Getting to the ‘aha!’ moment: 10 ways to embrace discomfort and pain when you study

Posted on Posted in Lifestyle, Motivation, Study Techniques


We live in a world where comfort is king. A world where we think pain is bad. Pleasure is good.

Following this logic, we should avoid pain and pursue pleasure at all costs.

But is this the recipe for academic and life success?
Surely life can’t be all ponies, kittens and rainbows all the time?

Learning anything new usually (but not always) comes with a dollop of pain, discomfort and confusion.

So when it comes to the learning process, you want to make friends with pain and discomfort. They will be your allies in building and shaping a rock solid brain.

Why embrace pain and discomfort in learning?

Regular visits from pain and discomfort can fast track and deepen your learning. Not only that, they can help you build a more resilient mindset and stay calm and collected in challenging times.

As author Mark Manson states:

“Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for. People who enjoy the struggles of a gym are the ones who run triathlons and have chiseled abs and can benchpress a small house…people who enjoy the stresses and uncertainties of the starving artist lifestyle are the ones who live it and make it.”

Pain is a normal (and necessary) part of life. So it’s how we handle this pain that matters most.

Interpret the pain as a sign that you’re stupid? You’re more likely to give up.
See pain as a sign that you’re on the right track? You’re more likely to keep going.

Here are some strategies to help minimise pain and handle pain more effectively when you’re learning:

1. Talk to your brain

Next time pain strikes, psyche yourself up with some positive self talk (“You can do this!”).

Alternatively, you can try having a conversation with your brain. For instance, you could say:

“Hey brain, I know this work is a little challenging. I know you’re hurting right now, but let’s keep at it for a bit longer. If after 15 minutes you’re still hurting, we can have a break.”

2. Understand that the pain won’t last forever

When it comes to learning, things are usually most painful at the beginning. But if you keep going, at some point one of two things typically happen:

1) You get used to the pain (and it won’t feel so bad)
2) The pain dissipates

In moments when your brain hurts, remind yourself that it won’t last forever.

3. Work like a sprinter (sprint-rest recovery pattern)

The idea of working like a sprinter is simple: you work in a short focused burst (25 minutes), followed by a break (5 – 10 minutes).

Go for a walk, watch a movie, crank up some music and dance around the house, have a bath, etc. A little space away from the subject can provide a fresh perspective.

Here’s the great thing: while you’re on your break, your brain is still unconsciously working away on the complex information even though you’re not actively focusing on it (this is called diffuse mode thinking).

4. Pretend to be 5 years old

Whenever my brain is hurting and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I go back to basics. I get my hands on children’s books or graphic novels on the subject. Often these resources explain ideas in a clear and concise way.

You can also access “Explain like I’m five” on Reddit. This is a section where you can post a question on a complex topic and receive a simple explanation from others.

5. Lighten your load

Just tackle one idea at a time (and give yourself plenty of time to do this). Unsubscribe from the idea of mastering all the material in one sitting. Research shows that studying in short bursts is more effective than one long cramming session.

6. Get used to reading things multiple times

Paul Edwards from The University of Michigan School of Information has developed a great resource called How to read a book, v5.0. In this resource, he recommends reading a book (or article) three times.

First reading: for overview and discovery
Second reading: for detail and understanding
Third reading: for note-taking in your own words

Just keep in mind it’s more effective to let a little time pass in between each reading.

I like to mind map out the material on the second or third reading but that’s a personal preference. Do what works for you.

7. YouTube (and other resources) to the rescue

You’ve read the chapter three times. You’ve read the children’s edition. But you’re still not getting it. What do you do?

Whatever you do, don’t despair. Stress and frustration will only make it harder for you to learn.

You’ve got a couple of options:

1) Check out YouTube and Khan Academy videos on the topic (but stay on task)
2) Look for other books on the topic

All it takes is one good book or video where a topic is presented in a slightly different way and then…bam! Finally, you get it.

8. Know when to stop

You wouldn’t continue to run a marathon if you twisted your ankle or experienced severe chest pains. So why continue studying if the pain is unbearable?

While a little pain is good for your brain, too much pain and frustration can shut down key parts of your brain that are critical for learning.

So you need to know when to take a break. This can be hard to do if you’re in front of the screen and you’ve been screen sucked. But knowing when you need to stop can save you hours of unnecessary pain and confusion.

9. Do something small to get a sense of mastery

You’re just not getting it. You’ve decided to take a break to clear your mind. What do you do on your break?

Do something to generate a sense of mastery. Keep the task small and simple. It could be cleaning your desk, taking out the rubbish, or baking a cake. This is what I call ‘productive procrastination’ (Note: not all procrastination is bad).

10. Ask your teacher or a tutor for help

At this point, you’ve exhausted all avenues. You’ve wrestled with the ideas and you’re still confused. Now it’s time to reach out for help.

Write down specifically what you’re struggling with and go talk to your teacher. I get that it takes courage to do this. As Brene Brown says it’s a brave act to admit you feel lost and you’re struggling. But if you come armed with a specific question, it may make all the difference to your learning experience.

Your ‘aha!’ moment will be around the corner. It’s coming. You just need to stay strong. Persevere. Keep pushing through the pain. You’ve got this!

What do you do when you experience pain and discomfort when you study? Do you tend to avoid the pain? What could you do differently next time you experience some discomfort? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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