This is one of my keystone habits (and goals!), so I’d like to think it makes me qualified to tell you a few things about it.
How do you develop mental toughness?
You do it every day.
You are committed to making it a priority — not just that, but also making it a survival strategy.
You understand that there are no shortcuts and that you have to work on it yourself.
What does all this look like in real, day-to-day life?
If I were to summarize my experience into a few essential tips, they would look something like this.
Toughness tip #1. You welcome obstacles into your life.
How often have you told yourself, If only I didn’t run out of time I could’ve finished that term paper? Or, If only I wasn’t invited to the party I wouldn’t have eaten three slices of pizza and gone off my diet? In those moments when you’re trying to rationalize your decisions and actions, you’re blaming the obstacles for not achieving your short or long-term goals. Or, to put it differently, you’re giving them top priority and more importance than anything you can do or change with your behavior. But what if obstacles were to serve a different purpose in our life? Instead of using them as an excuse to avoid something or even to quit something, it’s more beneficial if we use them to our advantage.
How can you do this?
In his book Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, retired US Navy SEAL and author Jocko Willink has a power tip for how to deal with obstacles — when you reach an obstacle, instead of saying, Oh no! you should embrace it and say, Good! Why position an obstacle in a positive light? It’s a subtle switch of your mindset, but it can make a huge difference in how you react to a potentially problematic situation. If you’ve failed at an exam, good! Now you’ll have more time to prep and organize your study days more effectively. If you’re trying to multitask and fail at everything, good! Now you’ll have time to regroup, take a break, and prioritize what is most important so you don’t have to do anything halfway. If you didn’t get that job offer, good! Now you’ll be able to revamp your resume and apply for jobs that are an even better fit for your skill set.
Toughness tip #2. You practice a growth mindset.
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, wrote the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. My take on it? This book completely changed the way I see myself and what I am capable of achieving! Dweck makes an important distinction between two mindsets: fixed and growth mindset. If you’ve adopted a fixed mindset, you think being successful is due to good genes, a particular talent or gift, or something you are or aren’t born with but can never change. Succeeding means being perfect every time, achieving results easily and effortlessly, without much preparation or learning anything new. It’s about staying in the comfort zone and repeating what works. The downside to a fixed way of thinking is never stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something that is tough and challenging. Yet that’s where real success happens.
How can you do this?
To nurture a growth mindset, shift your focus from the end result (making straight A’s in school or getting a promotion at work) to the actual process of becoming successful. A growth mindset person doesn’t think that success is being the best—they believe success is doing their best. You can start by moving away from your comfort zone (doing everything the same way over and over, using the same tools and processes), and towards a zone that’s uncomfortable and new. For example, come up with a better way to improve how you do your work — break down a large task in smaller increments, or tackle a difficult cognitive problem early in the day when your mind can concentrate better. Or, wake up a bit earlier each morning to practice a new fitness habit such as going for a run or swim.
Toughness tip #3. You avoid toxic people at all costs.
This tip is probably the most challenging one for most of us. Sometimes those who are closest to us can be extremely negative, repeating how work is impossible, complaining about their lot in life (or suggesting you should see yours the same way), or just focusing on what’s preventing them from being happy. These people can be your friends, family members, even your partner or best friend. They may claim to know what’s best for you, that they care about happens to you, and that’s why their advice is to be careful, not to try anything new, not to move forward. That’s when things can veer off into seeing the world full of impossibilities, instead of possibilities. However, there are ways to deal with their toxicity.
How can you do this?
So maybe you don’t have a choice if a professor at university is pessimistic. Work and school don’t give us many opportunities to select who we interact with. However, you can make up for it by being very selective who you spend all of your free time with. If a toxic friend wants to monopolize your evening after school for example, just say no. Tell them you’re busy. Don’t engage in gossip, awfulizing scenarios, and negative banter over the phone. You’re better off spending your free time doing something important for your personal development or having a few hours to yourself to relax and have a good time.
Toughness tip #4. You practice saying NO often.
If you often find yourself running out of time to do what you need or would like to have time for, that means you’re saying yes to too many things, and ultimately wasting time and energy on things that are not that important in the long run. What are some typical real-life examples? Giving in to distractions of any kind, such as spending hours on insignificant activities, pointless conversations, answering every phone call, or indulging in passive forms of entertainment such as watching TV for hours. When you say no to distractions, you make a positive change that will impact your daily life and improve the quality of your overall life.
How can you do this?
Exercising your “no” muscle means literally saying no in a variety of situations in your daily life. If there’s leftover cake in the fridge, don’t indulge and eat a double portion for the next three days just because you can. If you’re in the middle of finishing up a project and a friend calls to ask you out, don’t drop everything because you want to please them. Know your priorities — and stay in tune with them. Be aware of what is relevant to your life and why you’re working on something. If you think of it this way, you will be less likely to ignore the things that are beneficial to your personal and professional growth.
Toughness tip #5. You stop making excuses to live the best version of your life.
It’s amazing how much we go through life making excuses for why we cannot do things. We don’t have the time to read books, but we sure make the time to watch TV for three hours straight after dinner. We don’t feel like studying tonight, because we’d much rather go to the movie theater and ignore the exam until it’s well past midnight. We don’t want to apply for a new job because it sounds much more challenging than the one we currently have, so we keep the status quo and drag ourselves to work each day feeling unmotivated. It all sounds illogical, doesn’t it? But excuses, no matter their shape or size, are standing in the way of living our life to the fullest. That’s why it’s time to stop making them.
How can you do this?
Here’s where you can really experience what mental toughness is all about. It’s time to put a stop to destructive behavior and bad habits that are not helpful to you and your future self. It’s time to change the way you talk to yourself and also how you see yourself. Don’t coddle yourself; be tough when it comes to setting daily goals. Don’t count on motivation to get you out of bed; set the alarm and as soon as you hear it, get up. Don’t tell yourself you cannot do something; even if you’re not in the mood, just do it anyway. Don’t dwell on past mistakes; focus on what you’ve learned from the situation and move on, even if it’s making a tiny step forward. And if you don’t see yourself as a disciplined person, maybe you’re not one — yet.
… And a final tip on developing mental toughness:
If you find the concept of mental toughness a difficult one to embrace, I recommend reading Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. If you wonder whether it’s possible to build endurance and optimism in life when you are struggling with a negative environment or a challenging situation, this book can be a game changer for you. Based on the psychology of survival, it’s a real-life story told by a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who found the strength to live in circumstances where most people would simply give up. Be warned though — it’s not an easy read. However, it’s an important book as you’re thinking about ways to become mentally tougher and stronger to win at this game we like to call life.