it.

And most importantly - don't turn it into something to get perfect. Sometimes, you'll catch yourself getting ready to pay the Discomfort Tax, know it's not what you really want, and end up doing it anyway. It's all right. You'll live.

Remember, you're a human, not a robot.

Love, Mike

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