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The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

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The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail? What makes the difference?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist. But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.

In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.

What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.

Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.

Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?

Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”

In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”

You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.

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Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).

Here’s what she found out…

It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.

In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.

When Is Mental Toughness Useful?

Duckworth’s research has revealed the importance of mental toughness in a variety of fields.

In addition to the West Point study, she discovered that…

  • When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
  • Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.

And it’s not just education where mental toughness and grit are useful. Duckworth and her colleagues heard similar stories when they started interviewing top performers in all fields…

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.
—Angela Duckworth

You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences. Remember your friend who squandered their talent? How about that person on your team who squeezed the most out of their potential? Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?

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You can read the whole research study here, but this is the bottom line:

In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find.

In other words, talent is overrated.

What Makes Someone Mentally Tough?

It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world?

In a word, toughness and grit equal consistency.

Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again.

Mentally tough artists, writers, and employees deliver on a more consistent basis than most. They work on a schedule, not just when they feel motivated. They approach their work like a pro, not an amateur. They do the most important thing first and don’t shirk responsibilities.

The good news is that grit and perseverance can become your defining traits, regardless of the talent you were born with. You can become more consistent. You can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.

How?

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In my experience, these 3 strategies work well in the real world…

1. Define what mental toughness means for you.

For the West Point army cadets being mentally tough meant finishing an entire summer of Beast Barracks.

For you, it might be…

  • going one month without missing a workout
  • going one week without eating processed or packaged food
  • delivering your work ahead of schedule for two days in a row
  • meditating every morning this week
  • grinding out one extra rep on each set at the gym today
  • calling one friend to catch up every Saturday this month
  • spending one hour doing something creative every evening this week

Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.

Which brings me to my second point…

2. Mental toughness is built through small physical wins.

So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations. How did you perform in the championship game? Can you keep your life together while grieving the death of a family member? Did you bounce back after your business went bankrupt?

There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances?Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop. If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.

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3. Mental toughness is about your habits, not your motivation.

Motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes.

Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.

Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent. Mentally tough people develop systems that help them focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life puts in front of them. It’s their habits that form the foundation of their mental beliefs and ultimately set them apart. Here are the basic steps for building a new habit and links to further information on doing each step.

  1. Start by building your identity.
  2. Focus on small behaviors, not life–changing transformations.
  3. Develop a routine that gets you going regardless of how motivated you feel.
  4. Stick to the schedule and forget about the results.
  5. When you slip up, get back on track as quickly as possible.

Mental toughness comes down to your habits. It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

References:
1. Thanks to my good friend Bryan for writing about toughness and sparking my interest on the topic.

Featured photo credit: Dawolf via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on November 25, 2021

20 Essential Apps And Websites For Digital Nomads

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20 Essential Apps And Websites For Digital Nomads

Living a life of perpetual travel is pretty exciting – new destinations, new cultures and new incredible people to meet and hang out with! However, working on the road can get pretty hectic at times. As a digital nomad I have found myself in rather awkward situations a lot – from missed deadlines due to incorrect time zone conversion to a nearly missed plane when I forgot to print out my booking and confused the time (I did catch that plane though!).

Being your own boss is equally awesome and hellish. Juggling numerous tasks at once and getting things done super-fast with a terrible wi-fi connection requirea killer organizational skills and zen-like concentration. Try using the next 20 websites and apps to make your life as a digital nomad easier, less stressful and even more exciting!

1. Trello

Trello is your go-to website to stay organized and work super-efficiently on the road. It’s a free service that allows you to create numerous boards for your ongoing projects and plans. Tired of having numerous notes scattered around different apps and lengthy email threads with your clients or team? Just drag and drop them all to Trello, where you can easily collaborate, quickly exchange ideas and notes in the form of cards, leave comments and track the overall progress of the project. You can create numerous boards and organize them the way you like, upload files to each, set deadlines and notifications, plus easily share everything with one click.

My Trello contains two sets of boards – personal and business. I use the first to keep all my travel plans neat and make sure I won’t confuse the flight time or overstay my visa; the second to keep a visual account of my personal goals and various arrangements. The business board is where I have a list of ongoing projects composed into simple to-dos with their current statuses –  along with all the comments from my clients and a separate column for follow-ups.

Trello is an incredible free alternative to similar project management softwares I used before and it can be used for tackling any job – from house renovation to multi-stage marketing campaign! Also available as an app for iOS and Android devices to get updates on the go.

2. f.lux

As a digital nomad you often find yourself working late at night or early morning to keep up with your clients’ time zones. Love checking your email or reading a few articles from your iPad before going to bed? (I do!). Even if you don’t feel it yet, your eyes are seriously suffering from those habits and you can end up having troubles with sleeping as the blue light from your devices negatively impacts your sleeping patterns. Use f.lux – a handy software that will automatically adjust the color of your computer’s display to the time of day – warm at night and like sunlight during the day. F.lux allowed me to be more productive in the mornings and made it easier to slow down my activity in the evenings. As a digital nomad it is essential to stay refreshed as your income depends solely on your productivity. Besides, haven’t we escaped the cubicle to have a better work/life balance and more rest in the first place?

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3. Focus@Will

As we often find ourselves working at various places around the globe – from a crowded bus station to a jam-packed bar (the only place that has decent wi-fi in the area) – concentrating on your work gets extremely difficult. That’s where Focus@Will comes to rescue. The service offers a wide selection of white noise and simple tunes selected according to a neuroscience-based approach. It seems to work pretty great as I stayed way more concentrated on my work compared to the times when I just blasted my favorite tunes and murmured along. A 30-day free trial has a limited selection of tracks and will stop playing them in an hour (although it could be restarted immediately). The paid service will cost you around $10 for three months. Also available as a free app for iOS and Android devices.

4. Shopify

Let’s admit it, being a digital nomad and working solo gets challenging at times. There are days when you feel like a Renaissance man trying to tackle all things at once and getting expertise in numerous areas. That’s especially true when you are just about to launch your business website, blog or an online store. If you are a creative, you have only basic knowledge (if any) in CSS, HTML or integrated payment systems, so you spend endless hours figuring out how things work instead of doing what you are really good at and earning money.

Try Shopify – a service providing custom no-hassle ecommerce solutions. They offer everything from secure hosting and mobile-optimized websites to secure check-outs with some 70 payment getaways to choose from and assistance with running your online marketing campaign. The rates are incredibly affordable and start from just $29 per month for unlimited access to all their services and features or opt for a 14 day free trial to test them out first!

5. Rescue Time

Proper time management is another great struggle all digital workers face. How many times you have found yourself spending over 12 hours a day in front of your screen and not having all things done? Yeah, it happens to me quite in a while, so I’ve started using Rescue Time – to stay on top of my productivity while still having a normal work/life balance. Install it on your computer and all devices to have an accurate picture of how much time you spend doing certain activities or browsing certain sites (khm..cat videos on YouTube). At the end of each week you’ll receive an email with a fair statement on your (un)productivity.

Rescue Time enables you to give more accurate deadlines to your clients; create accurate hourly invoices as you know exactly how much time you’ve spent doing a certain task and adjusting your rates accordingly and eliminate random activity during your working hours. You can use Light Rescue Time version for free or opt for the premium plan at $6 per month.

6. Every Time Zone

As you probably work with people based anywhere from New Zealand to the West Coast keeping an eye on the deadline or updating them on your progress at 9 am each day may get tricky. Just as sending follow-ups, project proposals and invoices at the right time of the day. Every Time Zone is another great solution for keeping proper track of the time – your client’s time. Add all time zones you need, add your time in the marker at the top and see where this lands in everyone else’s day. No more crazy maths with figuring out when do you need to ring up Joe on Skype if he asked to do that at 11 am EST.

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7. XE Currency

How many currencies do you have in your wallet? My guess is more than two. As a digital nomad and perpetual traveler you have to keep track on the conversion rates and different currencies all the time. To make sure you are charging an equally fair price in USD/EU/GBP or any other currency out there use XE Currency. Get live conversion rates instantly or add up a list of your preferred and sync ahead of time to have instant offline access from any device. XE Currency is available as a web service, iOS, Android, Windows Phone apps and more.

8. Trail Wallet

My second essential money app for digital nomads is Trail Wallet (currently iOS only). It’s a beautifully crafted and easy-to-use app for tracking your expenses across multiple countries and currencies. You can organize your spendings by country or my month, set max daily budgets and add each dollar you’ve spent on the go. At the end of the month the app will tell you if you gone over your budget or where exactly did the cash flow. It’s perfect for analyzing the cost of living and working at different cities and countries, thus finding the optimal home-base for you when you get tired of being on the road and need to settle down for a while.

9. Xero

And to keep better track of your business-related expenses try Xero. Arguably, the best online bookkeeping and accounting service out there for all the non-accountants. It’s perfect for sending invoices, keeping track of the cash-flow and setting payment notifications on credit cards and recruiting payments. It neatly categorizes all your bank transactions and reconciles them with the transactions you have made in Xero to keep things even more simple. Available for numerous iOS and Android devices, so you can always have access to your data at no time.

10. Tripit

Tripit is one of the best travel planners out there! It’s free, fast and most importantly – works off-line. Just say no more to papers and lost emails. Forward all your booking confirmations – hotels, flights, car rental etc and let the app do all the magic for you by turning it into an easy-to-follow itinerary. You can set up notifications and get access to your data from any device without internet connection. Tripit reduced my frustration of arriving to the wrong terminal or roaming around the new city with my baggage as I haven’t written down the hotel address correctly. It’s a great app I seriously recommend using it to basically anyone who travels.

11. 1Password

Sharing sensitive data, especially passwords with your clients or team and keeping track of them can get challenging. That’s why I’ve started using 1Password – a super secure password-sharing service that allows you to create special vaults with a set of passwords to tools and services only accessible to the people you’ve shared it with. Available for numerous devices, the service gives you peace of mind when sharing anything sensitive via unprotected networks. Speaking of which…

12. Private Internet Access

Keep all your data and computer protected by opting for Private Internet Access. Often we need to make those last minute payments or credit card purchases and the only internet available is a suspicious unprotected network your device somehow found. By using an anonymous encrypted VPN and a private IP you can be 100% sure none of your payment data will be fished or passwords stolen.

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13. Workfrom

Find the best coffee shops and cafes in your area with this service. Workfrom has a great pool of venues in major US cities – New York, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle – and more destinations worldwide to be added soon! The service is free to join and you’ll get access to numerous cool spots with unbiased opinions of wi-fi connection and cappuccino quality from digital nomads just like you. Reviews also include price range, meals available, general atmosphere and noise range, along with some pro-tips on where to find sockets and which table is the most secluded. I have discovered some of my all time favorites this way like Mr Bean in Amsterdam.

14. Spotted by Locals

Another awesome service to discover good meals and thrilling events at your current base. Spotted by Locals is not that typical city guide with boring touristy routes, but an amazing resources with awesome recommendations from the locals on things to do and places to check out. After all, you’ve chosen a location independent lifestyle to explore the world more, not just spend hours tapping on the keywords in a different environment.

Currently, the website has numerous recommendations for all major European cities – Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Warsaw and many more, plus it gradually expands into North America with Boston, LA, Toronto and Montreal guides recently added. You can browse around the free categorized selection of activities at the website or pay$ 2.99 for a PDF guide with all tips and places neatly listed on the map. Or opt for iOS or Android app ($3.99 each) to gain offline access to one of the city guides along with a detailed map.

15. Jawbone UP

Now when you know where to go and what to see, here’s a handy app that will help you get unstuck from your laptop. Jawbone UP will gently nag you when it’s time to get up and unwind a bit. Install the app and connect it to all your hardware, than let the Up Activity Tracker (a lovely bracelet) analyze your sleeping and activity patterns to help you creating a better lifestyle. The app will monitor and analyze all your actions and suggest you a healthier schedule, help you sleep better and keep up with the exercise routine (which gets erratic when you are on the move). Why do we need more time if we don’t spend it wise, right? The app is free for iOS and Android, however you’ll have to pay 129$ for the bracelet tracker or 49.99$ for the clip.

16. SugarSync

Some like DropBox, others opt for Google Drive, yet my go-to cloud storage service is SugarSync. It’s simpler, more powerful and has a really slick design. After you install it, you just need to right-click the file/folder to instantly back them up at the cloud. Besides, any further change you make to that data will be automatically synchronized. Large files get uploaded extra fast and you can get 250 GB storage space for just $99.99 per year. Also you can access, share and edit all your files via free iOS or Android app supported on numerous devices. Now, I’ve finally stopped worrying what should I do if my laptop gets broken/stolen.

17. Contactually

If you don’t like to get broke and return home, you have to invest a fair share of your time in building ongoing relationships with your clients, vendors or customers depending on what do you do for a living. To avoid this whole thing becoming a huge pain try using Contactually – a simple, yet powerful service that will tell you when and whom you should keep in touch with and how you could maximize your ROI by connecting with the right people at the right time. It will send you notifications when you’ve fallen out of touch with certain contacts (which can mean missed opportunities in the perspective) and prompt when you should reconnect with the most important contacts from your network by providing helpful context clues like social updates and recent conversations to make the whole thing look more genuine. The service boasts that their users get up to 40% more referrals after using their service (backed by case studies) which is kind of essential for you if you’d like to live the nomadic life and work for yourself!

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18. Schedule Once

If you are working on multiple projects with multiple clients at a time – Schedule Once is your kick-ass service to schedule online meetings and conferences. Create a sleek pre-set calendar when you are available and send people a unique link that allows them to select a suitable time for both of you to connect. The service is fantastic for anyone offering consulting services or coaching sessions and costs just 5$ per month!

19. Spaxtel

Sometimes the internet gets so crappy that calling by Skype is impossible. Or you have a very-very important conversation scheduled and you don’t want any possible glitches to interrupt you. That’s when it’s worth using Spaxtel – a cool service that enables you to make land-line quality phone calls via callback. You don’t need to install any software or have internet access. The rates depends on the quality of call you choose (the lowest discount is pretty great) and the countries from/to you are calling. So far, the price proved to be nearly Skype-affordable for a better overall quality of connection.

20. Earth Class Mail

Snail mail isn’t that popular these days, but you still get some important stuff via it. Say bills and some paychecks. If you don’t want to bug your parents or friends’ to deal with your mail while you are out, try using Earth Mail Class – an affordable mail forwarding service that scans and forwards your mail to the e-mail address of your choice, deposits your checks (for a fee), saves PDFs of your postal mail online and offers in-person pickup and package signing.

Featured photo credit: Avi Richards via unsplash.com

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